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Area to take part in tornado drill

Monday, March 10, 2014

By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer

As spring approaches and the weather becomes warmer, the risk of tornadoes and other severe storms increases.

To help prepare for that, Henry County and Martinsville will take part in a statewide tornado drill at 9:45 a.m. Tuesday. Local officials encourage residents to practice — or at least think about — what they should do if a tornado threatens the area.

When the drill starts, the National Weather Service will issue a test tornado warning message that will be broadcast on area radio and television stations via the Emergency Alert System.

The message also will be broadcast over a special “weather radio” system operated by the weather service. It will activate alarms on those radios that are in “alert mode” — the radios are on but the sound is muted.

Martinsville will sound tornado warning sirens at the city’s two fire stations. Henry County does not use sirens for tornado warnings because the county is “so large that it would be almost impossible to come up with a siren system that could warn everyone,” said county Fire Marshal Rodney Howell.

The Henry County Public Schools will take part in the drill. Howell said Henry County Public Safety staff members will be at elementary schools to witness how students, teachers and other employees react and make recommendations for improvements if necessary.

Martinsville schools will conduct drills throughout the month because they will be participating in state Standards of Learning testing on Tuesday, said T.J. Slaughter, the city school system’s safety coordinator.

According to the Virginia Department of Emergency Management (VDEM), 67 tornadoes struck the state during the past three years, killing 10 people and injuring at least 106 people.

Three tornadoes struck southeastern Virginia in January, noted Bill Sammler, a warning coordination meteorologist with the weather service.

Although severe storms that spawn tornadoes are more likely in warmer weather, “tornadoes are possible in Virginia (at) any time of year,” he said. Therefore, “every tornado warning should be taken very seriously.”

Officials do not recall any deaths due to tornadoes locally, but such storms have occurred in the area.

In September 2004, a tornado that struck the western parts of the county, including the Fieldale and Whitby Acres areas, caused almost $53.8 million in damage. Howell said he thinks that storm made many people in the area realize how dangerous tornadoes are.

The twister passed between two schools, Howell recalled, so “we were very fortunate” that no deaths or major injuries occurred.

Another tornado that touched down near the Martinsville Speedway in 1994 also caused damage that topped $9 million, according to early estimates.

In October 2010, meteorologists confirmed that a funnel cloud touched down near Aiken Summit and damaged trees, homes and other structures, according to reports.

Due to climate changes in recent years, the area’s potential for tornadoes seems to have increased, according to Howell.

Officials urge people to know the difference between a “tornado watch” and a “tornado warning.”

The weather service issues a “tornado watch” when weather conditions in a specific area are favorable for tornadoes to occur. When a watch is issued, people should listen to radio or television in case a warning is broadcast.

A tornado warning is issued when radar shows significant rotation in storm clouds or a funnel cloud has been sighted, even if the funnel is not reaching the ground. People should immediately seek shelter if a warning is issued.

“Knowing what to do (when a tornado warning) is issued can save your life,” said Brett Burdick, VDEM’s acting state coordinator.

Emergency officials recommend that all homes, schools and businesses have designated tornado safety areas, such as a basement, interior room, closet or hall. A safety area should be away from windows so people do not come into contact with broken glass or other debris being blown around in a tornado.

After going to the safety area, officials recommend that people seek shelter under a sturdy piece of furniture, such as a table or desk, for protection from flying debris or collapsed roofs.

People should crouch, as if in a fetal position, to make their bodies less of a target for flying debris.

Because tornadoes can easily destroy them, mobile homes and vehicles are not suitable shelters. Structures with large-span roofs, including large retail stores or gymnasiums, also are not suitable shelters, according to officials.

If no suitable shelter is available, people should lie face down outside in a ditch with their hands over their heads, officials advise.

Emergency officials advise people not to take shelter from tornadoes under bridges. High winds can suck a person out from under a bridge, even in narrow spaces, officials have said.


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