The adventures of a fourth grade teacher in East Central Illinois.

Tornadoes

We are learning about the water cycle, weather systems, and climate in science. While most weather is fairly benign, fourth graders are almost always more interested in the severe ones: hurricanes, blizzards, and, of course, tornadoes.

Living in Illinois, tornadoes are a fact of life. There are an average of 64 tornadoes in Illinois each year, usually occurring between March and May. Yet most of these tornadoes are barely noticed by our residents. Some occur high in the atmosphere, some are brief, but some are much more severe. In 1917, there was a tornado in Mattoon, just south of us, that resulted in over 100 fatalities. In 1925, there was a tri-state tornado that killed 695 people. These were two of the worst tornadoes in our nation’s history.

Last year Illinois saw a huge number of tornadoes in the month of November, which is very, very, very uncommon for our part of the nation. The November 17 outbreak hit especially close to home for me. I grew up in the city of Washington, where my parents and many of my friends still live. On that day, an EF-4 tornado with winds of 190 mph tore through my hometown, causing millions of dollars in damages, but only causing two fatalities. My family was fine and while some of my friends had property damage, none had their lives and livelihoods completely destroyed. How is it that a tornado nearly a hundred years ago killed so many and a tornado last year, far more severe in strength, killed so few? I am sure that there will be many who debate the answer to this question, but I am confident that at least one aspect is preparation.

I am an Eagle Scout and a currently volunteer as the Cubmaster of a local Cub Scout pack. As Scouts, we are all about preparation. So it shouldn’t be all that surprising that I transfer these skills into all aspects of my life. I know how valuable it is to be prepared for any event. And thus I am very pleased when the Urbana Fire Marshall comes by our building with his safety house simulator every few months to help our students prepare for the worst. Today he came to talk about tornado safety.

Before going to the simulator, he and two of his colleagues spoke with the students about creating a disaster preparedness kit with water (one gallon per person per day), food (non-perishables like canned goods and individually-wrapped protein bars), first-aid kits, flashlights (with extra batteries), portable radios, and even simple card games to provide a way to pass the time. Then we went to the simulator where we practiced getting to a safe space in the house (basement or room in the middle of the ground floor, preferably without windows and/or pipes) and following the directions of meteorologists and parents.

Do things like this help? What about our monthly severe weather drills that we do in our school when the sirens are tested on the first Tuesday of the month? Rather than getting the answer from me, I will defer to this six-year-old from my hometown:

Tornadoes and other severe weather are interesting to study. Students are fascinated by them. Teachers are fascinated by them. But it is important to realise that they are very much something to take seriously when they happen. I am grateful to my own teachers, parents, and older brothers who showed me how to be safe during storms. I hope that my students will take this in and pass it on, too.

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