Want fewer tornado deaths in Alabama? Here’s a start.

Updated: Mar. 11, 2019 at 6:09 PM CDT
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MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - Alabama, we have a problem. Our state ranks first in tornado deaths per capita since 1950, and sadly, we aren’t going to move out of that top spot anytime soon. Sunday’s tragic loss of 23 additional lives drives home the point that our state has a tornado death problem, and it’s one that we must work creatively, resourcefully, persistently - and most importantly, together, to solve.

The tornado problem is complex, far more so than we meteorologists would like to admit.

It’s not as simple as “too many people live in mobile homes” - this is a popular stance that the national media likes to throw out there, but it’s overly simplistic. To be clear, mobile homes do not offer adequate protection from tornadoes, and they contribute to our problem. But, this goes deeper. We’re going to have to think about a LOT of things - and think about them in new ways that challenge our existing views on tornado safety.

1. You must take personal responsibility for your personal safety. We tracked the Lee County storm all the way from Lowndes County to Lee County, all but screaming at everyone in front of it to get to their safe place NOW. Our tone especially picked up once the rotation tightened over far eastern Macon County.

But, we can’t help you if you aren’t paying any attention to the weather.

Take it seriously. Know that it can happen to you. Have multiple, reliable ways of getting weather warnings, and stay “in tune” with the weather forecast. We suggested the chance of severe weather and tornadoes on Sunday for DAYS leading up to the event, but there were still tons of people who had no idea the weather would turn bad.

Have a safe place in your home - and be sure everyone who lives in your home knows where to go. A closet, bathroom or hallway on the lowest floor of your home is the best option. Avoid large rooms. Bonus points if you aren’t under your hot water heater or HVAC unit in the attic - those can fall through the roof and hurt you.

Put a few helmets, blankets and pillows in your safe place - use those to protect your head. Also, put some hard-sole shoes in there - they protect your feet if you must walk outside after a tornado, when the ground is littered with nails, glass and other sharp objects. It’s also a good idea to have a whistle in there, so that first responders can find you quickly.

2. We must get better at predicting tornadoes. This one is underway already, and has been for some time. But, every time we expect a tornado, warn you of a tornado, and there’s NOT a tornado, that undermines the credibility of the entire weather warning process. As a whole, severe weather forecasts have never been more accurate - but there is still considerable room for improvement, and we must continue to make that improvement.

3. Alabama should add a robust weather safety lesson to school curriculum. In the traditional “Tornado Alley", there is a lifelong education process about tornado safety. Alabama needs to become a national leader in educating our young people about tornadoes.

I do school visits and go over tornado safety, but I’m just one guy. We can and should do more.

This needs to happen every year in every school, and it needs to be science-based, informative and memorable.

4. The technology of getting weather warnings to you must improve. I believe strongly that every home should have a NOAA Weather Radio and the WSFA Weather app - but, thousands and thousands of Alabamians have neither. Many rely on outdoor weather sirens (more on that later), which are not designed to wake you and often can’t be heard over the roar of a powerful tornado.

Thousands of people don’t watch traditional, linear television anymore. There are no warning alert systems built into Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Video or any of the other major video streaming services. There should be.

It’s time for the weather enterprise to truly innovate. We must develop new technology that gets life-saving weather alerts sent to EVERY platform. We should work with cable, satellite, AND streaming providers to ensure that everyone gets the most timely warning!

5. Relying exclusively on outdoor tornado sirens can get you killed. I have heard many, many people in Lee County say they didn’t hear a tornado siren. These sirens are designed to alert people who are outdoors, they are not designed to alert you in your home, with the TV and dishwasher running, kids yelling - over the roaring wind noise produced by an EF-4 tornado.

You must have multiple, reliable ways of getting weather warnings.

6. Construction codes should be modified to strengthen homes, and existing code should be enforced. In Lee County, some of the homes destroyed were not anchored to the foundation at all. Gravity was the only thing holding them down, so it should surprise no one that these homes were literally blown off the foundation. The cost of building homes that are correctly secured to the foundation is minimal.

7. If you build a house, BEFORE YOU BUILD, ask the builder questions. It’s important that you take an active role in your home’s construction. Ask the builder about using hurricane straps to help keep your roof from flying off. A quick Google search found these for 33 cents at a national home improvement chain. Insist on having your home’s sill plate bolted to the foundation. These simple additions - very inexpensive in the grand scheme of building a home - could save your life.

Retrofitting existing homes with hurricane straps is more costly and labor-intensive, so it’s best to do it while building the home. But, it can be done to existing structures. Check with a local home builder in your area to get a cost estimate.

8. Mobile homes will not protect you from most tornadoes. So, if you live in one, what should you do? If you can afford to put in a storm shelter of your own, that’s the best option.

You’re going to have to invest extra time and energy to keep you and your family safe when tornadoes are possible. You must pay more attention to the weather, period. Very few tornadoes are “surprises" any more, we can usually tell you a day or two in advance that we think there’s a chance of tornadoes. You must make plans hours before a tornado threatens!

First, my advice is to strike up a friendship with the closest person who lives in a sturdy, site-built home. It’s my belief that 99%+ of people are inherently kind and generous, and disasters like the one we’ve just gone through reinforce that belief. Now is a good time to initiate this friendship, and be open and honest about your need to occasionally visit them when tornadoes threaten.

If that’s not feasible, figure out the closest family member or friend who lives in a sturdy, site-built home.

As a third option, check into community or church storm shelters in your area.

In all of these scenarios, you need to estimate how long it would take you to reach that place - consider that it could be dark, raining, windy, and you may have to make this trek in the middle of the night. Ideally, you’d be able to reach this location in under 10 minutes.

If it takes you more than 10 minutes to reach the closest safe place, your best bet is to arrange to stay elsewhere when a tornado WATCH is issued.

Also, take steps to fortify your mobile home. Tornado winds are strongest near the core and weaken quickly away from that core. So, yes, if you’re on the fringe of a tornado track, or if the tornado isn’t very strong, these additional steps could save your life. First, check into the possibility of pouring a concrete foundation and anchoring the mobile home to it. If you can’t pour concrete, then there are anchoring systems that use rods/chains to attach the mobile home to the ground.

These options will still not offer adequate protection against a direct hit from most tornadoes. But. they will increase your odds if you’re on the fringe of a tornado, or if you’re in a lower intensity tornado.

9. Governments and other large institutions can and must help! I’d like to see banks offer reasonable financing for storm shelters - ideally, these could be built into the mortgage, so that the cost would be spread out over a long period of time. Federal grants that go to install more useless weather sirens should also be invested into better sheltering options and more innovative weather alert systems.

Government should help persuade major video streaming services to provide severe weather alerts.

The FCC and cable/satellite providers should modernize their rules that govern what channels you can see on TV.

For instance, Randolph and Cleburne counties in east Alabama fall under the Atlanta TV market. Having worked in that market, I can tell you that the average news manager at an Atlanta TV station could not find Lafayette or Wedowee, Alabama on a map. Not in a million, billion, or trillion years. They concentrate on larger population areas, and that’s their prerogative. I am not criticizing them.

But, I believe that Birmingham or Montgomery TV stations would serve the people in those counties better, and that difference in coverage could mean the difference between life and death in situations like Sunday.

The FCC should work with cable and satellite providers to give people in “fringe” counties - those located out on the edges of TV Designated Market Areas - more choices! If Atlanta TV wants to serve Chambers County, Alabama, make them compete for it. If my station wants to serve fringe counties, make us compete for it. This competition and added consumer choice would make all of us better - and keep people safer!

23 crosses, each bearing a name of a soul no longer with us, stand outside Providence Baptist Church.

Memorial for Sunday's tornado victims
Memorial for Sunday's tornado victims(WSFA 12 News)

The image of those crosses, and the names on them, are seared into my memory. We - ALL of us, the NWS, state, local and federal government, TV stations, me, you - must work together to guarantee that those deaths were not in vain.

Josh Johnson, WSFA First Alert Chief Meteorologist

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