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Storm smarts: Preparation key in weathering severe weather in Wilson County

By Sara McManamy-Johnson [email protected] • Updated Mar 8, 2014 at 1:11 AM

Spring is less then two weeks away, meaning consistently warmer temperatures are likely not far behind.

But while Wilson County residents can soon put thoughts of “Polar Vortexes” and “Snow Domes” to the back of their minds – at least until next winter – those thoughts will soon be replaced by “spring storms.”

And emergency responders have already started planning ahead in that direction.

“We’re gearing up for that now,” said Lebanon Fire Chief Chris Dowell.

He said the department is making sure response plans are in place and that reserve trucks are in good working condition and properly equipped.

“What we do is we try to make sure all of our resources are in the right area,” said Dowell.

History has shown that severe weather can happen year-round – Mt. Juliet was hit by tornadoes in January last year – but April, May and June typically see an increase in the number of severe storms.

And although Middle Tennessee has a reputation as being more prone to tornadoes, Wilson Emergency Management Agency Captain Steve Spencer said that’s not actually the case.

“We’re not necessarily more prone, but a lot of our severe weather, a lot of our tornadoes, occur at night,” said Spencer. “We don’t have more tornadoes than other parts of the country, but a lot of our tornadoes are hidden in rain, a lot of them are hidden in darkness.”

He said that before the tornado that hit Joplin, Mo., Tennessee actually led the nation in tornado-related deaths. 

“We don’t have more tornadoes than Kansas and Oklahoma, but we are known for having more tornadoes that cause deaths,” said Spencer. “Our tornadoes here have a tendency to wrap themselves in rain until you don’t see them until they’re on top of you.” 

He said the issue is further compounded by terrain. Hills and trees further block the view of tornadoes, which also contributes to the number of deaths.

Dowell noted that Lebanon has been relatively fortunate weather-wise considering the hits neighboring cities and counties have taken in the past, but that doesn’t remove the threat or the need for preparation.

“At our old Hartmann Drive station that we’re remodeling right now, a tornado came across it, back in ‘98 I think,” recalled Dowell. “It came right up West Main. So the threat is there. We know that it can happen to us any time.”

But while most people tend to automatically think of tornadoes when severe weather threatens, the more frequent threats for Wilson County tend to be wind damage and flooding.

“Most of ours is wind damage,” said Dowell. "Mostly trees blowing over and some flooding in different spots.”

According to Spencer, flooding is not a new issue for the county.

“We definitely have a history of flooding. We learned that back in 2010,” said Spencer. “We’ve had floods on the square, and there’s a history of flooding in Wilson County that goes way back 100 years.”

Dowell said the square is so prone to flooding because it sits so low in comparison to the surrounding area.

Given Wilson County’s history of flooding, WEMA and Lebanon Fire Department both have personnel trained for water rescues. 

WEMA also has watercraft available to use in the event of flooding, while the fire department has special wetsuits and about a dozen swiftwater rescue team members.

“They know when flooding hits, they’re on call,” said Dowell. “Whatever they’re doing, they stop what they’re doing and head to the station to get their gear.”

Another key danger associated with severe storms is lightning.

“My biggest concern for lightning is summertime popup storms,” said Spencer.

He explained that with springtime storms, where forecasters generally can track the storms well before they reach Wilson County and people can plan their days accordingly, summertime popup storms often happen while people are outside.

He said they’re particularly dangerous when children are outside playing on ball fields and there aren’t shelters available for the number of people there.

In situations such as that, he said the best recourse would be for the event’s organizers to have someone monitor the weather and if storms pop up, simply stop the game and let people go to their cars to wait them out.

“That will be some protection until the storm passes,” said Spencer. “If you’re in a vehicle and lightning strikes, the lightning tends to go around the shell of that vehicle and ground itself.”

Severe storms are going to happen, regardless of what anybody does. And while there will always be risks associated with those storms, there are also steps people can take to help mitigate those risks.

“We always suggest having a NOAA weather radio,” said Spencer. “The NOAA weather radio will give them alerts of severe weather and tornadoes directly from the national weather service.”

And it may seem like common sense, but if you’re already inside when a storm threatens, stay there.

“Don’t look outside, don’t go outside; that’s never good,” said Dowell. “Even though the tornado, it may be far off, but you’ve still got straight-line winds and stuff blowing around and if you step outside, you take a chance on something hitting you.”

If you have a basement or a storm shelter, go there. Otherwise, go to an interior room on your home’s lowest level and close the doors.

“If you can put as many walls as you possibly can between you and the outside, that is your best resort,” said Dowell. 

Spencer also suggested to get down on the floor, cover your head and huddle together with other family members to protect each other.

“If there’s a direct hit to someone’s home from a tornado, there’s going to be debris, walls are going to collapse, things like that,” said Spencer. 

You should also consider making a plan for where you will go and what you will need and then practicing it ahead of time.

“If your tornado plan says that you’re going to go to an interior room in a lower level of your house, then practice – take the family and the pets and go into that room. Just see how it feels,” said Spencer.

If you happen to be driving when a storm hits, Spencer advised getting off the road and waiting it out.

“Try to find a safe place off the highway,” said Spencer. “Go ahead and exit the interstate. Find a parking lot somewhere off the travel portion of the highway, and just sit and wait it out.”

He said you should not seek shelter under bridges.

“That’s really the last place you want go because that bridge will create a wind tunnel of its own and it can actually pull you out from under the bridge,” said Spencer.

He said as an absolute last resort, pull off to the side, get out of your vehicle and lie down in a low-lying ditch.

“A tornado will pick up anything it can get under or in,” he explained. “If you’re in a position where the wind cannot get under you or through you, then you’ll be a lot safer. If you’re down in the ditch down on the ground the tornado will have a hard time getting under you down in that ditch.”

If the worst does happen and a tornado hits your home while you’re there, Spencer said you should try to stay where you are and wait for emergency crews.

“If there are houses that are down, you’re going to have power lines down,” said Spencer. “A lot of those power lines may or may not still be live, so you don’t really want to get out and start wandering around until the emergency services get there and they’re able to get the power shut down.”

Similarly, he said that in the event of flooding, you should try to keep yourself out of the water and wait for emergency crews to rescue you.

“You don’t really want to go wading through the water because a lot of that water’s going to be moving and a lot of that water’s going to have debris in it that can cause worse injuries,” he said.

If you’re driving and encounter flooded roads, turn around.

“Don’t cross those flooded roads,” said Spencer.

Water could be deeper than it appears, and it often moves swiftly and could easily pick up your vehicle.

Anyone interested in learning more about severe weather in Middle Tennessee can attend a free storm spotter training class March 29 from 10 a.m. to noon at the WEMA office, located at 110 Oak Street.

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