Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Episode 568 (3-15-21): Springtime Drills to Prepare for Tornadoes

Click to listen to episode (4:53) 

Sections below are the following:

Transcript of Audio
Audio Notes and Acknowledgments
Related Water Radio Episodes
For Virginia Teachers (Relevant SOLs, etc.)

Unless otherwise noted, all Web addresses mentioned were functional as of 3-12-21.


From the Cumberland Gap to the Atlantic Ocean, this is Virginia Water Radio for the week of March 15, 2021.  This is a revised repeat of our episode on tornado safety, last done in March 2019.

SOUNDS – ~ 4 sec – thunderstorm on April 20, 2015, 9 p.m., Blacksburg, Va.

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, particularly in spring and summer, but possible in any season.

SOUNDS - ~ 20 sec

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

Virginia’s statewide tornado drill for 2021 was on March 16.  The annual springtime drill is a chance for schools, agencies, businesses, and families to learn about tornadoes and to practice tornado-emergency plans.  Information about the drill and other tornado information is available from the Virginia Department of Emergency Management, online at vaemergency.gov/tornadoes.

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 increase traffic 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.

According to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, the U.S. areas with the greatest frequency of tornadoes are the south-central area known as “Tornado Alley” and the Gulf Coast states.  While Virginia doesn’t have the frequency of tornadoes seen in those areas, NOAA indicates that the Commonwealth averaged 18 tornadoes per year between 1991 and 2010.  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 - ~5 sec –repeat of Virginia Tech warning siren


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 virginiawaterradio.org, 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.


This episode is an update of previous episodes on tornado preparedness (Episodes 102, 3-13-12; 204, 3-10-14; 256, 3-3-9-15; 358, 3-6-17; and 463, 3-11-19).   The audio files for those episodes have been archived.  For help with the 2019 version, Virginia Water Radio thanks David Wert, former Meteorologist in Charge at the National Weather Service's (NWS) Blacksburg, Va., Forecast Office; and Phil Hysell, current Warning Coordination Meteorologist at the Blacksburg NWS Office.

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 http://newstandardbluegrass.com.


Storm-report map for March 13, 2021, showing the tornado outbreak in Texas. Map from the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Service, accessed online at https://www.spc.noaa.gov/exper/archive/event.php?date=20210313, on 3/16/21.

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 one of the oldest known photograph of a tornado, possibly changed from an original, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).  Photo accessed from the NOAA Photo Library, online at https://www.photolib.noaa.gov/; specific URL for the image was https://www.photolib.noaa.gov/Collections/National-Weather-Service/Meteorological-Monsters/Tornadoes/emodule/643/eitem/2777, as of 3/16/21.


Following is information quoted from “Tornado Safety,” by Roger Edwards at the National Weather Service/Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma, accessed online at https://www.spc.noaa.gov/faq/tornado/safety.html, 3/12/21.

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 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HeOsOxecOaw&feature=player_embedded] 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.


Used for Audio

Seth Borenstein, Tornado forecasting improves, but still deaths keep coming, AP News [Associated Press], March 5, 2019.

Kevin Myatt, Weather Journal: It just takes one tornado to be deadly, Roanoke Times, March 5, 2019.

Roger Edwards at the National Weather Service/Storm Prediction Center (Norman, Okla.), “The Online Tornado FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions about Tornadoes,” online at https://www.spc.noaa.gov/faq/tornado/index.html#Safety.  This site has links to many tornado topics, including tornado safety.

National Weather Service, “Weather and Water Events Preparedness Calendar,” online at https://www.weather.gov/safety/events_calendar.  This page lists events, such as tornado preparedness days, by state).

NOAA/National Centers for Environmental Information, “U.S. Tornado Climatology/Average Annual Number of Tornadoes 1991-2010,” online at https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/climate-information/extreme-events/us-tornado-climatology; and “Tornado Alley,” online at https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/climate-information/extreme-events/us-tornado-climatology/tornado-alley.

Anna Norris, What To Do if You See a Tornado While You're Driving, The Weather Channel, February 25, 2016. 

UStornadoes.com, “Annual and monthly tornado averages for each state,” online at https://www.ustornadoes.com/2016/04/06/annual-and-monthly-tornado-averages-across-the-united-states/.

Virginia Department of Emergency Management, “Tornadoes,” online at https://www.vaemergency.gov/tornadoes.

For More Information about Severe Weather and Weather Preparedness

American Red Cross, “How to Prepare for Emergencies,” online at http://www.redcross.org/prepare; or contact your local chapter.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), “Weather Radio All Hazards” network, online at http://www.nws.noaa.gov/nwr/.

National Weather Service, “National Weather Service Safety Tips,” online at http://www.weather.gov/safety.

National Weather Service, “Severe Weather Awareness Week for Virginia, March 16-19, 2021,” online at https://www.weather.gov/akq/SevereWeatherAwareness.

National Weather Service/Storm Prediction Center, online at http://www.spc.noaa.gov/.  The Storm Prediction Center’s daily storm-report maps and notes are available online at http://www.spc.noaa.gov/climo/online/; from that link, you can also access the Center’s archive of maps and reports going back several years. 

U.S. Department of Homeland Security, “Plan Ahead for Disasters,” online at. https://www.ready.gov/.


All Water Radio episodes are listed by category at the Index link above (http://www.virginiawaterradio.org/p/index.html).  See particularly the “Weather/Climate/Natural Disasters” subject category. 

Following is the link to an episode on tornado research:

Episode 342, 11-14-16.

Following are links to other spring-themed episodes.

Eastern Phoebe – Episode 416, 4-16-18.
Frog and Toad Medley – Episode 408, 2-19-18.
Rhododendrons – Episode 574, 4-26-21.
Spring arrival episode – Episode 569, 3-22-21.
Spring forest wildflowers – Episode 573, 4-19-21.
Spring Peepers – Episode 570, 3-29-21.
Spring signals for fish – Episode 571, 4-5-21.
Spring sounds serenades – Episode 206, 3-14-14 and Episode 516, 3-16-20.
Virginia Bluebells – Episode 521, 4-20-20.
Warblers and spring bird migration – Episode 572, 4-12-21.


Following are some Virginia Standards of Learning (SOLs) that may be supported by this episode’s audio/transcript, sources, or other information included in this post.

2018 Science SOLs

Grades K-5: Earth and Space Systems

2.6 – There are different types of weather on Earth.

2.7 – Weather patterns and seasonal changes affect plants, animals, and their surroundings.

4.4 – Weather conditions and climate effects on ecosystems and can be predicted.

Grades K-5: Earth Resources

3.8 – Natural events and humans influence ecosystems.

Grade 6

6.7 – Air has properties and the Earth’s atmosphere has structure and is dynamic.

Earth Science

ES.11 – The atmosphere is a complex, dynamic system subject to long-and short-term variations.

ES.12 – The Earth’s weather and climate result from the interaction of the sun’s energy with the atmosphere, oceans, and the land. 

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.

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.7 – national government organization and powers.

GOVT.8 – state and local government organization and powers.

Virginia’s SOLs are available from the Virginia Department of Education, online at http://www.doe.virginia.gov/testing/.

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.

Episode 483, 7-29-19 – on buoyancy and drag, for middle school and high school.

Episode 524, 5-11-20 – on sounds by water-related animals, for elementary school through high school.

Episode 531, 6-29-20 – on various ways that animals get water, for 3rd and 4th grade.

Episode 539, 8-24-20 – on basic numbers and facts about Virginia’s water resources, for 4th and 6th grade.