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Take 5: Tornado expert Mike Smith talks about the last month, what's worked and what hasn't

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 26, 2011 - Mike Smith didn't time his visit to St. Louis to coincide with the recent rash of thunderstorms and deadly tornados in the state, but the former resident and weather broadcaster was in the middle of it all, so to speak, on Wednesday while he watched funnel clouds form from his hotel room on the 17th floor of the Hyatt Regency.

At Thursday morning's event, entitled "Tornados: Best -- and worst -- business practices," Smith showed a slide that applies to pretty much everybody. It said "Information is critical."

"That's in capital letters," he says.

Smith is the senior vice president and chief innovation executive of AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions and a fellow of the American Meteorological Society, as well as a board-certified meteorologist. He's also the author of "Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather," which he says is "the story of people struggling against the odds to unwrap the mystery of severe storms and figure out ways to save lives."

On Thursday evening, he'll be at a book signing at the Barnes and Noble at Ladue Crossing.

But first, Smith took some time to speak with the Beacon about the tornado season we've had, what's worked, what hasn't and what might be next. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

We've had a pretty traumatic tornado season around the state and the country. In your career and research, have you ever seen a season like this?

Smith: Yes. Back in the 1950s, but we haven't had one like this since the 1950s.

You said in a recent radio interview that the Joplin tornado was likely one in 10,000. Can you explain to us what it was about this storm that caused the devastation and death that it did? Was it the magnitude? The location? A mix of those things?

Smith: First of all, F5 tornados are 50 tornados out of 10,000. This Joplin tornado, based on the damage pictures I have seen, is one out of maybe 10,000. The reason I say that is looking at pictures, there are utterly debarked trees. An F5 tornado will partially debark trees. There are trees that are nude from the ground up, and there are so many of them that you've got to have an extraordinary tornado to do that.

The reason for so many deaths is threefold. One, it was an extremely violent tornado, meaning most of the time we tell you to get into a bathtub if you don't have a basement, that works fine. But in a strong F5, that's not enough protection.

That an F5 hit a densely populated area accounted for most of the deaths.

But there is another area I want to mention. The Joplin area has a long history of sounding tornado sirens not just for tornados but for predicted high winds. That creates an awful lot of siren activation. Two friends of mine happened to be in Joplin for a wedding, and when the sirens went off, they observed people hitting golf balls at a driving range and playing miniature golf. They were shocked that sirens had gone off, and people kept going about their business even as seconds were ticking off. We're inadvertedly training people to ignore the sirens.

What are some of the best practices you've found over the years that keep people safe during tornado season?

Smith: One of the most important things is fortunately most people here in St. Louis have a basement or there's one nearby. You've got to get underground and you've got to get under the stairwell or heavy furniture.

It's still early, but can you see any lessons to be learned from either the Good Friday tornado in St. Louis or the Joplin tornado?

Smith: Joplin, it's too early. There won't be an extensive survey of that tornado and what went right and what went wrong (yet.) It's just to soon for me to tell you that. Now, let me tell you thought about the St. Louis tornado. I think we learned that when people heed the warning and respond the right way, there will be lives saved. No question.

We're supposed to have sun this weekend. Is the season over? Are we done yet?

Smith: No. No. I think that we're gonna get a break for the next few days, but I think that starting again later next week, we could see severe weather again.

Kristen Hare