published Sunday, March 11th, 2012

Tornado activity on the rise in Hamilton County

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    Students huddle in the corner of a windowless corridor during a tornado drill in February. Eastside Elementary held a tornado drill Thursday afternoon. According to Principal Emily Baker, on April 27th, 2011, the students had to stay crouched in the halls for more than half an hour during that day's severe weather. Baker said that the school conducts a tornado drill in the spring and fall, as well as an intruder drill and the mandatory monthly fire drills.
    Photo by Jake Daniels.
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Hamilton County had more tornadoes in the last 10 months than in the previous 60 years.

And during a tornado, you are 15 times more likely to die in a mobile home than in a permanent structure.

The numbers are frightening, but a few simple steps can improve your chances of surviving when the next devil wind comes.

“There is absolutely no guarantee that it’s going to work, but there are certainly things you can put in place that greatly enhance your survivability,” said Greg Carbin, a warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service.

“When you are given a very short period of time to come up with some way of making yourself safe, you’re going to have to make some very split-second decisions. Hopefully, you’ve thought about those split-second decisions ahead of time and you’re prepared to make them.”

Some meteorologists predict more than an average number of tornadoes this year, but Carbin also stressed that nothing is certain just because more than 45 tornadoes struck the Chattanooga area on April 27 last year or storms March 2 dropped a tornado on Harrison that plowed through Ooltewah into Bradley County.

The good news is that fewer people die in tornadoes now than they did 100 years ago, partially due to better predictions, longer advance warnings and sturdier buildings. But hundreds of people are still killed every year, the majority of them from blunt-force trauma and more than half of whom were in mobile homes.

The numbers aren’t black and white. Tornado winds are capricious. Every storm is different.

Meteorology experts spend their days crunching numbers, looking over data from the people killed in hundreds of tornadoes each year and try to determine how they died.

They debate how safe vehicles may be, and whether you are better off in a mobile home or a vehicle. They say it is difficult to know whether a large basement room with windows is safer than a first-floor interior closet.

But some decisions could save your life, especially knowing the general principles of how a tornado works and how most people are killed.

The first premise is to get as low as you can and put as many walls between you and the tornado as possible, said Harold Brooks, a research meteorologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Severe Storms Lab in Norman, Okla.

The winds and debris are dangerous since most tornado deaths and injuries result from swirling debris. Smaller spaces and rooms are also better because buildings with large rooms do not have support and are more likely to collapse.

A study of an EF3 tornado showed that “the parts that survived, the core remnants, were closets, under stairs, interior bathrooms and the lowest three feet basically,” Brooks said.

The second rule is that mobile homes and cars are not safe places, especially mobile homes. While experts debate whether you are safer outside in the elements than in a mobile home, they all agree you need to find a better place to ride out any tornado.

More than 50 percent of the people killed in tornadoes during the last 60 years were in mobile homes, Brooks and Carbin said, even though the U.S. census shows that only about 10 percent of people in the United States live in mobile homes.

In some rural counties in Tennessee, such as Meigs and Polk, about one-third of the people live in mobile homes, according the census, putting them at great risk.

“A mobile home is simply not even remotely adequate,” tornado expert and meteorologist Chuck Doswell wrote in an email. “Anyone living in a mobile home needs to have a shelter option within two to 10 minutes. There is no other reasonably safe option.”

How much protection vehicles provide is still being debated.

Several years ago, Tom Schmidlin of Kent State University published research that he said showed cars were often safer than mobile homes, particularly in tornadoes with a strength of EF3 or below.

In the study, Schmidlin said the National Weather Service and American Red Cross should change recommendations telling people to abandon their vehicles and take shelter in a low-lying area or ditch.

The Red Cross now includes guidelines about how to protect yourself inside a car.

But in several publications, Doswell said Schmidlin had not done enough research and that cars are not safe havens.

Part of the problem is that vehicles are safer at certain times than others, Brooks said. They are built to withstand impact from things like debris, but they also lift easily and are not good at surviving when tossed long distances.

“In general, cars perform in ways we don’t completely understand,” Brooks said. “The mobile home/car problem is really tough. People in mobile homes need to identify a close, good structure to go to quickly and then they need to be willing to go.”

Lastly, experts said people need to monitor the weather when meteorologists predict the possibility of a severe weather outbreak. Those predictions are usually issued several days in advance and should be heeded.

“There are a few days each year when the weather can kill you,” said Brooks. “Those are the days when you need turn on the TV instead of playing video games or listen to the radio instead of driving down the road listening to your MP3 player.”

about Mariann Martin...

Mariann Martin covers healthcare in Chattanooga and the surrounding region. She joined the Times Free Press in February 2011, after covering crime and courts for the Jackson (Tenn.) Sun for two years. Mariann was born in Indiana, but grew up in Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Belize. She graduated from Union University in 2005 with degrees in English and history and has master’s degrees in international relations and history from the University of Toronto. While attending Union, ...

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