The Basement Files

Tornado safety never gets old: As June arrives, state under severe weather gun


I know I do this once a year. I know it gets old. And I know you are probably all sick of hearing about it by now, but to darn bad. I was actually contemplating not doing one of these articles this year. But two recent super rare EF-5 tornadoes in Oklahoma and the deaths of three prominent storm chasers well known among the weather nerd community pretty much sealed the deal this week. I’ll try not to completely repeat everything you’ve heard, but I might get a bit preachy.

We all know, or at least should have heard about what to do when the emergency sirens sound and warnings are issued: put your shoes on and get to the basement (or innermost room of your home,) away from windows, and under something sturdy. Great, do it. I’ve heard plenty of people over the last several years, either serious or jokingly, say when severe weather comes they “head outside” to see what’s going on, or want to chase a tornado, and have absolutely no idea what they are doing. To them, I say, “stop it.” One of the absolute worst places to be in a tornado is in your car. Tornadoes, despite what modern science knows about them, are still unpredictable, and even the best and brightest storm chasers in the field, who did everything right regarding “safely” chasing a tornado, lost their lives when the unexpected happened. If the warning sirens sound, don’t go outside, don’t go to the window, don’t grab a camera and for the love of Pete, don’t get in your car.

I know what you are thinking. “This is Minnesota, we don’t get the big nasty tornadoes like Oklahoma does.” Well, yes, we do. Like it or not, parts of this state are in the northern fringes of “Tornado Alley,” and we do get our share of twisters. The most tornadoes, on average, happen right now in the month of June. The largest such outbreak was a scant three summers ago, when over the three-day period of June 16-18, there were 93 confirmed tornadoes over the Dakotas, Minnesota and Wisconsin, with four classified as EF-4, the second strongest.

While it is true that only about one percent of tornadoes spawned in Minnesota are EF-4 or EF-5, every warning should be treated seriously. Even a weak tornado can break tree limbs and send them flying through a window. You don’t want to be in the way of a flying tree limb should that happen.

But Stillwater is safe, right? The Twin Cities, the crossing rivers and the valley landscape messes with the storms and breaks them up before they hit us, right?
Sorry, we are just as “under the gun” here in the Valley as anywhere else. In fact, we’ve had a relatively close call with the mother-lode. There have been two F-5 tornadoes recorded in the state (back before the “enhanced” system came into being,) and another, rather close, just over the river and through the woods. In a 1958 outbreak, the Wisconsin cities of Colfax and Menomonie were hit by a classified “F-5,” and those big boys have been recorded as far north as Fargo, N.D.
It’s not my intention to scare anyone. Looking at recorded data from the Storm Prediction Center for 1950 through 2013, there have only been 60 tornadoes that reached the dreaded F-5 or EF-5 rating. They are very rare, but possible. Which is why, when you see a plethora of storm preparedness news stories, take them seriously. Have a plan, stick to it and be safe.

And if foul weather is afoot somewhere in Minnesota, hop on over to my Twitter page (@chrishamble) and we can nerd out about it. I’ll bring the radar.

Chris Hamble is a freelance writer and humor columnist serving newspapers in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and is a lifelong Stillwater resident.