Of Earl, Tornados and Emergency Plans

On Monday I posted an item about the Ready New York presentation I gave last week, barely an hour after a tornado warning for Brooklyn and Staten Island had been called off. As it turned out, the National Weather Service investigated the weather records and damage and determined that two tornadoes had touched down in New York City–one in Brooklyn and the other in Queens–along with a macroburst.

Tornadoes are rare in New York. At a rough estimate, I’d say we have one about every two or three years and they are usually rather small. Hurricanes are also rare, but even a category 1 storm could do serious damage to a city that is mostly built on islands. Yet at the beginning of the month, right before the Labor Day weekend, hurricane Earl was making his way up the eastern seaboard and the National Hurricane Center was issuing warnings for coastal areas, including New York. What a way to celebrate National Preparedness Month!

Sometimes people ask me which emergencies are the worst. There is no answer: every emergency is different and the degree of damage depends on many factors. But tornadoes and hurricanes have to be among the most potentially dangerous. In some ways they are quite similar; both are marked by high winds and heavy rain, and both move in a circular pattern. Yet in other ways they are very different.

Hurricanes are large, slow moving and long-lived. A hurricane takes days, sometimes weeks, to develop over warm ocean water, beginning as a tropical disturbance. Some never progress beyond the level of tropical depression or tropical storm, while others become powerful hurricanes. Because they take so long to develop and move slowly, hurricanes can be tracked by radar and satellites and their approximate destinations can be predicted with some degree of accuracy in time to issue warnings and evacuate those at risk.

Tornadoes develop quickly. They are much smaller in area, but their winds can be just as damaging as those of hurricanes. Evacuation isn’t possible. Emergency managers hope to issue warnings no less than eleven minutes before a tornado forms–barely time to take refuge in a basement (the best location) or other protected place. For that reason I find tornadoes more scary, though that’s just my personal feelings. It probably has more to do with the fact that I remember living through a hurricane when I was a child, but have never experienced a tornado.

As I think about the two weather emergencies New York City has faced this month, I wonder how many people made preparedness plans for hurricane Earl which they never used, but then put some of those plans into action when the severe storms and tornadoes struck last week. Because I do realize that information alone is not enough–many people don’t take action to prepare for emergencies until they feel threatened.

The good news is that there are three things you can do to be better prepared for emergencies, no matter what kind: Make a plan. Get a kit. Be informed.

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