UAB experts say heed severe weather predictions and plan now

The recent record number of tornado-related fatalities underscores the need for safety plans.

The spring severe weather season is here, and experts at the University of Alabama at Birmingham say prepare now for the action-packed coming months.

“Your preparedness plans — having ready supplies and a plan for where to go — are important for every disaster, including tornadoes,” says Josh Klapow, Ph.D., UAB clinical psychologist and certified disaster mental health specialist.

The National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center says the peak time for storms that can spawn tornadoes has arrived in the Gulf States region and will shift northward with time.

“One of the most difficult things about disaster preparedness is that natural disasters do not occur frequently enough or affect enough people to motivate everyone to have a plan in place,” Klapow says. But memories of the 550 tornado-related fatalities that occurred in the United States in 2011 — the fourth deadliest tornado year in recorded history — are still fresh.

“It very often takes tragedy to knock us into reality. We always need to heed the messages and warnings from public officials and the media,” Klapow says. “We never know when that warning will be coupled with the real thing, so be ready.”

Sarah Nafziger, M.D., associate professor in the UAB Department of Emergency Medicine and assistant medical director of the Alabama Office of EMS, says you need to locate a safe place, such as a room in the center of the house or a local storm shelter, and assemble a supplies kit.

“The most important item to have is a weather radio or an application on your smart phone that can alert you. If you are unaware of the impending weather, you don’t know to go to your safe place,” Nafziger says. Outdoor warning sirens, she says, are not designed to awaken you.

Also, grab a helmet for each member of your family on the way to your safe place.

“During severe weather, protect your head — cover it with a helmet,” says Russ Fine, Ph.D., UAB professor of medicine and director of the Injury Control Research Center.

“Whether it is a hard hat, a football, motorcycle or bicycle helmet, grab it and put it on your head,” Fine says in safety recommendations posted at www.uab.edu/icrc after they discovered half the April 2011 fatalities in Jefferson County, Ala., involved a head injury.

“People can be airborne. Stuff flying around can strike the head. You need something that can absorb that energy, and we believe a helmet can make the difference between life and death,” Fine says.

A helmet won’t guarantee your survival, but it absolutely can reduce injuries and save lives.

Items you should include in a disaster-preparedness kit:

  • weather radio or weather app
  • helmets
  • non-perishable foods
  • bottled water
  • required medications
  • sturdy shoes
  • masks to protect lungs from floating debris
  • work gloves to protect hands in case of clean-up needs
  • plastic tote bins to store these items in

    And if a storm doesn’t strike your area when it is forecast, consider yourself lucky and watch for storms that might be close behind, Klapow says.

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