For many in Alabama, the fateful day on which 62 tornadoes killed 252 people is the generational weather event by which they compare all other storms. Birmingham-based meteorologist James Spann considers that to be a wrong-minded view.
“People often ask … if there will be a repeat of the April 27 outbreak,” Spann said. “I don’t like that question. If there’s just one tornado in the whole state and if that thing comes down your street on that day, that’s your April 27. We have to be ready for every day like that.”
Spann should know. Just a few weeks ago, while reporting on severe weather conditions battering the state on March 25, Spann learned that a tornado had struck his own home. Spann’s wife, Karen, was safe in their in-home shelter, and the home itself was not seriously damaged, he said.
His family has a plan for weather events like this, and Spann urges everyone else to have one, too. Key elements include:
- A safe place
- Head protection.
Spann said the main reason people die from tornadoes is “siren mentality,” which he said “has killed more people in this state than anything else, by far.”
“You might hear [the sirens] on a sunny day when they’re testing them at 3 in the afternoon, but what about 4 a.m. during a raging storm?
“That’s how most people died that day,” Spann said of the 2011 outbreak. “They never knew it was coming.
“We have to move away from that mentality and get weather radios in every home in this state,” he said.
He recommends simple NOAA radios starting at about $30. They have battery backup in case of power failure and can be programmed to alert users to specific events and ignore others.
TV broadcasts don’t do much good if you’ve been asleep for hours when a storm approaches, Spann said.
And while cell phones do have the capacity to send out severe weather alerts, they are not as reliable as a weather radio since cell towers can be knocked out in a storm.
“Weather radio works independently of the cell network,” he said. “They will wake you up and let you know you’ve got a tornado coming, that you need to turn on the TV or go to a safe place.”
While the 2011 super-outbreak claimed lives in all kinds of structures, the great majority of deaths are mobile home dwellers.
“Mobile homes are wonderful, affordable housing,” Spann said. “But you can’t stay in a mobile home during a tornado. Mobile homes and cars are death traps during a tornado.”
People who live in mobile homes should plan ahead for a safe place to stay when tornadoes threaten — a friend or relative’s home, a business or church or a designated shelter. For homes that don’t have storm shelters, a basement or internal room or hallway with no windows is a good option.
Wearing a helmet can prevent head trauma and save lives in the direct line of a tornado too. Following the 2011 super-outbreak, emergency room doctors told Spann that “if people would have had a simple $5 Walmart bike helmet on, they’d be alive today.
“UAB did a great bit of research on that,” Spann said. “Everybody has to have a helmet on. That includes adults.
Churches can play a big role in keeping their members and the community safe, Spann said.
“If you have a basement in your church or a long interior hallway with no windows, open it up to the community during a tornado watch and say, ‘If you need a safe place, here we are.’ That’s what the church is all about.
“Let them in there, love on them and feed them. For those kids, help calm them down,” Spann said, adding that even churches in areas where tornado shelters are available should consider opening their doors.
“The other thing might be offering transportation to the shelter. A lot of people who live in mobile homes don’t have transportation,” Spann said.
Missions project ideas
He suggested churches establish a missions project to provide weather radios and/or bicycle helmets to low-income community members.
“Weather radios cost about $30, and we have a lot of families that just can’t afford that,” he said.
Churches shouldn’t neglect their own tornado safety measures either, he noted. “I’ve had guys say, ‘We’re not going to do that. God’s going to keep that tornado away from my church and away from my people.’
“We actually do have tornadoes on Sunday here,” he said, recalling the 1994 tornado that hit Goshen United Methodist Church in Piedmont.
“They were in the middle of an Easter drama on Palm Sunday, and that tornado killed 10 adults and 10 children in the church. There was a warning 12 minutes before that church building was destroyed, and those people died. The tornado warning was issued at 11:27. The church building was destroyed at 11:39.
“They never heard the warning.”
That disaster is proof that every church needs a plan, a weather radio and somebody designated to monitor it when storms threaten and the church is occupied, Spann said.
And the sooner each church makes that plan, the better.
“The time to think about it is not when the tornado is two blocks away,” Spann said. “The time to think about it is on a sunny day when you can make a plan.”
Click here to read James Spann recalling the events of April 27, 2011.
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