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Tornado Safety: One Year After Tornado Season Approaches for Severe Weather Awareness

Spc. John Crosby, Camp Atterbury Public Affairs

NOAA's National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL) Collection. Tornado near Seymor, Texas April 10, 1979. Photo D. Burgess

CAMP ATTERBURY JOINT MANUEVER TRAINING CENTER, Ind. 05.19.2009 As tornado season approaches and we near the one-year mark of the tornado that touched down here, it is time to be more aware of the possible dangers that these violent storms can pose.

The June tornado that directly struck Camp Atterbury in Edinburgh last year occurred at a time when more than 3,500 people were on the installation. According to the National Weather Service's damage assessments, wind gusts reached upward of 135 miles an hour. The damage extended to military and civilian vehicles, power and gas lines, fences and more than 50 buildings. Overall, there was approximately $50 million in damage, to include repairs and construction.

The damage from tornadoes comes from the strong winds they contain. It is generally believed that the most violent tornadoes can produce wind speeds of up to 300 mph, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Wind speeds that high can cause automobiles to become airborne, rip ordinary homes to shreds and turn broken glass and other debris into lethal missiles.

Despite all of the damage and devastation here, there were no injuries caused by the tornado. This success can directly be credited to the Camp Atterbury command and the 205th Infantry Brigade.

According to a news article written just days after the Camp Atterbury tornado by Sgt. 1st Class Mark Bell, a public affairs Soldier here, the former Camp Atterbury post commander, Col. Barry Richmond, and former 205th Infantry Brigade commander, Col. Christopher M. Holden, spent hours before the storm preparing for the worst by adjusting training and moving servicemembers to safe areas.

"We mitigated the effects of the thunderstorm by finishing up our outside transportation training early," said Holden. "We got [servicemembers] in hardstand buildings prior to the storms due to the installation's weather storm warnings, which were truly the primary reason we were able to successfully prevent any injuries."

Camp Atterbury personnel should know that severe weather advisories come in two categories: watches and warnings. A tornado watch means that conditions are favorable for tornadic activity. A tornado warning means that one has been spotted or computers have indicated rotation in the storm.

Beyond warnings issued via radio, television and disaster sirens, there are several things to visually look for. If approaching storms or any of the following danger signs are visible, be prepared to take shelter immediately. Look for a dark, often greenish sky and large hail. A large, dark, low-lying cloud is also indicative of a tornado, especially if there is rotation accompanied by a loud roar, similar to a freight train.

If you are in a structured building, like brick-walled barracks, a hospital, school or shopping center, and a tornado approaches, go to a pre-designated shelter area such as a safe room, basement, storm cellar, or the lowest building level. If there is no basement, go to the center of an interior room on the lowest level (closet, interior hallway) away from corners, windows, doors, and outside walls. Put as many walls as possible between you and the outside. If there is no hallway or closet, get under a sturdy table and use your arms to protect your head and neck. Do not open windows.

If you are in a vehicle, trailer or mobile home, get out immediately and go to the lowest floor of a sturdy, nearby building or a storm shelter. Mobile homes, even if tied down, offer little protection from tornadoes. If there are no nearby structures that will provide good cover from flying debris, lie flat in a nearby ditch or depression and cover your head with your hands. Be aware of the potential for flooding. Do not get under an overpass or bridge. You are safer in a low, flat location. Never try to outrun a tornado in urban or congested areas in a car or truck. Instead, leave the vehicle immediately for safe shelter and watch out for flying debris.

In the event of a tornado, Maj. Kenneth Knight, Installation Safety Occupational Health Director, said both commanders and Soldiers should think about accountability and moving to a safer location immediately, but only after a safe amount of time, which is about 30 to 45 minutes after a storm.

"A code will sound 'all clear' over the sirens so [people] know when to get accountability," Knight explained. "Accountability needs to be aggressive. All First Army leaders must have whereabouts of each individual Soldier and report up their proper chains," he said.

Knight said the training units report to their unit mobilization assistants, or UMAs, who then report to the mobilization operations center, or MOC. The MOC, in turn, reports to the joint operations center, or JOC. Units need to initiate immediate phone or person-to-person contact for any problems with accountability.

"There are some [successes] we need to keep in mind from our experience in the tornado here last year, but there are always things we can improve on," said Knight. "Everybody is more aware now. The more knowledge we have, the more appropriate action can be taken to prevent loss of life while training here so units can deploy with maximum fighting capacity down range."

Knight said individual mobilizing units can develop their own individual plan for emergency meeting places, safe rooms and accountability techniques, since each unit knows their own particular situation best, based on location, personnel, etc. Each unit should know their emergency procedures from the commander to the lowest level to ensure everyone is aware of the process.

According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, in Indiana a tornado can touch down in any month of the year; however they are most frequent in May and June. Indiana lies directly in the path of "Tornado Alley", an area of plains and flatlands where the most tornadoes occur every year, and has a yearly average of 23 reported tornadoes.

Statistics show that Indiana can be vulnerable to tornadoes, and with the large open spaces on Camp Atterbury, the installation could be at a higher risk. Compared with other states, Indiana ranks number 15 for frequency of tornadoes, six for number of deaths, seven for injuries and two for cost of damages according to data recorded by the Indiana Disaster Center from 1950 through 1995. Regardless of the frequency and size of the tornadoes that have been known to wreak havoc throughout Tornado Alley, many injuries and deaths can be avoided by proper awareness and safety precautions before, during and after the event of a tornado.

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