Mississippi Severe Weather Preparedness Week is Feb. 3-7, marking the beginning of what is historically a weather-active season.
Union County, like the rest of Mississippi, is no stranger to damaging winds, flooding, hail and tornadoes. The state ranks near the top in number of tornadoes, long-track and violent tornadoes and tornado-related fatalities.
Part of the problem is that tornadoes are often difficult to spot in Mississippi because of the terrain and tree lines. Also, many Mississippi tornadoes are rain-wrapped or occur at night. And despite a history of tornadoes, residents have only recently begun to build homes or other structures with tornadoes in mind.
All of this makes it more important for residents to stay aware of severe weather warnings, have a shelter and have a plan for their families to help avoid injuries or even death.
The National Weather Service recognizes 17 noteworthy tornadoes as having moved through Union County in the past 50 years.
The most serious recent twisters in terms of injuries and deaths occurred in 2001, 2000, 1997 and 1984. A 1,000-yard-wide tornado moved from Lafayette through Blue Springs to Prentiss County Feb. 24, 2001 causing six deaths and 73 injuries along its 52-mile path. In 2000, one nearly as wide and long moved from Yalobusha to Union County before dissipating northwest of town and injuring seven along the way.
The 1997 storm injured 17 when it hit March 1, hitting Lafayette, Pontotoc and Union Counties. It moved southeast of New Albany ending near the Prentiss County line.
Probably the tornado that had the most impact locally came April 21, 1984. It went through Yalobusha, Tallahatchie, Lafayette, Pontotoc and Union Counties, causing damage from West Union to north New Albany. Only 10 yards wide, it travelled 99 miles, killed 15 and injured 76.
Beyond most people’s memories, a monster tornado March 16, 1942 moved through Union County on a 110-mile path that killed 63 and injured 500.
In many of the earlier storms, the public had little or no warning but, today, that is not the case.
Radar has improved and TV stations often provide continuous live coverage during stormy weather. Weather alert radios are more reliable and selective in narrowing the area to be warned and a large assortment of weather, radar and alert services are available for smart phones – most either free or very inexpensive.
A free service available to Union Countians is Code Red, provided by county government through Three Rivers Planning and Development District.
A person may sign up for the program for a landline or cellular phone. When a flash flood, severe thunderstorm or tornado warning is issued for an area, all the phones of those signed up in that area receive a phone warning message. If the phone is not answered, Code Red will attempt to leave a voice mail or all back in a few minutes. It can even send an email if necessary. The warning can be sent to as few as a handful of homes or a large area, reducing the instances of false alarms.
Residents may sign up by going to the Three Rivers website, www.trpdd.com/codered.
Safety hints from the National Weather Service
When a tornado warning is issued:
· Get inside a sturdy, well-built structure.
· Get on the lowest floor and in an interior room such as a hall, closet or bathroom. Get in a room that does not have any windows.
· Use something to protect your head such as a helmet, blankets, mattresses, pillows, cushions. Use something that will provide more protection than just your hands.
· If you are in a car: do not try to outrun a tornado. Take shelter in a sturdy building nearby. If none is available, get out of the car and get into the lowest part of the ground such as a ditch.
· Never take shelter under highway overpasses. Many are not constructed properly to provide adequate shelter, especially as the wind speeds increase as the tornado passes over.
· Mobile homes are not safe shelters. Plan to take shelter in a more sturdy building nearby or if no other shelter is available, get low to the ground in a ditch.
· For those in schools, nursing homes, hospitals, airports and shopping centers: take shelter in the designated shelter area. Stay away from large windows or glassed areas. Stay away from large rooms like dining halls, gymnasiums or warehouses because they have weakly supported roofs.
Tips from MEMA:
To make sure you are prepared before, during and after severe weather, be sure to have an emergency disaster kit like this one recommended by MEMA:
· Flashlights with extra batteries. Use flashlights instead of candles when the power goes out.
· Portable radio with extra batteries.
· NOAA Weather Radio.
· Non-perishable food for at least 3 days.
· Bottled water (1 gallon per person per day).
· First Aid Kit with prescription medications.
· Bedding and clothing for each family member.
· Blankets and towels.
· Plastic dishes/eating utensils.
· Baby supplies (food, diapers, medication).
· Pet supplies (food, leash & carrier, vaccination records).
· Toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, shampoo, towelettes, other toiletries.
· Copies of important documents such as driver’s license, SS card, insurance policies, birth and marriage certificates.
· Cash, enough to fill up your vehicle with gas and travelers checks.
· Helmet (bicycle, football, etc.) to protect your head during a tornado.