There is a mournful wail spreading across the small Midwestern town. It raises and lowers as an oddly green sky and stillness fill the air.
The sound is one known by everyone that lives in the Midwest—it is the unmistakable wail of the tornado siren. As spring arrives, it brings with it the inevitable storms that spawn tornadoes across the Midwest and beyond. Unlike any other weather phenomenon known to man, a tornado is a hyper-violent storm capable of destroying entire towns in a matter of minutes before disappearing into the clouds as if it were never there.
The images that quickly hit the news after a tornado look more like a war zone than the aftermath of a storm. Houses shredded apart, cars flipped and stunned residents huddled in the streets looking over what were once their homes.
Tornadoes are one of the most deadly weather events the U.S. experiences each year. According to the Tornado History Project, tornadoes have killed 5,587 people between 1950 and 2012. With the dangerous nature of tornadoes, it is important to understand and master Tornado 101.
The Makings of a Twister
A tornado is a violent rotating vortex reaching down from storm clouds to the ground. Tornado sizes and wind speeds vary, but they can reach as much as 2.5 miles wide with destructive wind speeds of over 300 mph. They are products of mixing warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico and cool air from Canada and generally occur in the spring. They are common in the Midwest but have occurred all across the U.S.
The region most prone to tornadoes is called “Tornado Alley,” a zone that includes Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska and South Dakota. Most tornadoes begin as funnel clouds, which are swirling columns of air that begin to drop from the storm clouds and then rise back up. Once they gain sufficient power, they reach the ground and officially become tornadoes. They can occur at any time but are generally seen in the late afternoon and evening.
“Tornado sizes and wind speeds vary, but they can reach as much as 2.5 miles wide with destructive wind speeds of over 300 mph.”
Since 1950, the Storm Prediction Center has tracked over 58,000 tornadoes across the U.S. Those who have experienced these incredible events describe the sound as a screaming locomotive combined with flashes of light and flying debris. Firsthand accounts equate it to sitting inside a powerful explosion.
Tornado Watches & Warnings
Of utmost importance are the notices provided by the National Weather Service (NWS). A tornado watch is issued when the weather conditions are favorable for the development of severe weather capable of producing tornadoes. Tornado warnings are issued when a tornado is imminent or a funnel cloud has been spotted. The NWS states that the average lead time for a tornado warning is 13 minutes. Depending on location, warnings can be accompanied by the activation of loud sirens that notify residents of the imminent danger. Modern technology allows storms to be tracked through satellite and radar. In the world of tornadoes, however, “spotters” are an essential tool. Spotters can be anyone who reports a funnel cloud or tornado; the NWS provides training for volunteers to report possible danger. Many times, tornadoes develop quickly and it is a spotter that spreads the word first.
After the shock of the storm wears off, minds will turn to rebuilding and getting back to a normal life. With that comes the logistics of insurance. Many insurance companies have mobile storm teams that will go to the affected areas to help homeowners. The cost of tornado damage is astronomical. The costliest year on record was 2011, reaching $27 billion dollars. If you live in an area prone to tornadoes, it is prudent to review your insurance policy and make sure you have sufficient coverage. Most policies cover tornado damage under something called “windstorm peril.” Many people also choose to carry replacement cost coverage, which gives the homeowner the opportunity to rebuild or replace damaged property at current costs, rather than depreciated values.
“Those who have experienced these incredible events describe the sound as a screaming locomotive combined with flashes of light and flying debris.”
A helpful tool to move the insurance process along is an inventory. Go through every room in your house and document items. Include purchase dates, model numbers and costs. An even more thorough and encouraged method is a video or photographic inventory. If you have costly or antique items, it is wise to include written appraisals of the items. A copy of this should then be stored offsite in a safe or safe deposit box. The Insurance Institute provides an online web tool to help you catalog your possessions. Visit knowyourstuff.org for more information.
If possible, take photographs of the damage suffered because of the storm. Inventory your losses and be prepared to meet with your claims agent. The more information you can provide, the easier it will be for them to get you emergency funds.
The United States has the highest incidence of tornadoes in the world. From coast to coast, the threat of these killer storms is real.
This article was originally published in the SURVIVOR’S EDGE TM Fall 2014 issue. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.
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