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Severe weather season: Be prepared for spring's unpredictable conditions

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By Greg Summers

Springtime in South Carolina means budding trees, blooming flowers and more daylight.

But March to May is also the peak tornado season when sudden severe storms can spawn tornadoes as it did March 15.

The National Weather Service has confirmed that at least 15 tornadoes ripped through the state that day. No one was killed in the storms here, but two people died from storms in Georgia.

The South Carolina Insurance News Service said Monday that more than 11,000 insurance claims totaling $43 million in damages have been reported so far with most of the damage coming from hail and fallen trees.

Tornadoes can occur anywhere when the weather conditions – warm, moist air in advance of eastward-moving cooler masses – spawn sudden severe thunderstorms.

Right now, the southern states are the perfect breeding ground for severe storms. The area is in a La Nina weather pattern, which means there is an enhanced jet stream branch fed by cool Pacific Ocean waters flowing over this part of the country.

Once it meets up with warm, moist gulf air, a severe storm can quickly form with little advance warning.

That’s something Earl Hunter can identify with in recalling the 22 tornadoes that hammered the Palmetto State on March 28, 1984, including part of Lancaster County.

One minute Hunter, his wife, Mary, and their children Thomas and Susan, were huddled together in the bathroom of their home on S.C. 341.

The next minute, their home was gone.

At the time, Earl Hunter compared the sound to a dozen sirens going off in unison.

“The first thing I remember is a pine tree coming through a window. The next thing, I’m about 50 yards away pulling myself out of a pile of what used to be our house looking for my family.”

Luckily, the Hunters escaped serious injuries in the storm that killed 57 South Carolinians, injured 1,248 and did more than $200 million in damages.

“It’s amazing what these storms will do,” Hunter said. “They’re nasty things.”

Keith Wilson, Lancaster County Fire training officer, said it’s important to be prepared for severe weather.

Wilson said you should designate a safe room in your home or workplace, like a basement, storm cellar or the center of an interior room on the lowest level.

If you get caught outside, Wilson said find a nearby building or storm shelter to get into. If there is not one, lie in a nearby ditch.

“You can’t say what will happen, so if something doesn’t look right, you need to take immediate action,” Wilson said.

Once a tornado warning is issued, Wilson said all of the emergency responders – firefighters, law officers, EMS and rescue squad members – in the county are alerted.

Whenever severe weather strikes or other disasters occur, agencies like the Lancaster Chapter of the American Red Cross and the Moriah Baptist Association Disaster Team are informed, too.

Weather radios now in county schools

Wilson said each county school is now equipped with an all-hazards weather radio that automatically activates in cases of severe weather and civil emergencies.

Most of the radios retail for less than $50.

“It’s just like a smoke detector in that it’s a cheap way to keep you safe,” Wilson said. “Having one is not a bad idea.”

Weather radios are equipped with a SAME feature, which provides weather and other emergency alerts for the specific counties you program into it.

Wilson said if you need the county codes or need the radio programmed, the county’s emergency management office, 208 W. Gay St., would be happy to assist.

“I have Lancaster, Mecklenburg and Union counties programmed into it since I only live about a mile from the Union County line,” Wilson said.

“We have a unique situation just because of how the county is shaped. You can be getting hammered by a storm around the city limits when nothing is happening up here in Indian Land.”

“More than anything else, you should look at where the severe weather is coming from,” Wilson said.

What to do when threatening weather approaches

Occasionally, tornadoes develop so rapidly that advance warning is not possible. You should remain alert for signs of approaching severe storms. If a warning is issued or if threatening weather approaches, you should:

- Move to a pre-designated shelter like a basement if you are in a home or building.

- If an underground shelter isn’t available, move to an interior room or hallway on the lowest floor or get under a sturdy piece of furniture.

- Stay away from windows.

- Get out of automobiles.

- Do not try to outrun a tornado in your car; instead, leave it immediately.

- Mobile homes – even when tied down – offer little protection from tornadoes and should be abandoned.

– National Weather Service

Tornado Myths

MYTH: Areas near rivers, lakes and mountains are safe from tornadoes.

FACT: No place is safe from tornadoes. In the late 1980s, a tornado swept through Yellowstone National Park, leaving a path of destruction up and down a 10,000-foot-high mountain.

MYTH: The low pressure with a tornado causes buildings to “explode” as it passes overhead.

FACT: Violent winds and debris slamming into buildings cause the most structural damage.

MYTH: Windows should be opened before a tornado approaches to equalize pressure and minimize damage.

FACT: Opening windows allows damaging winds to enter a structure. Leave the windows alone; instead, immediately go to a safe place.

– National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration