Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Remembering 4/27 (Part 2 - Lessons Learned)

When I look back on the April 27th “Super Outbreak”, I am frustrated by my response prior to and during the event. In my last post, I shared my personal experience from that day. If you read my story, you may have picked up on some of the mistakes I made. Whether you picked up on them or not, I’d like to take the time to share where I went wrong in the hopes that others will not make the same mistakes I did…

As a Meteorologist, I am always telling people to take shelter, heed warnings, stay safe, and be prepared. But, what am I conveying to people if I don’t follow those very same calls to action? Many parents will often tell their kids, ‘Do as I say, not as I do’? As a Meteorologist (and a parent, for that matter), I want to turn that phrase around to say ‘Do as I say and do as I do’. It’s a challenge I’ve placed on myself and a challenge I present to any Meteorologist reading this. With that, here are a few lessons I learned from that event…

1. Prepare Early

Severe weather events are interesting because sometimes we (Meteorologists) have a good idea of an event days in advance, like in the case with 4/27. Other events, though, don’t always provide as much lead time. Because of this, I realize that not every event will provide as much time to prepare. My suggestion is do as much preparation as you can with the time you are given.

For starters, have a plan…and this can be something that you come up with even before any severe weather threatens. I have talked to my wife many times about what to do in the event of severe weather. But, one thing we didn’t talk about, unfortunately, was what to do if we couldn’t get ahold of each other. See, I would always call or text her to tell her about any ongoing severe weather. That day, though, there were times when neither texts nor phone calls would go through. During one of the worst parts of that day, as several tornadic storms were racing through the area, I couldn’t call her to tell her what to do which forced her to make some tough decisions with limited information. Come up with a plan that covers what to do during severe weather, including what to do if you can’t get ahold of other family members or friends.

Charge anything and everything…and keep things charged while you have power, if at all possible. It doesn’t take a big event to knock the power out and you never know how long it will take for power to come back on. It helps to plan for several days just to be safe. In this event, Huntsville was without power for nearly a week. I realize one week isn’t necessarily typical of all severe weather events, but it would be wise to at least plan for some sort of outage (short or long). My wife and I didn’t charge our phones or our laptops and once the power was out, all we had was whatever remained of our batteries. By the end of the day, my phone died and I had no way to recharge it. On that note, it really helps to have a phone charger. With many people having smart phones, you may be able to at least get some limited internet even if phone calls aren’t going through. I use Skype or Google to make phone calls sometimes if need be.

On the note of power outages, consider what you will do for meals if you and much of the surrounding area is without power. If you have a grill outside, make sure you have what you need to use it. If you don’t, plan for what you will do to make meals. We did not plan for meals and had to make do with limited resources to make meals. And, remember, the food in your fridge may not last long in a longer outage. You might consider turning the temp settings in your fridge cooler just before the event just in case so that the inside can stay colder for the longest amount of time possible.

2. Don’t Assume Your Regular Sources of Info will be Available

All kinds of things went wrong that day regarding communication of warnings. With power out, tornado sirens, TVs, and weather radios didn’t always work. TVs and radios were still getting info out, but people were limited by battery-powered devices. Landlines and cell phones worked at times, but there were still issues. Landline phones that required power were of little use without electricity. Cell phone towers were clogged or, possibly in some cases, damaged, which made phone calls difficult and texts very slow. The point is, not everything worked that day and if your main source of weather info was down or spotty, you might have missed some important details.

My main go-to when I’m not at work is the internet. When the power went out, I began using the internet on my phone which caused my phone to lose battery quicker. Once the battery died, so did my internet capabilities. We have a weather radio which I use as well. That day, though, the alert tone would sound, but all you could hear was static when the actual text of the warning was supposed to be played (ie. telling where the storm was and where it was headed). Fortunately, radio towers in our area worked and I was able to listen to live coverage from the radio in my car. Even there, though, you need to be careful not to run the car battery down. Again, have backup ways to get info and don’t assume that no information means nothing bad is going on. Backups to your backups are good.

Some of the preparation ideas may seem a bit overdone or perhaps you think it will take too much effort to do them. I still say it is better to be safe than sorry. We didn’t plan well and were sorry. If things go south in a hurry, I bet you will be glad you took that extra time and effort to prepare.

3. Fleeing a Tornado in Your Car is Generally a Bad Idea

My decision to flee the large Hackleburg tornado in my car before it hit Harvest brings up an interesting dilemma. In most cases, I would not recommend this course of action. And, looking back, I feel like it was not my best decision. Of course, hindsight is always 20/20. But, here’s my thought on taking this course of action…

A RELIABLE source (a friend and fellow NWS employee), called me 30+ minutes before the storm was going to hit and said it looked like it was headed in the general direction of our house (a non-brick home that probably would not have survived a direct hit). I assumed that I would not survive a direct hit if I stayed, so I opted to hop in my car and get out of the path of the tornado.

Here’s what actually happened in my case. The tornado turned slightly and didn’t follow the exact path that my friend originally thought it would. Because of this, I was actually driving towards the tornado and not away from it. I can’t say for sure by how much it missed me, but the tornado crossed the road I was driving on within minutes of me passing in front of it. In fact, I later drove back down that road and saw a car that had been thrown into a brick wall (I never found out what actually happened to the driver). And, because of the heavy rain and all the surrounding trees, I was unable to actually see that I was headed towards the tornado and not away from it. Plus, driving 80+ mph down a small county road is probably not a good idea in any weather.

Looking back, I would have been just fine taking cover at my house. Granted, if the tornado had actually hit my house, then driving away would have looked like the better option. I would be lying if I said fleeing a tornado in your car is always a bad idea. But, before you make a decision like that, consider the following:

1.      Do you have a reliable source of info telling you it will hit your house and/or can you physically see the tornado coming at you? And by reliable, I don’t mean your Uncle Harold who happened to notice the possibility of tornadoes in the Farmer’s Almanac. Even if your source is reliable, that doesn’t guarantee perfectly accurate info. Tornadoes don’t always follow a perfect line.

2.      Roads used to flee the tornado could be slowed by traffic and/or blocked by flood waters or storm damage. This, in turn, could actually trap you in your car as the tornado bears down.

3.      Just because you are driving away from one tornado, doesn’t guarantee you won’t be in the path of another tornado. Or what if, like in my case, the tornado changes its path as you flee it? Even veteran storm chasers have sadly been caught off-guard by the erratic motion of tornadoes. In my case, a second tornadic storm developed south of the original one which meant I was now trying to outrun two tornadic storms. Not a good place to be…

4.      Do you even have enough time to get out the door, in your car, and out of your neighborhood? 15 to 20 minutes probably isn’t enough. In my case, 30 minutes was barely enough time.

5.      Once you hit the road, how do you know where to go? I had a radar-certified/trained NWS employee telling me where to go based on radar data. Looking at a radar image on your favorite weather app is not the same thing.

6.      If you live in a mobile home or a house that you don’t feel will survive the storm, are there any other options besides driving away? Maybe a neighbor with a storm shelter or a nearby community storm shelter? In fact, if you are lucky enough to be in an area with a community shelter, you might just consider heading there well in advance of the storms and staying there until the storms pass.

In my case, a series of unwise decisions regarding the decision to flee in my car could have cost me my life. Don’t let my fortunate survival story lead you to believe that it always works. I think in many, if not most, situations, trying to flee a tornado in your car is simply not a good idea.

4. Don’t Wait to See the Tornado Before Taking Cover

The first supercell to hit our house, that wasn’t associated with a MCS, had some rotation with it and, given the atmospheric conditions that day, certainly carried with it a tornado risk. As the storm bore down on Harvest, I could see in the distance a hail shaft and what could be a rain-wrapped tornado. Instead of taking cover, I whipped out the ole video camera. The sound of the storm approaching grew louder and louder (even more indication that a tornado could be forming). Still, I waited to take cover so that I could get that “all-important” footage. The storm hit and unloaded quite a bit of hail. Fortunately, it did not produce a tornado as it moved through. But, if it had, my story might have played out much differently.

I can’t lie…severe storms are quite the sight to see. But, getting that great footage or seeing that incredible sight is not worth the risk of not taking cover. Put your camera on a table or stand and let it roll, but don’t waste precious moments…take cover immediately!

5. Don’t Assume Roadways will be Passable

With so many storms and so many different areas hit that day, roadways in town were a nightmare to navigate. People were trying to get home to see if they even had a house left to get to, roads were flooded, and trees and other debris blocked large sections of roads. Plus, in our case, the sun was going down and everything was turning dark due to the widespread power outage. Have a plan ready in case you can’t get home. Your house might be fine, but if you can’t get to it, you’ll need a place to stay. Or, consider what you will do if you have kids or family members at home and you can’t drive home to get them and have no way to contact them (ie. due to phone outages, etc). Again, I realize some of these issues were due to the widespread nature of the damage and the event, but even smaller events can produce similar results. This sort of goes back to the ‘have a plan’ section, but just consider what you and/or your family will do if some, or all, cannot get back to the house.

In our case, we didn’t have a plan and instead, went driving around looking for each other. We should have established a meeting place or at least some plan for an alternate place to stay. Because we didn’t do that, I ended up trying to drive around to find my wife and was unable to get back to our house. We ended up spending the night in separate places and unable to see each other until the next day after some of the roads had been cleared. Now, even if you do have a meeting place, that location itself could be unreachable. These aren’t error-proof ideas, but at least some things to consider.

This is by no means an exhaustive list of lessons learned during this event. These are the lessons my family and I learned from our experience. There are thousands of other stories out there. Hopefully the lessons learned from their stories will be passed on as well. I’m honestly ashamed that I didn’t practice what I preached, but I have learned my lesson and will never approach severe storms the same way again.

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