Prepping for Tornado Season in ND

TR Staff
Staff Writer

By Ellie Boese
Quick quiz: during which months of the year do the majority of tornados occur in the US?
It seems an odd thing to consider the idea of severe thunderstorms after reeling from a blizzard a few weeks ago, but the answer to that questions is March through June.
On June 16, 1992, an F5 tornado barreled through the two towns nearest my grandparents’ home (later to be the home I grew up in) in Southwest Minnesota, Chandler: pop. 316; and Lake Wilson: pop. 319. With winds the National Weather Service estimates to have reached speeds of 260-320 mph and a width of three-quarters of a mile.
That tornado was part of what remains today one of the largest tornado outbreaks in US history, with 170 tornados touching down on the Northern Great Plains over a 5-day period.
Fargo has its own stories of powerful tornados, with twisters occurring in 1957, 1950, 1956 and 1973, as well as others around North Dakota, reminding us that tornadic storms have proved themselves more than capable of reaching us. Barnes County has seen 58 tornadoes between 1950 and 2017, the strongest an F4 in 2004 and since 2011, at least one tornado has touched down within the county lines every year.
Even if there’s still snow on the ground, it’s never too early to refresh our awareness of severe weather and get reacquainted with our emergency plans. North Dakota’s earliest recorded tornado was, after all, on March 26, 2003, in neighboring Stutsman County.
Here are some things we should remember:
(1) Determine a Safe Spot: stock this spot with necessities recommended by the Red Cross (non-perishable food, enough water to last three days, fully charged flashlights and phones, seven-day supply of medications); if in a structure with no basement, get to an interior location on the lowest level (hallway, beneath a stairwell, bathroom); if in a mobile home, reach out to a neighbor with a basement or other adequate shelter to have a safe place to go in case of severe weather.
(2) Spot the Signs: low, ragged bands of clouds reaching southeast or south from the main tower of the storm indicate rotation; wall clouds extending down from the base of the storm, typically lasting 10-20 minutes before a funnel appears; listen for distinguishing noises—loud roars or rumbles that don’t fade away—as many experts say tornados compare to freight trains or large waterfalls; at night, bright, blue-green and white flashes near the ground usually indicates power lines are snapping the path of a funnel; analyze cloud base when illuminated by lightning to observe signs like consistent lowering.
(3) Create a Communication Plan: have a plan to communicate when family members may be in different locations at the onset of severe weather—meet with officials at schools to learn their safety plans; make sure teenagers know where to go if at a workplace; establish a meeting place to meet once conditions are safe; have an out-of-town contact if local phone lines are jammed following a storm.
The Dos and Don’ts
•Do: Put on shoes. It’s a small thing to remember in such a situation but in case of damage, you’ll be glad you have them.
•Do: leave your vehicle for a sturdy structure, or drive out of the tornado’s path (if possible. If not, don’t risk it and find a culvert, cave or ditch).
•Do: find something to hold onto.
•Do: Cover your head.
•Don’t: open your home’s windows. There’s been a popular misconception in years past that opening the windows in your home in case of a tornado is the thing to do, because it reduces the pressure caused by the storm in the structure. This theory has been proven not only untrue, but completely backward. Opening your windows increases the potential for heavier structural damages and personal injury. Don’t do it!
•Don’t: hide under overpasses—they offer no shelter. They actually create a wind tunnel that increases the wind-speed of the storm, as well as the speed of debris.
For those with livestock, there’s the reality of considering your animals’ safety and well-being in the event of a tornado. The Center for Food Security and Public Health at Iowa State University recommends the following to livestock owners:
•Maintain an inventory and records of ownership, ensuring all have permanent identification.
•Assess stability of barns and other structures.
•Remove loose objects from fields or livestock areas that may become potential flying debris.
•If possible, bring them into barn or shelter in advance of a storm.
•NEVER leave them tied up or restrained outside.
•Open gates and routes of escape for your livestock, if you must, if they have no other means of safe shelter
•Be aware that their behavior will change with impending severe storms or tornadoes.
The National Weather Service urges everyone to heed warnings and respond to them appropriately when they are issued. We often take for granted how vital these warning systems are to our safety and preparedness—in the past, there was no warning.
The United States Army Signal Corps, who handled US forecasting, actually banned tornado warnings in 1887, thinking the alerts might cause panic. In 1938, the ban was lifted and modern tornado forecasting began. The first tornado forecast was made at an air force base in 1948 and warnings began to be issued to the public two years later. Before the early 1970s, outdoor sirens weren’t even utilized as a warning tool, but following the Super Outbreak of April 1974 in which 335 people died, the National Weather Service got serious about dedicating time and money to improve accurate forecasts, lead time for warnings, increased communications and heightened public awareness.
Just one more thing: be sure to know the difference between watches and warnings that are issued. A Tornado Watch indicates that tornadoes are possible in and around the watch area (NWS: “Tornado possible. Be prepared.”). A Tornado Warning means that a tornado has been sighted or spotted on weather radar and there is imminent danger to life and property (NWS: “Tornado expected or occurring. Take shelter.”).
Though I have my fingers crossed that Mother Nature has no more winter storms up her sleeve, I also hope she holds off on (or completely avoids) visiting the prairie with damaging storms.
We’ve got enough to worry about, thank you very much, Ma’am!