Preparation, safety tips shared at ‘Severe Weather 101’ presentation

A tornado drops two mile northeast of Niles, Kan., on Wednesday, May 25, 2016. The large tornado that the National Weather Service said was on the ground for about 90 minutes damaged or destroyed about 20 homes in rural northern Kansas and came within a mile of hitting the small town of Chapman. (Tanner Colvin/Salina Journal via AP)

It was billed as “Severe Weather 101,” but many of those who showed up for a program Douglas County Emergency Management presented Tuesday evening at the Lawrence Public Library seemed ready for upper-level course work.

Much of the subject matter Topeka National Weather Service Meteorologist Kevin Skow presented was aimed at alerting weather spotters of what the NWS wanted of them from the field, what they should be looking for and how to stay out of trouble. That was welcome advice to the many experienced and novice weather spotters at the program, and to the brother and sister storm-chasing team of Alex and Shelby Nichols.

Originally from Hutchinson, the siblings moved to Lawrence, where the 21-year-old Alex Nichols is now a sophomore majoring in atmospheric science at the University of Kansas.

“He’s been watching the Weather Channel as long as I can remember,” Shelby Nichols said. “We chase storms every year.”

It should be a good year for storms, Alex Nichols said.

Skow made no predictions confirming that outlook, but said the state averages 86 tornadoes a year. Last year was an odd year, with most of the tornado activity confined to the three days of May 24 through 26 and a rare October outbreak.

Skow and Jillian Rodrigue, assistant director of Douglas County Emergency Management, emphasized the need for preparation and planning for severe weather. Everyone in tornado-prone Kansas should have at least two primary weather alert systems such as weather-alert radios, weather alerts from Douglas County Emergency Management or smart phone apps. An outdoor siren should not be on that list because they were meant to alert those outside to take cover and often can’t be heard inside, Rodrigue said.

Skow urged everyone to have a plan of where to seek shelter at home or work in the event a tornado warning is issued. The plan should be practiced with the time established of how long it takes to get to safety, he said.

The best shelter is underground, Skow said. If that isn’t available, he advised finding shelter in an interior room or bathroom with plumbing to help provide additional structural integrity. He also advised getting under a mattress or any object that would protect against flying debris.

Families should also have an emergency preparedness kit with such items as a radio, flashlight and batteries, first-aid kit, work gloves, medications (including prescriptions), water and nonperishable food like canned goods, peanut butter or crackers. A whistle to alert rescuers of a trapped person’s location should also be included in the kit, Skow said.

Motorists should be alert of conditions when traveling, Skow said. Vehicles offer no protection from tornadoes, he said, showing a video of a Dallas twister throwing semi-trucks hundreds of feet in the air.

“If they can do that to a semi, imagine what they can do to a car,” he said.

Drive away from a tornado at a right angle if you have time, Skow advised. If unable to escape, lie flat in a ditch or on the floor of a vehicle with your head covered, he said. Never seek refuge under a bridge underpass, a strategy that got about 25 people killed in a 1999 Oklahoma City tornado, he said.

Skow also warned against ever driving through flood waters.

“Flooding and not tornadoes is the No. 1 severe weather killer in the U.S.,” he said. “People don’t respect flooding like they should. Six inches of water can knock you off your feet. Two feet of water can sweep a vehicle off the road.”

To protect against lightening, get inside an enclosed structure and stay away from windows, electrical devices and plumbing, Skow said. The structural steel enclosure of a vehicle also provides protection, but he cautioned against using cell phones plugged into lighter outlets.

After the presentation, the Nichols siblings said they were thankful for the safety reviews and ready for the storm season.

“We’re pretty careful,” Shelby Nichols said. “We don’t get ourselves in danger.”