Viewpoint of an Emergency management director

tornadoes from the viewpoint of an Emergency management director. The writer explores the forces of a tornado, the type of damage that they do and the steps that can be taken to warn communities of their possible arrival.

Out of all the natural disasters that can occur, tornadoes are often considered the most damaging and the most dangerous. While earthquakes are unpredictable, they have not developed a history in the United States of frequent occurrence or many deaths. Hurricanes, with the exception of Katrina usually provide enough advanced warning that the emergency management coordinators can provide notice to evacuate. Tornadoes, however, often strike with little or no warning and they can come in “swarms” during optimum weather conditions (Gugliotta, 2003).

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Tornadoes are a nightmare for emergency management teams that must try to predict them, warn those who are in the possible path but be careful not to cry wolf to often lest people stop believing the warnings. As an emergency management director it is important to understand the damage a tornado can do, the steps that can be taken to assess that damage and the ways that the tornadoes can be pre-empted and warned.


The events surrounding a tornado as well as the tornado itself can do significant damage to structures, vehicles and people that are it the path of the storm (Gugliotta, 2003). Storms that are capable of producing a tornado are also able to produce high winds and sheer winds that can do damage to trees by uprooting them, houses by ripping off the roofs, vehicles by overturning them and power by knocking down wires. In addition to the high winds and sheer winds the storm that is capable of producing a tornado often produces hail in sizes from peas to softballs. Hail can be extremely damaging as it dents ve3hicles or injures people who are outside when it arrives. One of the most lethal effects of a tornado producing storm is the lightening. Lightening strikes can and do arrive in the thousands when a tornado producing storm approaches. Lightening creates damage in two ways. When there is a direct strike it can create killing amounts of electricity. When it hits a structure or tree it can also spark a fire and the fire can do a significant amount of damage.

When a storm approaches that produces a tornado the tornado is one of the most damaging natural weather events known to man (Stuever, 2003). Tornadoes have been known to rip houses off of their foundation and throw them across the street., Tornado winds are so strong that people who have been in the path of one reported that their ears popped as the pressure changes occurred when the tornado came.


In recent history damage assessments have improved for the purpose of studying the tornadoes. When a tornado comes through an area the emergency management team immediately begins to compile data about the tornado and one of the elements that they use to measure the tornado forces and assign it an F. category is the damage that it left in its wake.

Once the tornado passes the emergency management team goes to the site of the tornado touch down and follows its path until they find the most damaged areas. Within those areas they begin to measure wind force and other elements by viewing and taking data about the actual structure damage that is left behind. Walls being down are studied to see which way they collapsed. Staircases that remained are studied to see what wind damage they sustained and from which direction. All of the elements of the damage are calculated to help place an F. category rating on the tornado.

The width of the tornado can be measured through the use of computer and radar technology. This also helps to determine the category the emergency management team wants to place the tornado in.


The technological ability of warning the public about tornadoes has grown significantly in recent years. At one point in history there were no warning systems. Eventually there were tornado sirens that would sound off if someone was told there was a tornado and that person could get to the sirens in time to sound them. Today, however society has an extremely advanced ability to be forewarned of a possible or actual tornado sighting before it ever touches ground. One method commonly used is a Doppler radar system that can detect a tornado while it is still in the sky and warn those in its path to take cover before it touches down. There are times that it won’t touch down but is swirling in the sky. In addition to the Doppler radar system there are technologies.

Even with today’s technologies at society disposal one of the most relied on methods for tornado warnings is the use of trained human storm chasers and spotters. The tornado spotters are trained to go out into weather that is capable of producing tornadoes, follow those storms and report in by phone if one is seen on the ground. They are able to detect it on the ground whereas the Doppler radar system can only tell if there is a tornado in the storm whether or not it has touched down.

In this area of the nation, emergency management departments have helped to push through legislation that requires a minimum amount of sustained wind capabilities when structures are being built. In addition, many structures are built with underground basements or areas in the building above ground that are designed to withstand high winds from a tornado. In the event a tornado is headed that way people are instructed to enter the “safe room” and shut and lock the door or go to the basement of the building and get under a sturdy piece of furniture.

The year 1999 will be most remembered for the large, long-tracked tornado that damaged over 8,000 homes and businesses as it moved across a highly populated area south and southwest of Oklahoma City on May 3rd. The fact that only 42 fatalities were recorded in Oklahoma with this monstrous storm is a tribute to the effectiveness of the public partnership that produced and disseminated timely and accurate outlooks, watches, and warnings before and during the tornado. (Schaefer, 2000) ”

Other steps that need to be taken include tornado warning sirens in every area of the nation where tornadoes are prevalent. In recent years many cities and towns have made the decision to remove their tornado warning sirens. They cite the fact that cable can warn people if one is coming however, if the power goes out there is no cable. In addition if people are asleep, they will not hear a television that is off. A tornado siren system is an inexpensive measure that can save hundreds of lives with a simple blast of a siren to let people know a tornado is on the ground and they need to take immediate cover. With today’s technology tornado siren systems can be made to react to a command from a remote site which means that people with Doppler radar abilities can sound the sirens from hundreds of miles away if the radar says a tornado is in that area.

There are federal regulations in place with regard to warning the public of tornadoes so that it is a standardized method that can be used nationwide.

Individual states have also adopted measures and legislation with regards to tornado warnings and the designation of safe buildings in schools.

One of the problems with tornadoes is their unpredictability. They often occur with little to now advance warning. The emergency management field needs to continue to improve the spotting technology and at some point be able to predict the pre-tornado storm well enough to know without a doubt that a tornado is likely to happen and where.


Tornadoes are one of nature’s most powerful forces. Current technology is finally at a place in which conditions that make a tornado likely can be recognized. As emergency management teams nation wide continue to improve and use the available tools for spotting and warning the public about tornadoes, the public will become increasingly safer each season.


Schaefer, Joseph T. (2000) TORNADOES OF 1999: Twisters go urban.


Guy Gugliotta (2003) Tornadoes’ Effects Defy Simple Models, Theories

The Washington Post

Stuever, Hank (2003) Storm Track: Dreaming of Tornadoes

The Washington Post

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