Tornado safety in Dixie Alley

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By Erin S. Daniels

Pub Ed Specialist
Collierville Fire & Rescue

April, May and June are peak months for tornadoes in the United Sates. Each year, more than 1,200 tornadoes strike the U.S.

In 1955 a tornado destroyed the original two-story gazebo in the heart of Collierville’s Town Square.

On average a tornado lasts 8-10 minutes and covers a couple of miles along the ground.

Most everyone has heard of Tornado Alley, but are you familiar with its cousin Dixie Alley? Dixie Alley refers to the southern region from the Tennessee Valley into the lower Mississippi Valley. This includes us in the Mid-South. Although the frequency of tornadoes is highest in Tornado Alley (the area between the Rocky Mountains and the Appalachian Mountains), the frequency of killer tornadoes is greater here in Dixie Alley.

In fact, Mississippi, Alabama and Tennessee lead the nation in terms of tornado deaths.

There are numerous reasons why Dixie Alley tornadoes are more deadly. Our area is very prone to severe weather and fast-moving storms.

The unpredictability of such a storm with a possible accompanying tornado makes it more difficult to alert residents. Our tornado season is not well-defined. We can have tornadoes in the transitional seasons including November, early December and the summer, as well as in the traditional spring period (March through May).

Many of our tornadoes occur during the night when most people are in bed and unaware of impending danger. Furthermore, the lack of basements and storm shelters in our region contributes to our higher death rate.

There are specific differences between a tornado watch and a tornado warning. A watch means conditions are becoming favorable for a tornado; it is valid for several hours; and you should pay close attention to the weather in case you need to take precautions. A warning means that a tornado has been observed (or detected on radar); it is valid for less than 1 hour; and if you are near the path of the tornado you should take action immediately.

The National Weather Service (NWS) provides safety tips in the case of a tornado.

First, practice a tornado safety plan so everyone knows what to do. Although a basement of an underground shelter is the best place to be, an above-ground safe room such as a small interior room on the lowest floor is good.

Select a space without glass doors or windows such as an interior bathroom or hallway. Use blankets or coats for protection.

If available, wear a helmet. If you are driving, stop and get into a sturdy building and follow the above tips. The same goes for those in a mobile home, get into a reinforced building. If you are outdoors and no building is nearby, get into a ditch or depression and cover your head. (Beware of flash flooding. Don’t go into ditches with water.) It may be a good idea to have an out-of-area contact (such as a relative or family friend) who can coordinate family members’ locations and information should family members become separated.

Collierville has an outdoor warning siren system to alert residents of tornadoes.

When you hear the siren, go into your home and turn on your local TV channel, radio station, or NOAA Weather Radio to get current information and instructions. Take the necessary steps to protect you and your family. Understand that you may not hear the outdoor warning siren if you are inside your residence.

Building insulation, tree foliage and air-conditioning may make it difficult to hear the outdoor siren. Remember also that although the warning siren may be off the weather situation may still pose danger. The Collierville outdoor warning siren runs in 15 minute increments with a period of silence in-between. (Breaks are necessary to prevent problems due to overheating.)

A number of companies have developed innovative weather apps for smart phones. Many are customized to alarm only if you are in or close to the warning area. Whatever app you select make sure it uses official NWS information.

Now before the spring storm season hits, is an excellent time to ensure that you and your family are ready for severe storms and tornadoes.

Practice your tornado drills at home, school and work. Make sure you can receive severe weather information in time to protect yourself and loved ones. Tornadoes don’t make appointments; be prepared before one arrives.