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Tornado education needed to save lives

The forecasters got it right. They predicted severe weather, including possible tornadoes, days in advance. Tornado watches and warnings were issued.

But still, 23 people were killed and another 90 injured by the EF4 twister that ripped through Lee County, Alabama. With winds up to 170 mph and an almost mile-wide path, the warnings were not enough.

The victims ranged in age from 6 to 89.

According to the experts, 50 percent of tornado deaths happen in mobile homes, even though they account for a small percentage of homes across the country.  With no basements, thinner walls and no foundations, they don’t offer much protection from a destructive tornado.

“Those populations (in mobile homes) need to act a little sooner and they need to get out,” Kim Klockow-McClain, a research scientist with NOAA’s National Severe Storms Laboratory, said. “We’re trying to provide an opportunity for people who might not now have one.”

The hope is that technology can advance to the point where residents in mobile homes can be given warnings earlier so they can flee to safety.

Some have suggested that governments build shelters near mobile home parks, but that seems impractical given that mobile homes are not always clustered in a park.

And early warnings do little if people ignore them.

The key to reducing tornado deaths may come through education. People have to understand how dangerous tornadoes can be, how to receive warnings, and what to do when a twister is heading their way.

Outdoor sirens are useful but they do not cover the rural parts of most counties, including Lincoln County. That means residents need another way to be warned, and a weather radio is the most reliable. A mobile phone can provide weather alerts but only if that service is turned on, and only if the phone is charged and has a good signal.

Some places in Lincoln County are signal dead spots, so don’t rely on those alerts if you live in one.

A weather radio programmed to broadcast alerts in your specific area may sound old-fashioned, but it’s reliable and not dependent upon a cellular signal. 

If a warning indicates a tornado is headed toward you, experts advise those in mobile homes to get out and seek shelter in a sturdy building. The same goes for those in a vehicle.

If you are in a sturdy structure, find an interior room on the first floor or a basement. The goal is to put as many walls between you and the tornado as you can. Avoid windows.

Some permanent structures should be avoided. Grocery stores, department stores and warehouses are not the best places to seek shelter. They are vulnerable to roof collapse since they have few interior walls.

Once you seek shelter, cover your head. Experts recommend wearing a helmet of some kind since head injuries are common during tornadoes. Also, put shoes on.

The best advice in the world is useless if it is not followed. The same goes for advanced warnings. If they are not heeded, they do little good.