THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Jenna Blum

Be smart, not tough, about tornadoes

A destroyed home in Brimfield. A destroyed home in Brimfield. (Associated Press)
By Jenna Blum
June 4, 2011

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I’M A professional stormchaser. On Wednesday, I was in the surreal position of issuing tornado warnings to friends back home in Massachusetts while sitting in a stormchase vehicle beneath a tornadic thunderstorm in rural Nebraska. Some of the questions and comments I received over Facebook and Twitter were deeply distressing. One said, “No way am I waiting anything out in a basement. I’ll take my chances.” Another, during a tornado warning, asked, “Can I drive into Boston?” A third, married to a newsman, wrote: “My husband is stormchasing for tonight’s story!” When I asked whether her husband had any experience whatsoever with severe weather, I got no reply.

I was frustrated and frightened by the jocularity, indifference, or sheer bewilderment about what to do. Tornado safety is simple. Get underground. If that’s impossible, get to an interior windowless room on the lowest level of a sturdy structure. If you’re in your car, park safely, get out, find shelter. Terrible things can still happen, but basic precautions can save your life.

But our identity as hardy New Englanders, stoically weathering nor’easters and wicked winters, may hinder our safety. Tough as we are, we can’t withstand a natural force that can blenderize brick buildings in seconds.

I understand why my fellow Bay Staters felt bushwhacked Wednesday. Although Massachusetts has the highest tornado count of any New England state and a history of violent twisters — the F4-intensity tornado in Worcester in 1953, the Great Barrington F4 in 1995 — it’s not like we have to run to the cellar every day. Other than in the winter, when blizzards blast us, the weather’s more of an inconvenience than anything, frizzing hair, causing traffic snarls. What else would you expect from a region whose lush trees and hilly topography won’t let us see much sky?

More shocking is how little credence many of our friends in Tornado Alley, in the country’s midsection, give to watches and warnings. Many people do take shelter: During April’s tornado outbreaks in the South, my college roommate in Meridian, Miss., huddled in her basement for hours with daughter and dogs. Yet many others hear so many tornado warnings they grow immune. Jennifer Watson, a TV meteorologist in Tupelo, Miss., hears complaints that “a lot of storms happen at night and [viewers] don’t have a weather radio.” (Weather radios cost less than $20 at Radio Shack and WalMart.)

As I’ve chased storms across Tornado Alley I’ve heard every myth, from “God won’t let those tornadoes bother me” (Oklahoma City, ravaged by an F5 on May 3, 1999) to “tornadoes don’t come here because we’re at the crossing of three rivers” (LaCrosse, Wis., hit by an EF2 on May 22 of this year) to “tornadoes don’t touch down in valleys” (Hokah, Minn., hit by an EF2 May 22, 2011) to “tornadoes don’t cross water” (Springfield, where a tornado formed over the Connecticut River).

This season has violently debunked every twister tale, particularly “tornadoes don’t touch down in cities.” The counterargument: Raleigh, N.C.; Tuscaloosa, Ala.; Joplin, Mo. And now Springfield.

The apathy is part of a larger game we play, a survival mechanism called “It Can’t Happen To Me.” If we stopped to consider all ways we risk injury each day — driving in Boston traffic, for instance — we’d never leave the house. But tornado warnings do represent a very real threat to life and property. People are dying not because our warning systems aren’t good — tornado watches are routinely issued hours in advance of actual storms — but because tornadoes are, in a tragic, jet-stream-based confluence of geography and atmospheric turbulence, touching down in densely populated areas.

And too many people in those areas aren’t prepared. They’re not taking advantage of technology, like free severe weather alerts from NOAA or The Weather Channel. They have no safety plan. They continue to say, “It hasn’t happened to me, so it can’t.” But it can. The loss of life can be much worse it than was Wednesday. Please, be ready.

Jenna Blum is the author of “The Stormchasers.’’ Her website is www.jennablum.com.