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A Meteorologist's Perspective on Planning and Preparing for Severe Weather

The Author, Tom Skilling, is a Meteorologist at WGN-TV in Chicago.

Editor’s Note: The views expressed by Tom Skilling do not necessarily represent the official views of the United States, the Department of Homeland Security, or the Federal Emergency Management Agency. FEMA does not endorse any non-government organizations, entities, or services.

When it comes to severe weather, a disturbing trend has emerged. Warnings of extreme weather events, such as tornadoes and severe thunderstorms, are being issued with greater accuracy and with once only dreamed-of lead times -- increasingly as much as a week in advance. Yet people are dying, and doing so in frightening numbers. It's a humbling development which has forced those of us in the meteorological and emergency response professions to put every aspect of the severe weather warning and alert process under the microscope.

Attempts are being made to better understand how people receive our alerts and warnings, and just as importantly, to learn how they respond to them. We want to understand why we are losing so many in disasters, which we in the weather profession are able to see coming far enough ahead of time to take evasive and life-saving measures. If ever there was a reason for a call to action, events surrounding the historic tornado outbreaks of the past year has provided it.

The 2011 tornado season included 551 deaths across the U.S., making it the country's fourth mostly deadly year from tornadoes since official records began. Nearly as many people died last year as a result of tornadoes as the 564 who perished in all the twisters of the preceding 10 years combined!

The range of new records involving tornadoes set in 2011 underscores what an incredible year it was on the tornado front in this country. A total of 343 twisters dipped from U.S. skies from April 25-28, establishing a new benchmark for the most tornadoes to occur in a single outbreak. The 199 tornadoes logged on April 27 alone set a new single-day worldwide record; and the day's death toll of 316 was a new record as well. April, 2011's total tally of 751 U.S. tornadoes eclipsed the previous monthly record of 542 recorded in May 2003.

The gargantuan Joplin, Mo., tornado on May 22, 2011, was the deadliest single twister to set down in the U.S. since 1947; the 7th on the books and the costliest single tornado to strike the U.S.

For 32 years, colleagues and I -- severe weather researchers and forecasters alike -- have put together an annual series of programs on tornadoes and severe weather for the public at the Fermilab National Laboratory in Batavia, Ill. Turnouts at these events have been nothing short of phenomenal with audiences numbering in the thousands each year; far beyond anything any of us involved in putting these programs together could have imagined.

Our most recent tornado and severe weather programs (we've presented two programs on a Saturday in April in all but one of the past 32 years) took place Saturday, April 14 -- one week to the day ahead of the 45th anniversary of the Chicago area's most devastating and deadly tornado outbreak -- the so-called Belvidere-Lake Zurick-Oak Lawn, Illi., tornado outbreak of April 21, 1967. A total of 19 Illinois twisters ripped through the area that afternoon and evening killing 58. It's no accident we chose April for our Fermilab programs. April, May and June constitute tornado "prime-time" in this area, though twisters have occurred in every month of the year here.

The public’s incredible response to our Fermilab tornado and severe storm seminars year in and year out, has made one thing VERY clear: people of all ages and from all walks of life recognize the risk twisters and severe thunderstorms pose and are hungry for information on how to deal with the threat these atmospheric behemoths represent, and survive.

A veritable who's who of the severe weather research and forecast community has shared their valuable time, offering those in attendance insights into how these storms develop, how they are able to do what they do and to share life-saving tips on how to, to the extent possible, escape these horrors of nature with as little harm as possible.

In coming weeks my television station, WGN-TV, and I will be joining forces a third consecutive year with Midland Radio and Chicago-area Walgreens drug stores, in an effort to get more NOAA radios into people’s hands across the Chicago area. Midland NOAA weather radios will be offered at reduced cost to Walgreens customers and I hope many will take advantage of this offer.

The importance of NOAA weather radios in delivering warnings and watches in a timely fashion -- particularly in overnight hours when many are sleeping and have no access to or are unaware of weather watches or warnings being aired by conventional radio and television or community siren systems -- was driven home only a few months ago on Feb. 29 in the hours just before daybreak when many in downstate Harrisburg, Ill. were at home asleep. A rare EF-4 tornado, with 170 mph winds, roared through Harrisburg with devastating consequences, killing seven and leveling more than 200 homes and businesses. It's in situations like Harrisburg's that NOAA weather radios can be the difference between life and death.

I will be joined by colleagues from WGN and from our National Weather Service Chicago Forecast Office at the Walgreens Store in Arlington Heights, Ill., at 235 Palatine Road on Saturday, May 5 from 11 to 2 p.m. to sell and, if you'd like, sign NOAA weather radios and, more importantly, help you in programming them so warnings for the county in which you live will activate your NOAA radio to alert you of an impending storm.

This week (April 22-28) has been designated nationwide by FEMA and the National Weather Service "National Severe Weather Preparedness Week". It occurs as we mark the one year anniversary of this country's worst tornado outbreak on record April 25-28, 2011, when a record 343 tornadoes rampaged across the South, killing hundreds.

It's a week which cries out for us to become a Force of Nature -- to take time and give some thought to developing a family communication plan which would permit re-establishing contact in the kind of challenging environment all too often in place in the wake of a devastating tornado. It's also a time to commit to keeping up with the latest weather forecasts, to acquire a NOAA weather radio, which can be programmed to automatically turn on in the middle of the night if a warning is issued for your area, and a time to discuss and share your ideas on the subject of severe weather preparedness and safety with family members and neighbors.

Last Updated: 
06/02/2017 - 09:27


Excellent work, Tom!