Alabama gets a lot of tornadoes. (An article reminded me of this recently, with a severe forecast for the upcoming 2015 secondary tornado season.)

[embeddoc url=””] It’s in the central U.S., a region stretching from Texas in the west to the Appalachian foothills in the east, and from the Gulf Coast in the south, up to the Great Lakes in the north which experiences a lot of turbulent weather when wet warm air masses from the Gulf of Mexico collide with colder dry air from the north and west. Things get rather…. lively.

Alabama has two tornado seasons. The main one is March through May, when 60% of the recorded tornadoes have struck. The remaining 40% occur during November and December, and tend to center in the Tuscaloosa area, southwest into Mississippi. These are statistical clusters, which means that while there is potential for tornadoes at other times of the year, they are rare, and only form when the weather conditions are ripe.

Most tornadoes form between 3 pm and 9 pm in the afternoon and early evening (a general statistical tendency) – but not all. Some occur at night and in the early morning hours – and this is when they are most dangerous, as you can’t see them coming. Newcomers to the state need to learn how to stay safe.

Everyone gets really excited about tornadoes

When you first arrive here, everyone seems a bit… hypersensitive regarding potential storms. When NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) issues a weather advisory that tornadoes are probable, the schools shut down, the kids are on their buses going home by noon (latest, 1 pm), and the remaining parents are called to pick up their kids and get them home by early afternoon. The city effectively shuts down, as non-essential adults all head home. Traffic gets bad for two hours.

Local media focuses on storm tracking and reporting. James Spann, meteorologist with TV station ABC 33/40, is a local hero, thanks to his meticulous reporting and public education efforts via his extreme weather WX blog. Install one of the weather apps he recommends on your phone. This will help you gauge the track and severity of incoming storms, wherever you are.

Alert systems in use

Sirens, originally installed in American urban areas during the Cold War, are now used for severe weather alerts. If you hear them, it’s time to take shelter. Except on Wednesdays, at 10 am, when they are tested locally. (When I first heard them, I went looking for the bomb shelter!) 

The major universities, colleges, hospitals and institutions all have text and phone-based alert systems to get news out to staff and students. During my last two years at UAB (2011 – 2013), I frequently received an alert from the school before it reached local broadcasters.

NOAA radios, or radios and phone applications using NOAA SAME (Specific Area Message Encoding) alert technology. These devices will sound whenever an alert is issued.

Many weather apps for smart phones incorporate SAME – look for it in the product specification.


Most homes in Alabama do not have purpose-built storm shelters. There are many reasons for this; it isn’t required under the state building code (not seen as having adequate return on investment by developers and landlords), a historic resistance by a large swath of the population to “being told what to do”, and for many homeowners, lack of cash to pay for a retrofit.

Personally, I think that safety is worth spending money on. I want decent tornado projection in any future abode that I buy (currently renting, and not happy at all about the lack).

If you don’t have a shelter, there are things you can do to enhance the odds your odds of surviving a strike at home (you won’t have a lot of time)

  • Stay away from windows (breaking glass).
  • Get into the lowest accessible place.
  • If you have a basement, take cover against a non-exposed foundation wall (many Alabama homes are built into hillsides to allow placement of a garage in the basement). If at all possible, ensure that your shelter area is not underneath heavy objects such as pianos or refrigerators. Small children should be sheltered by adults. Pull a mattress over you to protect from flying debris and falling beams.
  • If you don’t have a basement, get into an inside closet or small room in the center of your home on the ground floor. You want to choose a space with a minimum of objects that can be flung around. Close the door. If using a bathroom, get as many people as possible into the tub (you want to use the iron sides as projection) Drag a mattress or other protective padding over you.
  • Grab any helmets you own and wear them.
  • Put on shoes. There will be a lot of broken glass and debris and you will have a hard time walking without injury in unprotected feet.
  • Crouch down, face to the ground and cover your head with your hands and arms. You want to protect your body’s vital parts.

If you are at work when the storm alert sounds, and it has a designated storm shelter area, stay there. Most new commercial construction is now required to have hardened designated shelter areas. Your odds of survival are far better in a larger concrete and steel building with appropriate wind blocking bends in the hallways than they are in your wood-stick-built home (or mobile home) with no storm shelter.

Before and After

  • Ensure that you have personal records, including insurance, titles to your home and car secured in a safe place. That can be copies of your records in cloud storage, in a safety deposit vault, or a fire-proof safe. You will need them for insurance claims and financial recovery. Be prepared for a significant negotiation process with your insurance company. It’s common practice in the US for the company to make a low-ball “first offer” of payment, and to only offer up more comprehensive cash when challenged. Be aware of that and be prepared to pursue the insurer.
  • If at all possible, determine in advance where you will shelter in your home. Keep that closet or space uncluttered. Keep a basic kit (flashlight, first aid kit and a crowbar) in the space and  “go bag” either in the space or nearby.
  • Keep smart phones charged and ready for use.
  • Acquire a NOAA radio in addition to your electronic devices.
  • With family members, rehearse your plan and ensure that children know how to take safe shelter.

Alabama has a good disaster preparedness system in place. Educate yourself about it and use it.

The long term stuff

The Tornado History Project has interactive records of tornado strike locations, strength and tracks available online, dating back to 1950 (when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) began keeping records). If purchasing a home, you may wish to look these over and see how the region’s geographical features affect strike areas. Personally, I’m favoring lots on the north east sides of hills. There is still much to learn, as this research paper on the effects of turbulence generated by topology changes from the University of Arkansas and additional work done on storm fluid dynamics, done by the University of Alabama at Huntsville note.

There is a need to add historic records of tornadoes from both the period of European settlement and from when the First Nations controlled the land (because a longer time series is a better time series) in order to understand the long-term weather patterns for the area. But first we need to develop tool to ease the detection of tornado destruction in the archeological record and the natural environment. Research topic, anyone?

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