Tornadoes dangerous, deadly, even here in southern Wisconsin

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Frank Schultz
Friday, May 16, 2014

JANESVILLE--We live in the most tornado-prone country on the planet, and Southern Wisconsin has seen its share.

The Evansville area seems to be part of a local tornado alley, but the strongest tornado to Rock County in the past 50 years—an F3—started in Brodhead and sliced to the northeast, just north of Janesville, the on Jan. 24, 1967.

The Tuesday-night tornado opened the Janesville Country Club “like a can opener,” The Gazette reported the next day. The only person inside, bartender Dave Williams, was not hurt.

Then-club manager Doug Wallen told The Gazette that a Friday night crowd would have been 150 to 200 people, plus staff.

“If this had happened on Friday night, we'd be picking up pieces of people,” Wallen said.

Tornadoes have struck Wisconsin in every month except February from 1844 to 2013, according to the National Weather Service. June has seen the most, with 431 of the 1,515 tornadoes during those years.

With April's killer tornadoes in the South in mind, here are five important things to know:

1. Tornadoes kill. If you think tornadoes are moderate here in the northern part of the country, consider that one of the strongest tornadoes in recent years struck well to the north in Manitoba, Canada, on June 22, 2007.

No one was killed in the Manitoba tornado, but many Wisconsinites will remember the nine who died in the 1984 Barneveld tornado.

Rock County's worst tornado also killed nine. It struck on Nov. 11, 1911, hitting barns and houses from the county's southwest to northeast corners, at a time when the county was much more sparsely populated.

2. You never know. Tornado seasons vary. Wisconsin saw only four tornadoes in 2012 but 62 in 2005, according to the National Weather Service.

3. Sky watch. Learn the signs of severe thunderstorms, which spawn tornadoes. The American Red Cross lists these:

-- Dark, often greenish clouds, caused by hail.

-- A wall cloud, an isolated lowering of the base of a thunderstorm

-- A cloud of debris

-- Large hail

-- Funnel cloud—a rotating extension of the cloud base. But sometimes, tornadoes are difficult to see.

-- Roaring noise

4. Be prepared. Watch for severe weather watches and warnings, and watch the skies. Pick a safe room in your house where everyone knows to go. Best is an underground shelter, basement or safe room. Next best is a small, windowless interior room of a sturdy building, according to the American Red Cross.

Mobile homes are not safe, experts say; go to the nearest sturdy building immediately.

Social media are a new way to follow weather developments. Twitter users might want to follow the National Weather Service at Sullivan on Facebook. On Twitter, follow @NWSMKX.

For more information about preparing for disasters, including what do to about disabled people and pets, see ready.gov/emergency-planning-checklists.

5. Save yourself. If caught outdoors, get to a sturdy building. If you must drive to find shelter, get in a car and buckle up. If you encounter flying debris during the drive, park and do one of two things, depending on circumstances:

-- Stay in the car with the seat belt on and head down, covering with your hands and a blanket if possible.

-- If you can safely get to a spot that is noticeably lower than the roadway, lie in that area, covering your head with your hands.

“If a tornado looks as though it is standing still, it probably is heading straight for you. It's probably a good time to move,” according to Dale Bernstein of the MidWest Severe Storm Tracking Response Center, who recently gave tornado-spotter training in Janesville.

If lying in a ditch sounds dangerous, consider staying home when severe weather threatens.

“At a state fair, county fair, some other outdoor event, folks are sitting ducks. There are not enough public places for you to find shelter,” said retired National Weather Service meteorologist Rusty Kapela as the same tornado-spotter training.

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