Tampa Bay residents urged to plan ahead for tornadoes and active hurricane season
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, is predicting a hyperactive hurricane season with between 7 and 11 hurricanes with 3-6 severe storms. And with the nation still reeling from the catastrophic tornado that ripped through Moore, Oklahoma this week, people are taking severe weather seriously.
Charlie Paxton is a science and operations officer for the National Weather Service in Ruskin. He says summer-time tornadoes can present a huge threat to Floridians.
“What we’re getting into this summer where we have thunderstorms that develop rapidly, there isn’t a lot of wind sheer or wind associated in the upper levels, the thunderstorms are not well organized, but they grow quickly and they spawn tornadoes that occur very quickly and dissipate very quickly and we pick these up on our radar, but we don’t typically pick them up until they’re developing in the development stage and they can produce a funnel, cause some damage and then go back up very quickly.”
That’s different than what happened in Oklahoma. That tornado was what experts call a super cell and forecasters were able to issue a warning 16 minutes before the tornado hit.
That’s sound from a video taken during the Oklahoma tornado of a car radio broadcast updating people on the EF5 tornado as it tore a 17-mile trail of destruction that wiped out two elementary schools and killed 24 people. But without warning, that number could have been much higher.
“Once they develop, they usually last for quite a while and we have much more of a lead time on those. We see them develop and see the core circulation descend to the ground through our radar and get longer warning times. Now, the warning times even for those stronger cells are not that long. They’re long enough to go into a stronger structure and get into a safe area within a stronger structure.”
In places like Oklahoma, more and more homes have specially built storm shelters. That’s not the case in Florida. Paxton says there are still ways to keep safe when a tornado threatens.
“Mobile homes are not safe. Older structures that aren’t well built are typically not safe. The safest places to be would in a stronger home, a newer home, one that has newer building codes associated with it and then, inside the house too – stay away from windows, go into a small interior room – a bathroom with no windows, a closet with no windows, a closet with a stronger door, but the smaller your surrounding without windows, the better off one would be. Especially if it’s an interior type room – put as many walls between you and the outside as possible.”
Tornadoes in Florida can happen anytime of year, but they can also form during severe weather associated with hurricanes. Atlantic hurricane predictions are high this year because we’re in a weather pattern known as ENSO neutral. That means it’s neither a period of El Niño or La Niña which are determined by temperature changes in the Pacific Ocean. During neutral ENSO periods, wind sheer is low and that increases the chance of strong storms.
“That wind sheer that can lead to stronger tornadoes, it tends to distort the circulation of a tropical storm or a hurricane and tilts that circulation so that it’s not consolidated and it weakens. So the wind sheer is a good thing for us. We typically want wind sheer during the summer time.”
The Tampa Bay area hasn’t been directly hit by a major storm since 1921 and the entire state has been hurricane free since 2005. Paxton says that’s probably just luck and people should have evacuation plans in place just in case. Hurricane warnings go out days in advance, but for severe weather that’s a little more spontaneous, there are ways to receive warnings.
“We’ll compose the warning very quickly and transmit it and once we transmit it and once we transmit it, it goes to the media and it gets broadcast on TV. But in the middle of the night and not watching your favorite TV weather person, another way to get these warnings is through NOAA weather radio and the weather radio, when we send the warning out, will turn on in the middle of the night and broadcast our warning.”
Warning systems these days also tap into cell phone technology.
“And then for tornado, tsunamis and some other significant events, through phone carriers, text messages are sent out indicating that there’s a tornado warning or tsunami warning or earthquake warning. We typically don’t have to worry about tsunamis and earthquakes in this area, but we do have to worry about tornadoes.”
Experts recommend that anyone riding out a hurricane should have at least seven days worth water, non-perishable food and a non-electric can opener. The National Weather Service in Ruskin also recommends that people know what evacuation zone they live in and have a plan for elderly family members and pets.