Tornado season thankfully got off to a quiet start this year with a uneventful March and early April. But we Tennesseans know that a beautiful spring day can turn to deadly severe weather with little warning. What makes tornadoes so destructive and dangerous is not just their fury, but also their unpredictability.
During my time in Congress, I’ve supported new research that can improve forecasting methods and save lives. Since becoming Chairman of the Committee on Science and Technology four years ago, I’ve been in a unique position to shepherd these projects through the House of Representatives.
This year the House passed a bill to support cutting-edge research into the modeling and forecasting of windstorms and tornadoes. The Natural Hazards Risk Reduction Act will strengthen the National Windstorm Impact Reduction Program, a program dedicated to research and development into windstorms and related technologies.
Less is known about the formation of tornadoes than is known about other weather phenomena. They can’t be tracked by satellite like hurricanes or blizzards, and researchers currently don’t know why certain storms spawn more powerful or multiple tornadoes.
With more precise data about the nature of these storms, researchers hope to be able to increase the lead time on tornado warnings. A few extra moments can make all the difference for a family seeking shelter.
More accurate forecasting can also reduce false alarms. Currently, 73 percent of tornado warnings turn out to be false alarms, inconveniencing many and making it more likely that even the most well-prepared might let their guard down when a warning is sounded. Reliable forecasting will ensure people take every warning seriously and respond appropriately.
These technologies are the best weapons we have against the power of Tennessee’s storms. However, an accurate warning is only as good as the safety plan it sets in motion.
While the guidelines for tornado safety are probably familiar to many, they are always worth reviewing. Every Tennessee home should have a designated interior room in which the family can gather in the event of storms. Be sure to keep this shelter uncluttered and stocked with a first aid kit, comfortable clothes and blankets, and three gallons of water per person. Think about necessities and medications certain family members might need, especially babies and seniors. Flashlights and extra batteries are important because candles are extremely dangerous during and after a storm due to the risk of ruptured gas lines.
Having a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather radio in your home is the best way to receive the latest warnings from the National Weather Service. Weather radios are sold in a variety of stores for around $20. They have an average range of 40 miles and work automatically 24 hours a day, seven days a week, while power and phone service may be interrupted.
I am hopeful that in the coming years, Tennesseans will have ample time to secure themselves in a safe and comfortable place well before twisters appear on the horizon. While I work in Congress to secure the research that will make that future possible, I hope Tennesseans do all they can to prepare themselves for the unexpected.
(Congressman Bart Gordon of Murfreesboro represents Tennessee's 6th district in the U.S. House of Representatives and chairs the House Committee on Science and Technology.)