Experts use severe weather awareness week, tornado drills as danger reminder

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Most people probably know enough to run to the basement when a tornado hits.

Nevertheless, weather experts continue to beat that drum every year with Tornado and Severe Weather Awareness Week, which this year starts on Monday and runs to April 20.

That’s because even though people know what to do, they often don’t do it.

“It may not be that people don’t know what to do but that they’re not doing it, for whatever reason,” said Jeff Last of the National Weather Service in Ashwaubenon.

A tornado a year ago killed 160 people in Joplin, Mo., although warnings were issued at least 20 minutes beforehand, Last said. It’s possible people didn’t have a basement to run to, ignored the warnings or never heard them, Last said.

But even people without basements generally know to go to windowless hallways in their homes, or, if they live in mobile homes, to flee to the nearest sturdy building.

However, one major problem is that people tend to want confirmation before they flee, Last said.

A study by the National Weather Service following the May 22 tornado in Joplin showed that most residents of the city did not immediately seek shelter after hearing the warnings.

The study showed people needed between two and nine separate warnings before taking action. For example, people who heard the sirens may have gone to a window or outside to look at the sky, then went to their TVs, then phoned friends before heading to their basements, the study showed.

“If you’re waiting to see the tornado before acting, it may be too late,” Last said.

Northeastern Wisconsin got its chances to run through real-life drills last spring. A year ago this week, Wisconsin had a record number of tornadoes in a single April day when 15 were confirmed. Ten of those hit in the northeastern part of the state, within the 22 counties making up the Ashwaubenon National Weather Service station’s coverage area.

The strongest of those storms hit near Merrill in Lincoln County, where they caused more than $11 million in damage, but tornadoes also touched down just south of Greenleaf in Brown County, Kaukauna in Outagamie County and Stockbridge in Calumet County.

The worst nearby was in Kaukauna, where $6.7 million of damage resulted.

Weaker tornadoes struck Northeastern Wisconsin the following summer, and straightline winds of up to 95 mph caused an estimated $5.3 million damage Sept. 2 in Appleton.

The last most-violent tornado in the area, rated an EF-4 on the weather bureau’s 5-point scale that hit Cooperstown in Manitowoc County on July 5, 1994, Last said.

EF4 and EF5 tornadoes have wind speeds approaching and exceeding 200 mph. Meteorologists can’t measure winds that powerful, because their measuring devices can’t survive that power, but the wind speeds are estimated based on structural damage caused to buildings, Last said.

But even weak tornadoes, at speeds of around 80 mph, can cause damage or kill, Last said.

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