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Do you know what to do in the event of a tornado? Click here to see the truth behind several tornado myths.
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A deadly start to tornado season for the second year in a row — with the carnage beginning even earlier — has people wondering what's happening.
But experts caution that it's too soon to worry about a repeat of 2011's horrific tally.
It is true that tornadoes have killed about as many people this year as have died annually in 20 out of the past 32 years. And Nebraska this year recorded its first February twister.
Official figures are still being tallied, but Greg Carbin, who tracks the numbers for the U.S. Storm Prediction Center, said at least 51 deaths have been confirmed this year. Last week's 12-state outbreak unleashed what will probably be 50 to 75 confirmed tornadoes, he said.
Paul Walker, a senior meteorologist with AccuWeather Inc., The World-Herald's private weather consultant, still expects an above-normal number of tornadoes, "but nothing as bad as last year."
If there's good news to be found, it's that Nebraska and Iowa lie far enough north that conditions ripe for long, violent tornadoes typically weaken by the time tornado season peaks here, Walker said.
Still, history shows the Midlands is far from immune, and the early arrival of deadly storms should remind people of the need to prepare. One of the best things you can do is purchase a weather radio.
"It can happen anytime, anyplace," said Brian Smith, warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service office that serves eastern Nebraska and western Iowa.
Over the past decade, Douglas County has had 15 tornado warnings, Sarpy County, 11, Washington County, 12, and Pottawattamie County, 28.
Carbin called last week's outbreak unusual only for how early it occurred.
A large early March outbreak happens two to three times a decade, Carbin said. Over the course of a year, such outbreaks can be expected once or twice.
An event like April 2011's super outbreak — with its more and deadlier tornadoes touching down over a larger area — occurs once every 30 to 50 years.
"People ... need to know this is nothing like what we were dealing with last April," he said.
Carbin said these March and April outbreaks have more to do with the transition from winter to spring than anything else. The effect of climate change on tornadoes is being studied, but no clear answers have emerged, he said.
Tornado numbers fluctuate widely month to month and year to year. By this time in 2011, only two tornado deaths had occurred, but by the end of the year 550 people had been killed.
In 2008, another bad year, nearly 70 people had been killed by this time. The year-end death toll reached 126. Among them: the four Boy Scouts killed at the Little Sioux Scout Ranch in western Iowa.
Tornadoes can occur any month of the year, with the active season peaking first in the South and then moving north as winter turns to spring.
In Nebraska and Iowa, peak season is May and June.
Carbin and Walker said the most violent, longest-lived tornadoes occur most often in Southern states and most often in March and April.
Warm spring air surges northward as late winter cold fronts drop south, setting up a sharp contrast in air masses.
Additionally, the more powerful jet stream of winter lingers, and its fast-moving winds provide the mechanism needed to twist clashing air masses into tornadoes.
Nebraska and Iowa tend to be at less risk of long-lived, powerful tornadoes because, by May and June, the jet stream has weakened and the contrast between warm and cool air has lessened.
The link between this year's early outbreak and last year's lies in the Gulf of Mexico, Walker said. Warmer-than-normal waters in the Gulf both years have been pumping warmth and moisture into the atmosphere, fueling instability.
A lack of reliable long-term records creates a fundamental problem in comparing the number of tornadoes year-to-year, said Carbin. Modern records go back only to 1950 and, even then, they can't easily be compared to current ones. That's because tornado reports are increasing as a result of population growth, development and improvements in technology.
Even so, Carbin said, the numbers tell how extraordinary last spring's deadly start was:
April 27, 2011 — 316 people die in a single day; about 200 tornadoes confirmed in 16 states, including four of the strongest level possible, EF5, and 11 at EF4.
March 2, 2012 — At least 36 people die as what will likely be 50 to 75 tornadoes occur, including two of EF4 strength and none of EF5. Reports come in from 12 states.
The difference, he said, is "pretty dramatic."
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Click on each myth below to reveal the truth.
The corner is the safest place in a basement.
Avoid crouching in corners and along outside walls. If the house shifts off its foundation, debris will drop on you there. Instead, crouch in a reinforced area in the center of the basement, perhaps below a stairwell or worktable.
Opening windows lessens damage to your home.
Damage usually occurs because the tornado lifts the roof off the house; windows don't play a role. The time spent opening windows lessens your chance to reach safety and puts you at risk of flying glass.
I have plenty of time.
You have less than you think. Tornadoes can be wrapped in rain or be so wide they don't look like funnels. They can occur at night or drop in seconds. Get to the basement or an inner room.
I can drive home to safety.
You risk getting stuck in traffic. If a warning's been issued, park and seek the safest nearby building.
My mobile home's safe because it's tied down.
No mobile home is safe in a tornado. You could be safer on your own, in a ditch or in your car. Plan to spend severe weather outbreaks in a safe place.
Caught on the road, the ditch is safe.
Nothing is safe on the open road. Safety experts are sharply divided over whether you should stay in a car or lie in a ditch. If in your car, put on your seat belt, crouch below window level and leave the car turned on so air bags can inflate. In the ditch, cover your head.
Waiting under an overpass is safe.
Just the opposite. Overpasses act as wind tunnels, accelerating the strength of winds underneath. Make a different decision.
I can outrace a tornado.
If you see a twister, a building is your best bet. If you choose to drive, gauge the tornado's direction. Watch it in relation to a fixed object. If it moves to the right or left of the object, flee at right angles to it. If it's getting larger but not moving right or left, it's coming directly at you. If time permits, drive away, turning at right angles.