Taking Tornado Warnings Seriously

Friday, July 30, 2010

It's peak season for severe summer weather. Just this week, the National Weather Service says a tornado tore through a half-mile stretch in the North Riverdale section of the Bronx, touching down along the property of the Hebrew Home for the Aged just west of Palisade Avenue on the east bank of the Hudson River.

Seven people were injured. No one died.

Ted Mieszczanski lives in the southern part of Riverdale. While his home was fine, when he drove around the neighborhood the next day, 254th Street was a mess. "It looked like a bomb went off," said Mieszczanski, "I mean there were trees that had been pulled out of the ground that were sitting in concrete and the concrete was turned over."

Just 10 minutes before the storm, the National Weather Service had issued a severe thunderstorm warning.

On rare occasions, WNYC interrupts scheduled programming for severe weather warnings, specifically tornado warnings -- and for important reasons, according to Gary Conti, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service.

"The tornados that typically occur here occur very quickly, are short-lived, and you don't get very much advanced warning," says Conti. 

That means people need to take action immediately when a "warning" is given, Conti stressed.

So when you hear a tornado warning, and you're here in the city, what's worth worrying about, and what's not?

"First thing you can be rather certain of is I don't think a tornado is going to blow over a high-rise building," said Don Dousenberry, a structural engineer with the firm Simpson, Gumpertz and Heger.

But, he says, regardless of the type of building you're in, there is a risk of damage to the facade, particularly to windows and architectural details like parapets and overhangs. Flying debris is also a significant risk, notes Dousenberry.

So here's what you can do according to the City's Office of Emergency Management:

Get inside. Go to a basement or the lowest point where you are.

If there's no shelter available underground, the next best step is to move to an interior space -- away from widows or external walls. That could mean spaces like a hallway or bathroom. 

The city also urges people who are in cars to get out and find shelter.

As a rule, the city says people should have an emergency kit on hand with water, nonperishable food, first-aid supplies, a battery-powered flashlight and radio, and any other items needed to survive several days without electricity.

Riverdale resident Mieszczanski says he was prepared with supplies if the tornado had actually hit his house.

Even though it didn't, he still says there's a lesson to be learned.

"I know the next time they say there's some serious weather I'm going to take it more seriously," said Mieszczanski. "It was a wake-up call."

While it might be a wake-up call, it's not necessarily cause for alarm: The last tornado to hit the Bronx was in 1974. In the rest of the five boroughs, the last to hit was in Brooklyn in 2007.

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