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Tornadoes — They Still Occur Here

City takes part in statewide tornado drill.

Think it can't happen here? Think again. It happened 31 times in 2003. That was the highest number in 50 years of recorded data.

As one of nature's most lethal WMD's, it drops out of the sky with little or no warning. A giant, swirling, black exclamation point funnel that decimates anything and everything in its path. It's a tornado.

On Tuesday morning, in response to Governor Mark Warner's declaration of March 16 as "Tornado Preparedness Day," schools throughout the Commonwealth went through emergency drills. Alexandria was no exception.

One of those was conducted at Douglas MacArthur Elementary School. It was under the aegis of the Alexandria Fire Department and its newly established Office of Emergency Management in conjunction the Alexandria School District and the Alexandria Chapter of the American Red Cross.

At precisely 9:45 a.m., an alarm was sounded with a voice warning to prepare for tornados in the area. Children, from kindergarten through fifth grade, filed out of their class rooms and huddled, along with their teachers, in a crouched position facing the school hallway walls.

It went off without a hitch. A model example of discipline and cooperation. There was not a sound. Not even Toto barking.

"It was perfect. It couldn't have been better," said Richard Sisler, public education officer, Alexandria Fire Department, after the drill. Not only had the students carried out the drill with perfection, but, they were also now qualified ambassadors on emergency preparedness to their families.

"In preparation for today, we sent letters home to the parents urging them to take necessary precautions in case of a tornado, It's critical that our students understand the seriousness of tornadoes and how they protect themselves," said Rebecca Perry, superintendent, Alexandria City Schools.

"This is another example of our outreach to the community," Alexandria Fire Chief Gary Mesaris emphasized. " Usual warning time for a tornado is only 18 to 20 minutes, even with all our modern technology. We have to prepare for this the same as fires. We hope the students will take this knowledge home and encourage their families to be prepared."

Julia Wright, executive director, Alexandria Chapter of the American Red Cross, pointed out, "We are always concerned that people be prepared for any emergency. It's important that people be ready for disasters of all sorts. I'm from the midwest. I know about tornadoes and I've taught my children about them and how to prepare."

ALEXANDRIA IS not immune to the threat. "In the late 70's, one touched down here and tore the roof off 4600 Duke Street," said Jane Malik, public information officer, Alexandria Fire Department. "And just last year, there was a microburst that uprooted some trees in the city."

According to the National Weather Service, a record 31 twisters hit Virginia last year, the greatest number in 50 years of recorded storm data. The majority of those touch-downs were in the F0 or F1 category with winds up to 112 miles per hour.

"Tornadoes can occur anytime, anywhere," said Michael Cline, state coordinator, Virginia Department of Emergency Management (VDEM). "Regardless of where people live in Virginia, now is the time they should be thinking about tornado preparedness and safety."

Clues that may indicate an approaching tornado include a dark, often greenish sky, large hail and a loud sound similar to a freight train, according to VDEM.

"A general safety tip, in case of an approaching tornado, is go low and stay low. Go to the lowest level of a structure away from any windows and crouch in a low position with your head covered," VDEM advises.

"Being prepared and using a NOAA Weather Radio can give citizens sufficient time to take action before a tornado strikes," said Bill Sammler, Wakefield Warning Coordination Meteorologist. "The National Weather Service issues watches and warnings to alert the public about possible tornadoes."

Know the difference between a "watch" and a "warning:"

*A watch means weather conditions are favorable for the development of severe thunderstorms and tornadoes. Be prepared to take cover.

*A warning means a tornado has actually been sighted. Warning are issued for individual areas that include the tornado's location, direction and speed. Seek shelter immediately. Many Virginia tornadoes are obscured by rain and may not be visible until it is too late to take cover, VDEM warns.

To learn more about creating a family disaster plan, visit www.vdem.state.va.us.

TORNADO FACTS

*They can occur any time of the year. But, April through

October are the most active months in Virginia.

*Most tornadoes in this area have winds ranging from 70 to 100 miles per hour. But, winds of 200 to 300 miles per hour are possible.

*They can last from a few seconds to more than an hour.

SURVIVAL TIPS

*Outside: Get into a strong nearby building .

*In a vehicle: Get out of it and run for a nearby building. Never try to outrun a tornado in a vehicle.

*If no building is readily available, lie in a ditch. Cover your head with your hands.

*In a building: get to the basement. If none is available go to the center hall. Crouch down on the floor. Cover the back of your head with your hands. Stay away from windows and rooms with large roofs.

*If in a trailer or mobile home: Get out. Find a safe building or ditch. Protect your head with your hands.