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May Chautauqua in Crosslake details Skywarn program, weather safety

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At the May 8 Chautauqua program in Crosslake, Crow Wing County Emergency Management Director John Bowen offered information and training on the National Weather Service’s (NWS) Skywarn Spotter program.

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Skywarn is a volunteer program in which the NWS trains volunteers to report on severe weather like tornadoes, hail, downbursts, strong winds, flash floods and snow accumulation.

Bowen covered the basics of storm formation and other weather phenomena in his presentation. Tornadoes were one of his main topics as tornado season arrived in the Midwest. Minnesota had 113 tornadoes in 2010, he said.

Sometimes tornadoes can’t be seen coming because they are rain-wrapped. This was the case when heavy rain from the accompanying storm made the Wadena tornado difficult to see.

Tornadoes are easiest to see from the southwest side of the storm, as they form on the back edge of the system, and most Minnesota storm systems travel southwest to northeast.

There are three things Bowen said to look for when identifying a potential tornado: rotation, rising and persistence.

Rotation in the cloud is usually counterclockwise. At the same time, there will be a rising motion.

“Take a few minutes and keep watching,” Bowen said, provided it’s safe to do so, for persistence in the rising and rotating motions in the clouds.

Sometimes the classic image of a tornado isn’t visible, but a cloud of debris near the ground is, and that’s an indicator of a tornado.

Bowen stressed that in the case of a tornado, vehicles are not a safe place. They can be picked up and flipped by tornadoes. Highway overpasses are unsafe, as they can act as wind tunnels during tornadoes. Mobile homes and trailers are also unsafe.

Basements, hallways or small interior rooms in sturdy buildings are safest. When those can’t be reached, sometimes the safest thing to do is lie flat in an area of low ground.

Bowen encouraged everyone to have a weather radio, which is available at many stores for around $25-$35. He called the radios a “really key tool to have in your cabin or house.” He also recommended having a portable weather radio for in the boat. Midland is Bowen’s brand of choice for weather radios.

Bowen also discussed warning sirens. He said there isn’t ever an “all clear” siren. Sometimes, the NWS will sound sirens for a fast-moving storm, but then the storm will slow down.

The sirens are programmed to run for three minutes and then stop, Bowen said. If the storm is expected to arrive at 3:25, for example, the sirens might sound at 3:15.

“When you hear the warning, take shelter immediately,” Bowen said.

He said the weather service is happy to hear accurate, on-the-ground weather information from the public, including damage from wind or other weather events, hail size, etc.

In addition to periodic Skywarn classes taught by Bowen, online spotter classes are also available. For more information, visit skywarn.org.

Individuals can also sign up for emergency alerts at the Crow Wing County website, www.crowwing.us, by clicking on “Notify me.”

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