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Keeping an ear on the stormy skies

One Writer’s Perspective

One of my most vivid childhood memories is the day in February 1971 when my family and I rode over to see the little Delta community of Inverness — or at least where it had been.
Hit by a killer tornado, the town was swept away, practically scoured off the face of the earth. As far as I could see, pieces of people’s lives littered the surrounding cotton fields, and the survivors stared at us with blank expressions while sitting atop piles of rubble. It was an adult dose of tragedy for a 10-year-old boy, and it has stuck with me.

The recent scenes of devastation from storms and tornadoes that have hammered the state since early June have brought this childhood remembrance alive again. No place in the U.S. is safe from the threat of natural disasters, and certainly Mississippi is no exception. However, sitting on the Gulf of Mexico, a vast “engine” for storm systems, we face not only real and year-round threats from severe thunderstorms, tornadoes, hail, flooding and hurricanes, but our response time is often very short. Not only do the storms come, they come quickly.

We also get a relatively large number of storms at night when we’re asleep, and because Mississippi is well forested, we often don’t see the approach of severe weather or tornadoes until they are on top of us. Throw in the fact that a large part of our population live in mobile homes, and what you have is a deadly combination.

Storm shelters are becoming more and more common across the state. Below-ground shelters and safe rooms are great — and relatively expensive. They also require response time, and that is what this column is all about.
Whether there is a storm shelter available or not, obviously Mississippians need as much heads-up as possible when severe weather threatens. Seconds count. The key is information — and it must be timely. The National Weather Service has tremendously updated its technology as far as severe weather detection is concerned. It has also vastly improved its alert delivery system.

However, there is one flaw, and it’s on the receiving end. For most people, television remains their number one source for severe weather alerts. Like the National Weather Service, Mississippi TV stations have made significant improvements to their technology, some now offering the capability of tracking storms from street to street. But lugging your “tube” into the hall closet or storm shelter during severe weather is not practical. And if the electricity goes out…

Cheap lifesavers

There is a portable, battery-powered answer to this problem. It is the weather radio. Weather radios are relatively cheap, and they can be a lifesaver. They should be as common as refrigerators in every Mississippi home.

Weather radios give continuous updates on conditions around the region, so listeners know if bad weather is heading their way. But it also offers an alert feature. In the alert mode, the radio is silent, allowing the owner to sleep or otherwise go about his routine. When an alert is issued, the radio sends out a piercing siren. The National Weather Service then gives the pertinent information, and even tells the listener down to the minute when a storm may reach a certain community.

While owning a weather radio is an invaluable resource, there are two other things Mississippians can do to lessen the risk of injury or death from Mother Nature. One is purchase a scanner. We don’t use our scanner to listen to police chases.

The only time we turn our scanner on is when severe weather threatens. Scanners, which are also battery-powered, allow the listener to monitor the communication between emergency management personnel and law enforcement. And it’s real time. Radar only looks at the tops of storms, and tells meteorologists nothing about the “business end” of the storm — what’s going on below. The scanner allows law enforcement and emergency personnel to become the listener’s eyes and ears. Coupled with a weather radio, a scanner adds just one more layer of protection.

The price is right…

The last component in the weather-protection arsenal doesn’t require batteries, and it’s free. It’s called knowledge. I am frequently shocked at just how little knowledge some Mississippians have as it pertains to weather information.

We also have far too many of our citizens not heeding the information that is presented. Most storm victims don’t get a second chance.

When it comes to severe weather, ignorance kills.

Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at northway@msbusiness.com.

About Wally Northway

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