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Lessons from tornado for Tampa Bay: Be prepared

More than 1,200 miles away from Tampa Bay, a 1.3-mile-wide tornado tore through parts of Oklahoma, flattening buildings, flinging vehicles through the air and killing dozens of residents.

With hurricane season less than two weeks away, Tampa Bay emergency planners were taking careful notice.

Because of climactic differences, weather threats here are far different than in the central United States, with hurricanes the primary concern. But at least one lesson is the same:

Have an emergency plan.

"June 1 is right around the corner, and we realize that hurricane season doesn't ramp up until a little later in the season," said Pinellas County emergency management spokesman Tom Iovino, "but you need to have a plan today."

Although tornadoes in the country's midsection frequently generate higher wind speeds than most hurricanes, tropical storms along the Gulf of Mexico can be devastating.

"Nature is very unpredictable and nature packs a very strong punch," Iovino said. "So when these storms come, the only thing you can do is be prepared; and when you do, you increase the odds of your survival significantly."

Many survivors in Oklahoma rode out the storm by retreating into underground shelters or safe rooms.

But Iovino said the storm surge with hurricanes would render bunkers ineffective in the Tampa Bay area. During Tropical Storm Debby last year, parts of Pinellas were deluged by 15 inches of rain, he said.

In Florida, residents seeking refuge from a tornado should retreat to an interior room of a first-floor structure, said Hillsborough emergency planning manager Michael Ryan.

"For residents looking at the tornadoes, that's going to be on everybody's mind," Ryan said.

Tornadoes can form within minutes in the central part of the country. Hurricanes, conversely, can take days to form, giving forecasters plenty of time to warn residents.

Although tornadoes primarily strike the Midwest, they are not unheard of in Florida. National Weather Service meteorologist Ernie Jillson said small tornadoes often develop off hurricanes. "Compared to the tornadoes that they have in the Midwest in the springtime, the tornadoes that happen here in a tropical system are much, much smaller," he said.

Wind speeds in such storms are lower and the tornadoes stretch only up to a few hundred yards wide. Still, they can cause significant damage.

"They are very, very capable," Ryan said.

Zachary T. Sampson can be reached at zsampson@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8804.

Lessons from tornado for Tampa Bay: Be prepared 05/21/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 22, 2013 12:05am]

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