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It's tornado season, and time for planning is now

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 20, 2012 - If you live in Missouri, Illinois, or any neighboring states, your chances are pretty good for coming under a tornado watch or warning, or even the real thing. This week, the National Weather service confirmed 59 tornadoes over the previous weekend, striking Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska and Oklahoma.

Missouri and Illinois came out unscathed — this time. But that wasn’t the case seven weeks earlier, when a tornado blew through Harrisburg, Ill., and left seven people dead, or Joplin, Mo., where a terrible twister killed 161 people last May.

In parts of north St. Louis County — including Berkley and Lambert St. Louis International Airport — and the Sunset Hills area in south county, repairs are finally complete, or nearly so, after tornadoes hit those areas over holiday weekends. The north county storm hit last year on Good Friday, which fell on April 22. The south county storm struck on Dec. 31, 2010. However, on Lewis Place, a tiny street in north St. Louis that was also hit by that New Year’s Eve tornado, recovery efforts continue.  

According to the National Weather Service, “Most tornadoes occur in the deep south and in the broad, flat basin between the Rockies and the Appalachians, but no state is immune. Peak months of tornado activity ... are usually April, May and June. However, tornadoes have occurred in every month and at all times of the day or night.”

The statement on the weather service's website warns: “Remember, tornadoes can occur at any time. The time for planning is now.”

The Beacon, using the Public Insight Network, asked readers to share how they prepare for storms, and how they respond when they learn that inclement weather may be heading their way.  Those who responded all said they pay close attention to radio or television reports when they hear a storm warning. They keep flashlights and extra batteries handy, and in most cases, they head to a safe place in their homes.

Elizabeth Campbell of Bellefontaine Neighbors has worked as a volunteer with the Community Emergency Response Team in helping people recover from storm damage.

“Usually, I check the weather alert radio and check the sky, west of the house,” she wrote. “The Good Friday storm in St. Louis came my way. I was a half block away.” Her house had minor damage.

“I was lucky,” she wrote. She had to replace her roof, and the repairs are now complete.

Campbell wrote that she believes special alarms should be required in businesses and factories. “You can’t hear anything except the factory machines. Rarely do we hear thunder during a storm. We would never know,” a tornado was approaching, she wrote.

“As a CERT member in Ferguson, we train year round and refresh our skills. CERT programs should be more frequently used and promoted. … More people should participate and we would all be safer. And all students in junior high and up should train in these things. Society needs to wake up and participate and be prepared.”

Tasha Burton of Ferguson wrote: “The Good Friday storm only affected us with a power outage, however, just a block away, businesses and homes were damaged."

Burton wrote that since the storms of last year, she takes the warnings more seriously.

“Before the Good Friday storm, when we would hear the siren one time, we usually didn't go to a safe place in the home. We kept a close watch on the TV. If the siren sounded again, we would go to the basement. After the Good Friday storm, after hearing the siren once, we now go to the basement. During the Good Friday storm, we eventually moved into an interior bathroom space located in our basement. The sirens wouldn't stop and my dog — usually a telltale sign of bad weather — was very anxious. He was panting and would not keep still. We have a weather radio, flashlights, cell phones and more that we take with us.”

Ellen Reed of University City wrote that she always pays close attention to the weather, and is usually aware of potential danger, even before storm warnings sound.

"I always respond. I have a weather radio, lots of water in various places throughout my house, and I keep a backpack with emergency gear in case I have to flee with my animals. If I am in the basement because a storm is imminent, I take my keys, purse, animals, leashes, blanket, water, a small bag of animal food and meds — they go in the backpack when we are in a bad storm period.

"In 2011, I watched the weather constantly and released staff when the weather was really dangerous. I also unplug my electronics, take my laptop to the basement with me and run it on battery to track radar. I am a complete and total disaster nerd," she wrote. 

Reed suggested that businesses “partner with the Red Cross and emergency management to do neighborhood-wide preparedness planning at neighborhood churches and community centers, starting with our most vulnerable neighborhoods — those most at risk of building collapse and no-insurance for emergency repairs. Planning at the neighborhood/family level should include designation and promotion/publication of emergency shelters.”

Outreach specialist Linda Lockhart has been telling stories for most of her life. A graduate of the University of Missouri's School of Journalism, she has worked at several newspapers around the Midwest, including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, as a reporter, copy editor, make-up editor, night city editor, wire editor, Metro Section editor and editorial writer. She served the St. Louis Beacon as analyst for the Public Insight Network, a product of Minnesota Public Radio and American Public Media that helps connect journalists with news sources. She continues using the PIN to help inform the news content of St. Louis Public Radio. She is a St. Louis native and lives in Kirkwood.