As students prepare themselves for the whirlwind of finals week, another storm threat looms on the horizon: tornado season.
Tornadoes are most common in the St. Louis area in the spring months from March through June, according to geography professor Mark Hildebrandt, who teaches classes on meteorology.
During the transition from winter to summer, cold, dry air from Canada collides with warm, moist, air masses pushing up from the south. The two air masses tend to collide on the great plains of the United States. Hildebrandt said these conditions make Edwardsville ripe for thunderstorms and tornadoes. Another spike in the likelihood of tornadoes happens in the fall, usually throughout October and November.
According to Hildebrandt, thunderstorm warnings indicate hail greater than the size of a quarter exists, as well as winds greater than 58 mph. The possibility of tornadoes and lightning exists as well.
Tornado watches are issued when the conditions are favorable for tornadoes to exist and precede a tornado warning. Tornado warnings are issued when a tornado has been sighted in the area.
Hildebrandt said it is imperative students take each of these warnings seriously.
“One of the things about tornado warnings is that the National Weather Service will issue a warning, but, with the technology of the day, they can’t always see where a tornado is going to strike,” Hildebrandt said. “They won’t necessarily be able to pinpoint where a tornado is going to happen or if it will happen. It’s best to err on the side of caution.”
Hildebrandt said there are a few key rules to remember in case of a tornado.
“Don’t wait for the sirens to go off before you seek shelter. If there is a tornado warning, seek shelter. If you have a basement or storm cellar, those are the best places to go,” Hildebrandt said. “You want to be in the interior of your basement or your cellar. Under a workbench, under a stairwell is a very good place to go. Stay away from windows by all means. Also, during a tornado warning, do not run outside and try to see the tornado.”
Bathrooms are also safe areas to seek refuge from a storm, according to Hildebrandt.
“[Bathrooms have] plumbing that runs through the wall, so it’s actually reinforced,” Hildebrandt said. “In the bathroom during a tornado event, take the shower curtain or a mattress, lie down in the bathtub, and pull it over you because you don’t want debris landing on you.”
If getting to a building is not possible, Hildebrandt said safety can be found outdoors.
“If you are stranded outside, you want to get as low as you possibly can. Lie in a ditch, and cover your head,” Hildebrandt said. “You want to be as low as you possibly can both for lightning and also because you want to be able to avoid flying debris.”
The underpasses on the bike trail might also be a safe option in some situations when looking for shelter, Hildebrandt said.
“If you have nowhere else to go, it actually probably is a good place to go,” Hildebrandt said. “The only thing I would be worried about would be flooding. Also, if winds got very, very strong, and if there was a tornado in the area, the one danger you could run into is if a tornado were to go close by, there’s a potential that one of those areas could actually work like a wind tunnel and the wind could get accelerated or you could get sucked out. If I were in one of those tunnels, I would simply lie down or get as close to the wall as I possibly could. Personally, I would feel safe there.”
During storms that include lightning, Hildebrandt said students should not only be worried about their safety, but also their schoolwork saved on laptops.
“Make sure you back up your work. Save everything over and over and over again. During a tornado warning, you actually probably shouldn’t be working on a computer to begin with,” Hildebrandt said. “If there is lightning in the area, your computer can get fried and lose everything.”
Hildebrandt said to be extremely cautious even after the storm seems to have passed, for numerous dangers still exist.
“A lot of causalities happen after a thunderstorm has happened, especially when people are driving [at] night. … Watch for downed power lines, and absolutely don’t drive into a flooded area. If you see standing water, the saying is, ‘Turn around, don’t drown,’” Hildebrandt said. “Don’t assume that your car, just because it has four-wheel drive, can handle flowing water.”
In addition to University Safety and Emergency Procedures available online, Hildebrandt said SIUE works to inform the campus community of the dangers of severe weather through emails, e-Lert text messages and through the sounding of sirens.
Junior social work major Alexis Dykes, of Marine, said the campus e-Lert system could benefit from more clarification, specifically regarding the difference between a tornado watch and tornado warning.
“I think they freak us out more than anything by sending all the e-Lerts. A lot of people don’t know the difference between warning and watch, so as soon as they hear ‘watch,’ they’re like, ‘Oh my god, we’re going to die,’ and that’s usually not the case, [and] as soon as they see the word ‘tornado,’ it’s complete panic,” Dykes said.
An anonymous faculty member said there is more the university should be doing to prepare its staff. According to this faculty member, the SIUE staff, including student workers, is not being properly trained, and fliers informing the campus community of emergency plans are not being placed in each classroom, as they should be.
University Housing Director Mike Schultz said when the university has attempted to prepare students in some instances, most were not willing to participate.
“We do fire alarms at the beginning of the year, and you’d be surprised how many students don’t even leave during that time when it’s a way of preparing students,” Schultz said. “It’s a concern for us.”
Schultz said emergency procedures are not only given to each student living in the residence halls in written form, but it is also available to all students, faculty and staff on the SIUE website.
“I don’t have an actual gauge of how many students read the living guide,” Schultz said. “I would think that there’s very few who read it.”
Freshman Dylan Stout, of Pontiac, who lives in Cougar Village, said while he has not read the living guide given to residents, he still feels personally prepared for a tornado.
“It doesn’t really take much to be prepared for a tornado unless you’re just mentally shocked, and you just freeze up and you don’t know what to do,” Stout said. “I feel like I’ve been in enough situations that I would either know what to do or get into a building and try and gather people up and be like, ‘Hey, let’s go.’”
Junior mass communications major Justin Pollard, of Chicago, said it is important to keep calm in the case of a tornado and move quickly to the nearest basement of a building.
“If you panic, you’re just going to be thinking about the situation and how bad it [is] instead of thinking about a problem that you can easily solve. … I don’t really panic about stuff like that too much because it’s stuff I can’t control,” Pollard said. “[I] just figure out the best solution and get around it.”
Dykes said she recently experienced a tornado firsthand and found the emotional stress surprising.
“This year, I was at a friend’s house in New Baden when the tornadoes came through. … I was outside smoking a cigarette right before, and the sky was clear, and then it went green, all the rain stopped, and it just went completely quiet,” Dykes said. “That’s whenever we took off downstairs. I was freaking out completely. … Your body’s natural reaction is shaking, and you can’t really think. There’s not really much you can control.”
According to Schultz, the resident assistants working through University Housing know how to keep people calm during emergencies.
One area University Housing is working to improve is the notification of student-residents that potential severe weather is present.
Schultz said some flaws in the current system were identified, specifically when warnings are sent out and sirens sound in the early morning. Students missed the e-Lerts and email notifications and could not hear the sirens from inside buildings during a recent warning, according to Schultz.
“It brought to our attention some concerns that we have and so we’re looking at making some adjustments to see if we can tie something into our fire alarm system for tornado warnings,” Schultz said. “The downside to that is that every time that there’s a test of the sirens, which happens, I think, the first Tuesday of every month at 10 o’clock in the morning, you’re going to hear that in the residence halls. And that’s fine; I think we can explain that to students who might have been up late or something and get woken up at 10, but I think, for safety reason, we’ve got to look at that.”
Schultz said it should be the responsibility of every student, faculty and staff member to familiarize themselves with the literature that is available online and distributed.
“I’m not sure that any particular person, student, faculty, staff, community member, does a whole lot until it’s touched them or got close to them,” Schultz said. “I know we’ve got several students that their homes were or communities were taken last spring and are more concerned and are more aware of what needs to happen because they’ve lived in that devastation when they went back home.”