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Keven Moore: Recent string of devastating tornados leaves severe weather safety lessons to be learned

The tornado system that hit Western Kentucky Friday, December 10 is now the deadliest to ever come through Kentucky, and it will be studied for years to come.

Emergency planners, business owners, and families will be asking questions for weeks and months to come. What could we have done better? How could we have saved more lives? How could we further improve our advance warning systems? Do I need to revamp or change my emergency management plan?

Such questions have been asked for decades, which has helped propel the innovation of our advanced warning systems today. Growing up before weather radar and cell phones, tornado sirens were the most advanced method of warning the town about an approaching storm. Someone would spot a tornado and either activate the sirens themselves or phone in a report to officials who were tasked with flipping the switch. If you were outside and heard the mechanical wail, you knew it was time to run for cover.

A tweet from the National Weather Service in Paducah warning of severe weather threat on Friday Dec. 10.

Today’s early detection and warnings are far more advanced. The National Weather Service (NWS), both at the Storm Prediction Center and the local NWS forecast offices like the one in Paducah, Kentucky, did an excellent job of predicting the threat and providing timely watches and warnings before the tornados struck.

We’re safer today than any generation before because of technological advancements in storm detection and the ability to warn people well in advance. Still well over a hundred people were killed last week because the warnings were not received or acted upon.

The day before the storms, I followed news reports that suggested the weather patterns were shaping up to potentially cause some very severe tornados that would start tracking through a large swath of the United States well into the night. All the ingredients were there, and I had even mentioned to my wife that we may want to be prepared for what may be coming, even though we had a remote chance of being affected.

The following morning, we learned that 30 tornadoes were reported across six states overnight — Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, Mississippi, and Tennessee. The destruction in Mayfield and Dawson Springs was unimaginable, altering those towns forever.

Overnight tornadoes are less common and generally less severe than their daytime counterparts — but they’re twice as likely to kill according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Nighttime tornadoes are difficult to forecast, difficult to see to confirm, and hard to respond to. They also make it difficult to notify those who are in their path because much of the population is asleep.

With the advanced warnings offered the day before and day of, and with cellphone warnings, my first question is how could people have not been better prepared for these tornadoes? How could the candle factory in Mayfield and the Amazon plant in Illinois not have been better prepared?

Many people are disconnected from the news of the day and do not follow along on their phones. Despite the advance warnings, and the ferocity of the storm, sheltering in place was not much of an option at the candle plant. There were limited places to hide inside, although most employees did have time to seek shelter. Many gathered inside the designated tornado shelter, huddling in a central hallway which was the strongest part of the building according to a company spokesperson.

Tornados across the midwest Friday Dec. 10 caused devastating damage and loss of life. (Photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The question remains — why didn’t the candle plant send their employees home early, as it appears they had plenty of time to see a supercell was developing? Sending employees home every time severe storms approach may not be the most cost-effective option, but business owners and production managers may want to look to revise their emergency response plans after witnessing the candle plant devastation in Mayfield.

Today our smartphones are our best line of defense in severe storm situations. Cellphones are equipped with the ability to receive emergency alerts. But will the cellphone users take the message seriously and act accordingly? These push alerts pop up on your phone for imminent weather dangers like tornadoes and flash floods, child abduction (AMBER) alerts, and other emergency messages sent by local and national officials.

If a tornado warning is issued the system works by sending out an alert to every phone connected to a cell phone tower that’s located within the National Weather Service’s warning. You only get the alert if you’re in the warning area. They’re great if you’re out on the road in an unfamiliar area or just sleeping through a stormy night.

However, cellphones still have their limitations and are sometimes unreliable. If your signal is weak, the battery is drained, if you accidentally left it on silent, or if you fell asleep and left your phone on the couch downstairs, it cannot warn of approaching severe weather.

Keven Moore works in risk management services. He has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Kentucky, a master’s from Eastern Kentucky University and 25-plus years of experience in the safety and insurance profession. He is also an expert witness. He lives in Lexington with his family and works out of both Lexington and Northern Kentucky. Keven can be reached at kmoore@higusa.com

After six workers were killed inside the Amazon delivery facility in Edwardsville, Illinois, Amazon officials are now reviewing their ban on cell phones. Amazon employees are now speaking out about the controversial mobile phone ban as it renders them incapable of calling for help or accessing information about imminent storms or other dangerous conditions.

To bolster that argument, a woman trapped in the candle factory in Mayfield posted a 10-minute desperate plea for help on Facebook Live. The harrowing video shows a terrified woman trapped mostly in total darkness as she begged help.

The question still remains, would any of those six Amazon employees killed by the tornado have reacted any differently if they had their phones with them and were able to receive warning of the approaching tornado? We’ll never know, but this should force such policies to be questioned.

Despite their benefits, personal cell phones may cause problems in the workplace. There are reasons for banning the use of the devices, from loss of production to safety concerns from being distracted and employment practice liabilities to security concerns by recording confidential information. Standing in the dust and debris of last week’s tornadoes, many want to revisit these cell phone bans.

To increase your odds of surviving a tornado I would recommend:

• Make sure that all your wireless emergency alerts (WEA) and weather apps are functioning properly. Take the time to download the Weather Apps and to set your notifications to warn you of any approaching severe weather.

• Turn on your phone’s weather alerts and be “Weather Aware!”

• Pay attention to your weather forecasts at all times. The more advanced notice you have of approaching severe weather, the more time you will have to reach safety.

• Have a Plan B. In addition to your cell phone, purchase a weather radio that remains on at all times at your home or even at work.

• Always have an exit plan. If you are at home, work, visiting a friend, attending church, attending school, or staying overnight in a hotel, have a plan of where you can go to seek shelter.

Be Safe My Friends.

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