Monday, March 11, 2019

Episode 463 (3-11-19): Tornado Preparedness and Virginia’s Statewide Tornado Drill

Click to listen to episode (5:00).

Sections below are the following:
Transcript of Audio
Audio Notes and Acknowledgments
Extra Information
Related Water Radio Episodes
For Virginia Teachers (Relevant SOLs, etc.).

Unless otherwise noted, all Web addresses mentioned were functional as of 3-8-19.


From the Cumberland Gap to the Atlantic Ocean, this is Virginia Water Radio for the week of March 11, 2019.

SOUNDS – ~ 6 sec

This week we feature a severe-weather mystery sound.  Have a listen for about 20 seconds, and see if you can guess what this sound might mean on a warm, stormy day or night, any time of year.

SOUNDS - ~ 20 sec

If you guessed a tornado warning, you’re right!  You heard Virginia Tech’s warning siren, first during Virginia’s 2011 statewide tornado drill, and then—along with rain and thunder—during a real tornado-warning for the Blacksburg area in the early morning of April 28, 2011.

As the state of Alabama and the nation grieve over 23 people killed in a tornado on March 3, 2019, in Lee County, Alabama, Virginia’s statewide tornado drill for 2019 will be on March 19 at 9:45 a.m.  During the drill, the National Weather Service will send a test warning over NOAA Weather Radios, simulating what people would receive during an actual tornado warning.  Local media will also broadcast the test message over the Emergency Alert System.  The drill is a chance for schools, agencies, businesses, and families to learn about tornadoes and to practice tornado-emergency plans and warning signals.  Information about the drill, including how to register a local event, is available from the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, online at

Whether by siren, broadcast, phone, or some other way, if you receive an actual tornado warning for your location, here are some recommendations from the National Weather Service.

*Take shelter in the nearest substantial building, in the basement or on the lowest floor in a windowless, interior room.  Stay off elevators, because you could be trapped in them if the power is lost.

*Be ready to crouch down and protect your body, especially your head, from flying debris with a mattress, pillows, or other material.

*Don’t stay in a mobile home; instead, quickly seek a more substantial building.

*If you caught outdoors and can’t get to a substantial building, lie flat and face down in a ditch or some other low spot, away from trees, and cover your head with your hands.  In such a place, be alert for rising water.  Don’t seek shelter under bridges because doing so provides little protection and can actually increase risks.

*Don’t stay in a vehicle if you can get to a substantial building or to another safer spot.  But if you are caught in a vehicle by extreme winds or flying debris, park the car as quickly and safely as possible, out of traffic lanes; stay in the car with the seat belt on; put your head down below the windows; and cover your head with your hands and whatever protective material is available.

*And finally, monitor conditions on a mobile device, weather radio, or other information source, and stay in your safe location until the danger has passed.

Between 1951 and 2017, Virginia experienced over 700 reported tornadoes, occurring in all regions of the state and in every month of the year.  Two recent examples are the February 24, 2016, set of at least eight twisters that killed four people in Appomattox and Sussex counties; and the September 17, 2018, storm that killed one person in Chesterfield County.  So please, do what you can to be ready for tornadoes, by becoming informed, making a plan, and having a way to get the message when a tornado watch or warning is issued.

SOUND - ~3 sec


Virginia Water Radio is produced by the Virginia Water Resources Research Center, part of Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment.  For more Virginia water sounds, music, or information, visit us online at, or call the Water Center at (540) 231-5624.  Thanks to Stewart Scales for his banjo version of Cripple Creek to open and close this show.  In Blacksburg, I’m Alan Raflo, thanking you for listening, and wishing you health, wisdom, and good water.


The thunderstorm heard in the opening of this episode was recorded in Blacksburg, Va., about 9 p.m. EDT on April 20, 2015.

Thanks to David Wert and Phil Hysell, both with the National Weather Service's Blacksburg, Va., Forecast Office, for their help with this episode.

Click here
if you’d like to hear the full version (1 min./11 sec.) of the “Cripple Creek” arrangement/performance by Stewart Scales that opens and closes this episode.  More information about Mr. Scales and the group New Standard, with which Mr. Scales plays, is available online at

This episode is an update of previous episodes on tornado preparedness (Episodes 102, 3/13/12; 204, 3/10/14; 256, 3/9/15; and 358, 3/6/17); the audio files for those episodes have been archived.


Storm-report map for March 3, 2019, showing the tornado outbreak in the southeast that included the tornado which killed 23 people in Lee County, Alabama. Map from the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Service, accessed online at on 3/7/19.

Heavily damaged house in Pulaski, Virginia, on April 14, 2011, following an April 8 tornado in the area.

Sign marking an area in the Virginia Tech (Blacksburg campus) Squires Student Center designated as an emergency shelter for hazardous weather, March 11, 2019.

Tornado southwest of Howard, South Dakota, August 28, 1884.  This is believed to be the oldest known photograph of a tornado, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).  Photo taken from the NOAA Photo Library, online at; specific URL for the image is


Following is tornado safety information from the National Weather Service/Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma, “Tornado FAQ/Tornado Safety,” as of April 2018, accessed online at, 3/7/19.

Prevention and practice before the storm
At home, have a family tornado plan in place, based on the kind of dwelling you live in and the safety tips below.  Know where you can take shelter in a matter of seconds, and practice a family tornado drill at least once a year.  Have a pre-determined place to meet after a disaster. Flying debris is the greatest danger in tornadoes; so store protective coverings (e.g., mattress, sleeping bags, thick blankets, etc) in or next to your shelter space, ready to use on a few seconds' notice.  When a tornado watch is issued, think about the drill and check to make sure all your safety supplies are handy. Turn on local TV, radio or NOAA Weather Radio and stay alert for warnings.  Forget about the old notion of opening windows to equalize pressure; the tornado will blast open the windows for you!  If you shop frequently at certain stores, learn where there are bathrooms, storage rooms or other interior shelter areas away from windows, and the shortest ways to get there.  All administrators of schools, shopping centers, nursing homes, hospitals, sports arenas, stadiums, mobile home communities and offices should have a tornado safety plan in place, with easy-to-read signs posted to direct everyone to a safe, nearby shelter area.  Schools and office building managers should regularly run well-coordinated drills.  If you are planning to build a house, especially east of the Rockies, consider an underground tornado shelter or an interior ‘safe room.’

Know the signs of a tornado

Weather forecasting science is not perfect and some tornadoes do occur without a tornado warning. There is no substitute for staying alert to the sky.  Besides an obviously visible tornado, here are some things to look and listen for:

*Strong, persistent rotation in the cloud base.

*Whirling dust or debris on the ground under a cloud base—tornadoes sometimes have no funnel!

*Hail or heavy rain followed by either dead calm or a fast, intense wind shift. Many tornadoes are wrapped in heavy precipitation and can't be seen.

*Day or night: Loud, continuous roar or rumble, which doesn't fade in a few seconds like thunder.

*Night: Small, bright, blue-green to white flashes at ground level near a thunderstorm (as opposed to silvery lightning up in the clouds). These mean power lines are being snapped by very strong wind, maybe a tornado.

*Night: Persistent lowering from the cloud base, illuminated or silhouetted by lightning—especially if it is on the ground or there is a blue-green-white power flash underneath.

During a tornado

In a house with a basement: Avoid windows.  Get in the basement and under some kind of sturdy protection (heavy table or work bench), or cover yourself with a mattress or sleeping bag.   Know where very heavy objects rest on the floor above (pianos, refrigerators, waterbeds, etc.) and do not go under them. They may fall down through a weakened floor and crush you.  Head protection, such as a helmet, can boost survivability also.

In a house with no basement, a dorm, or an apartment: Avoid windows. Go to the lowest floor, small center room (like a bathroom or closet), under a stairwell, or in an interior hallway with no windows.  Crouch as low as possible to the floor, facing down; and cover your head with your hands.  A bath tub may offer a shell of partial protection.  Even in an interior room, you should cover yourself with some sort of thick padding (mattress, blankets, etc.), to protect against falling debris in case the roof and ceiling fail.  A helmet can offer some protection against head injury.

In an office building, hospital, nursing home or skyscraper: Go directly to an enclosed, windowless area in the center of the building -- away from glass and on the lowest floor possible.  Then, crouch down and cover your head.  Interior stairwells are usually good places to take shelter, and if not crowded, allow you to get to a lower level quickly.  Stay off the elevators; you could be trapped in them if the power is lost.

In a mobile home: Get out!  Even if your home is tied down, it is not as safe as an underground shelter or permanent, sturdy building.  Go to one of those shelters, or to a nearby permanent structure, using your tornado evacuation plan.  Most tornadoes can destroy even tied-down mobile homes; and it is best not to play the low odds that yours will make it.  This mobile-home safety video [online at] from the State of Missouri may be useful in developing your plan.

At school: Follow the drill!  Go to the interior hall or windowless room in an orderly way as you are told.  Crouch low, head down, and protect the back of your head with your arms.  Stay away from windows and large open rooms like gyms and auditoriums.

In a car or truck: Vehicles are extremely risky in a tornado.  There is no safe option when caught in a tornado in a car, just slightly less-dangerous ones.  If the tornado is visible, far away, and the traffic is light, you may be able to drive out of its path by moving at right angles to the tornado.  Seek shelter in a sturdy building, or underground if possible.  If you are caught by extreme winds or flying debris, park the car as quickly and safely as possible -- out of the traffic lanes.  Stay in the car with the seat belt on.  Put your head down below the windows; cover your head with your hands and a blanket, coat, or other cushion if possible.  If you can safely get noticeably lower than the level of the roadway,leave your car and lie in that area, covering your head with your hands.  Avoid seeking shelter under bridges, which can create deadly traffic hazards while offering little protection against flying debris.

In the open outdoors: If possible, seek shelter in a sturdy building.  If not, lie flat and face-down on low ground, protecting the back of your head with your arms.  Get as far away from trees and cars as you can; they may be blown onto you in a tornado.

In a shopping mall or large store: Do not panic.  Watch for others.  Move as quickly as possible to an interior bathroom, storage room or other small enclosed area, away from windows.

In a church or theater: Do not panic.  If possible, move quickly but orderly to an interior bathroom or hallway, away from windows.  Crouch face-down and protect your head with your arms.  If there is no time to do that, get under the seats or pews, protecting your head with your arms or hands.

Finally, the Virginia Department of Emergency Preparedness recommends keeping an emergency supply kit in your shelter location.  Information for assembling a supply kit is available online at


Used for Audio

Seth Borenstein, Tornado forecasting improves, but still deaths keep coming, AP News [Associated Press], 3/5/19.

Kevin Myatt, “Weather Journal: Tornadoes off to big start after slow year,” Roanoke Times, 4/4/17; and Weather Journal: It just takes one tornado to be deadly, Roanoke Times, 3/5/19.

National Weather Service, “Weather and Water Events Preparedness Calendar,” online at (this page lists events, such as tornado preparedness days, by state); and “National Weather Service Safety Tips,” online at

Anna Norris, What To Do if You See a Tornado While You're Driving, The Weather Channel, 2/25/16.

Jason Samenow, Eight tornadoes touched down in Virginia in Wednesday’s deadly outbreak, Washington Post, 2/26/16.

Tornado History Project, online at  The site has information on the location and timing of tornadoes in Virginia since 1951.  The site states that their maps are based on data from the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center; that center’s home page is

Troy Turner, How big was the monster tornado in Alabama? Trees became “giant missiles,” Opelika-Auburn [Ala.] News, 3/5/19, as published by Roanoke Times, 3/6/19.

Virginia Department of Emergency Management (VDEM):
“History: Virginia Tornadoes,” online at;
“Statewide Tornado Drill,” online at;
“Tornadoes”, online at, and
“Prepare & Recover,” online at
VDEM contact information: phone (804) 897-6500; e-mail:

WHSV TV-Harrisonburg, Va., and Associated Press, 1 death confirmed after tornado touches down in central Virginia, 9/17/18.

Weather Underground, “Tornadoes: Fact vs. Myth,” online at

For More Information about Severe Weather and Weather Preparedness

American Red Cross, “How to Prepare for Emergencies,” online at; or contact your local chapter.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), “Weather Radio All Hazards” network, online at

National Weather Service/Storm Prediction Center, online at

U.S. Department of Homeland Security, “Plan Ahead for Disasters,” online at.


All Water Radio episodes are listed by category at the Index link above (  See particularly the “Weather/Natural Disasters” subject category.

For another episode on tornadoes, please see Episode 342 (11-14-16), Tornado Research through Virtual Reality at Virginia Tech’s “Cube.”


The episode—the audio, extra information, or sources—may help with the following Virginia Standards of Learning (SOLs).

2010 Science SOLs

Grades K-6 Interrelationships in Earth/Space Systems Theme
2.6 – identification of common storms and other weather phenomena.
4.6 – weather conditions, phenomena, and measurements.
6.6 – properties of air and structure of Earth’s atmosphere; including weather topics.

Earth Science Course
ES.12 – weather and climate.

2015 Social Studies SOLs

Civics and Economics Course
CE.6 – government at the national level.
CE.7 – government at the state level.
CE.8 – government at the local level.
CE.10 – public policy at local, state, and national levels.

World Geography Course
WG.2 - how selected physical and ecological processes shape the Earth’s surface, including climate, weather, and how humans influence their environment and are influenced by it.

Government Course
GOVT.8 – state and local government organization and powers.
GOVT.9 – public policy at local, state, and national levels.

Virginia’s SOLs are available from the Virginia Department of Education, online at

Following are links to Water Radio episodes (various topics) designed especially for certain K-12 grade levels.

Episode 250, 1-26-15 – on boiling, for kindergarten through 3rd grade.
Episode 255, 3-2-15 – on density, for 5th and 6th grade.
Episode 282, 9-21-15 – on living vs. non-living, for kindergarten.
Episode 309, 3-28-16 – on temperature regulation in animals, for kindergarten through 12th grade.
Episode 333, 9-12-16 – on dissolved gases, especially dissolved oxygen in aquatic habitats, for 5th grade.
Episode 403, 1-15-18 – on freezing and ice, for kindergarten through 3rd grade.
Episode 404, 1-22-18 – on ice on ponds and lakes, for 4th through 8th grade.
Episode 406, 2-5-18 – on ice on rivers, for middle school.|
Episode 407, 2-12-18 – on snow chemistry and physics, for high school.