Are you ready for severe weather?

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This week is North Carolina’s Severe Weather Preparedness Week. We observe it every year at the beginning of climatological spring – usually during the first full week of March.

To be considered severe, a thunderstorm must have at least one of the following: winds in excess of 58 miles per hour, hail at least one inch in diameter, or a tornado. Notice lightning and heavy rain are not listed as requirements for a storm to be categorized as severe, although they typically occur with severe thunderstorms. A storm without any of those three qualifiers is just a storm. It may be a strong storm, but it’s not defined as severe.

During Severe Weather Preparedness Week, local meteorologists will explain different aspects of severe weather and they will include floods and lightning because they can produce serious damage. This may be cause for confusion for some people. I often have friends report heavy rain when I ask for severe storm reports on my social media pages. Technically, heavy rain is not worthy of a storm report, unless of course, it’s causing flooding and washing out roadways or creating mudslides. In those cases, it may not make a storm technically severe by this definition, but as a threat to life and property, it becomes noteworthy.

Lightning is dangerous and should be taken seriously. It is a requirement for thunderstorms because you can’t have thunder without lightning. Occasionally, we see storms with copious amounts of cloud-to-ground lightning, and although it does not make a storm severe, it makes it a greater danger to life and property. The more cloud-to-ground strikes in a storm, the higher the risk of a person, a tree, or a home being struck. Remember if you are close enough to hear thunder, you are close enough to be struck by lightning – even if you can’t see the cloud.

April 16, 2011 map

National Weather Service Raleigh Office summary map of the April 16, 2011 tornado outbreak across North Carolina

Tornadoes can happen any time of year, but spring, summer and fall are the most likely times they occur across most of the United States. April tends to be the month North Carolina sees the most tornadoes with May and September close behind. I shy away from using the phrase “tornado season” these days because it seems to lull people into a false sense of security at other times of the year. If we have warm, moist air ahead of a cooler, drier front with the right “other” ingredients in place, we could see tornadoes in December and January – and we have.

Beyond understanding the terminology of storms and drilling (literally or imaginatively) during the state-wide tornado drill on Wednesday morning at 9:30, there are other things you can do to prepare.  Here are a few that come to mind:

  1. Be situationally aware. I wrote about the idea last year at this time. Here’s the link in case you missed it.
  2. Walk around your yard (if you have one) and really look at your trees and your home. Do you see any signs of weakness? If so, you should be proactive rather than waiting for the worst to happen and being forced to be reactive.
  3. Know and understand your insurance policies. Do you have coverage for weather damage? If so, what exactly is covered? Do you have an inventory of what is in your home in case it needs to be replaced?
  4. Have a preparedness kit. While this is something meteorologists really harp on during hurricane season, if we have a tornado outbreak or a winter storm with massive power outages, it could prove useful then, too.
  5. Most importantly, have a reliable way to receive weather alerts that could include advisories, watches, and warnings. A NOAA weather radio with battery backup is still the most reliable source available. You can also check to make sure your mobile phone can receive alerts and that it is actually set to receive alerts. Check the settings! When you receive an alert, heed it. Know what it means and what your next steps are.