Where were you when your phone started wailing Wednesday night?
It was 9:55 p.m. The Emergency Broadcast Alert generations of Americans have heard mostly on radio and TV blared from mobile phones, together with a short text message sent to cellular customers in and around Wilkes-Barre:
Tornado Warning in this area til 10:30 PM EDT.
Take shelter now. Check local media. — NWS
Our night staff was working on a web update about the National Weather Service’s tornado and severe thunderstorm warnings as the message came across. But we were as surprised as most of you probably were by the screaming text message warning “take shelter now.”
How we personally reacted — and how many of you probably reacted — offers lessons for the future.
Our staff kept doing what they were doing: Continuing to work on stories and pages, getting ready for bed, heading home from a restaurant. None of us ran to the basement. Probably very few of you did, either. We all probably should have.
As many have kept saying over the past few days, “this really isn’t supposed to happen here.” That’s an understandable sentiment, but not exactly true.
This isn’t Tornado Alley. Our valley doesn’t resemble the flat Midwestern states where tornadoes occur frequently enough that shelters and municipal warning sirens and tornado drills are familiar fixtures in everyday life.
And yet, we collectively like to forget that tornadoes do happen here. Maybe it’s only once every year or two, and they’re typically a lot less powerful than the 130-mph EF2 twister that touched down Wednesday. Still, Pennsylvania ranks in the top 25 for tornado occurrence in the United States, averaging 20 per year, NWS notes.
Wilkes-Barre has generally been lucky. The really strong ones have seemed to touch down more often in rural areas, such as Harveys Lake, Mountain Top, Lake Carey and parts of the Poconos.
Wednesday it was our turn again — as it was in 1914 and 1917, for example — as Ed Lewis notes in a story in Sunday’s edition.
What can we do?
As Jennifer Learn-Andes points out in Sunday’s lead story, new construction in Pennsylvania must be able to withstand 90 mph winds. It’s probably not feasible to retrofit everything or start building for the higher winds more commonly experienced in other states.
In a region where old wooden houses line the hillsides, it’s chilling to think what would have happened if the storm had hit a residential neighborhood. But we have to think about it.
The NWS and other agencies offer important advice, including:
• Know the difference between tornado watches and warnings. A warning means that a tornado has been spotted, or that Doppler radar indicates a thunderstorm circulation which can spawn a tornado. Take immediate safety precautions.
• If you are at home or in a small building, go to the basement or to an interior room on the lowest floor. Avoid windows.
• If you are in a school, hospital, or shopping center, go to a pre-designated shelter area. Stay away from large open areas such as gyms or auditoriums. Hallways and small interior rooms offer the best protection. Do not go outside to your car.
• If you are in a high-rise, go to an small interior room or hallway on the lowest floor possible. Do not use the elevator.
Another good resource with more tips is on the agency’s Storm Prediction Center page: http://www.spc.noaa.gov/faq/tornado/#Safety.
The lesson: Be aware and be prepared to take shelter.
— Times Leader