Photo illustration by Emily Featherston.
Some items to include in an emergency kit: drinking water, a first-aid kit, extra batteries, a flashlight and tools.
Though strong storms and tornadoes have been known to pop up year round, Alabama’s severe weather season peaks in April, and emergency personnel want the public to remain prepared.
“We want you tuned in,” said James Coker, director of the Jefferson County Emergency Management Agency and Homewood resident.
Like probably all Alabama residents, and even those who are new to the area, April severe weather conjures up memories of the devastating events of April 27, 2011, when the state saw 62 tornadoes in one day take nearly 250 lives.
Coker said the event touched him personally as well as professionally, as he lost a high school classmate and witnessed a large portion of the county significantly affected by the storms.
Much of the loss of life and injury could have been prevented, he said, had people been more aware of how and when to take shelter when storms approach.
“The No. 1 thing you need is information,” he said.
Jefferson County has the highest number of reported tornadoes in the state, with the National Weather Service reporting a total of 96 from 1950-2015.
And other types of severe weather, such as straight-line winds, can be just as dangerous.
“We live in Alabama. We know how the weather can be here. You need to stay tuned in,” Coker said.
One of the biggest concerns for emergency personnel, he said, is the fact that many residents rely on outdoor sirens to alert them to a severe threat.
The sirens are only designed for outdoor alerts, and Coker said that unlike the National Weather Service polygons that can alert a specific location, the sirens sound if there is activity in any part of the county, which can lead to people eventually ignoring them.
Instead, Coker suggested having a variety of alert methods, whether that is a NOAA weather radio, a smartphone app or signing up for an alert service.
The county provides access to Everbridge, a service that allows users to put in multiple addresses in Jefferson County to be monitored for the user’s choice of weather alerts. If the NWS issues a polygon for that address, users can choose to receive a text message, email or phone call.
Also having a way to monitor local news outlets, which Coker thinks do an excellent job of covering storm outbreaks, can make a big difference.
“Nobody’s feelings are going to get hurt based on how you get the warning. We just want you to get the warning,” he said.
Coker strongly suggested making a plan in advance for where to seek shelter in case of severe weather, not just at home but at work and other common locations as well. “Just think about what you would do,” he said.
Coker suggested having emergency supplies well stocked at all times in case of an unexpected severe threat, like the one on March 1, 2016.
In addition to being prepared with information, Coker suggested everyone have a safety helmet and signaling device — like a whistle or air horn — as many of the victims of the April 2011 storms died due to head injuries or not being found by rescuers.
Additionally, the Federal Emergency Management Association recommends having one gallon of drinking water per person per day for up to three days, as well as nonperishable food, a first-aid kit, a flashlight, extra batteries, moist towelettes, hand sanitizer, pet supplies and tools to turn off utilities.
“[We] would love to move to a point where we have no more fatalities from these storms,” Coker said.
For more information or to sign up for the Everbridge system, go to jeffcoema.org.