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Disaster drill to prepare Team Offutt for nature's worst

OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb. -- As Winter becomes Spring, April showers often bring more than May flowers to many parts of the central United States. The warmer weather is typically accompanied by thunderstorms, hail and tornadoes. 

Offutt will be participating in a Natural Disaster Readiness Exercise Wednesday to prepare Team Offutt for the worst Mother Nature has to offer. The NDRE will feature a mock tornado warning issued by the National Weather Service and provide an opportunity for Offutt to test its disaster preparedness. 

"It is important for everyone to become familiar with the appropriate emergency procedures within all base organizations in case of severe weather," said Offutt's Emergency Management Chief Rhonda Gioia. 

Both Sarpy County and the base have siren systems that will sound if severe weather is expected. When the Sarpy County system sounds, residents should tune into local TV and radio immediately. The Sarpy County sirens are for the entire county and not just the Bellevue area. If the base sirens sound, Offutt members should continue to monitor TV and radio and move immediately to the shelter area designated by individual units. 

The sirens will sound in a steady tone if a storm warning is issued. 

Technological advances in weather forecasting now allow forecasters to declare severe weather watches before a storm hits. If a watch is implemented, people should take steps to secure items that are outside, shelter family pets and get ready in case a warning is issued and final preparations are needed. 

In an average year, about 1,000 tornadoes are reported across the United States, resulting in 80 deaths and more than 1,500 injuries, according to the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration Web site. 

From 1957 to 2006 there were only eight confirmed tornadoes in Sarpy County, with the last three in the areas of Springfield, Papillion and Gretna. 

Historically, tornadoes that affect Nebraska tend to affect areas with limited population, in the southeastern part of the state. 

Although these statistics might make Offutt seem like a safer location, it's still important to prepare for severe weather, according to the 55th Wing Emergency Management Flight. 

The first step, according to base engineers, is to make a plan for your family. An effective severe weather plan includes a communications plan, emergency supplies and a safe location where family members can meet. Having a plan can help save lives and speed recovery efforts after disasters occur. 

When considering where to shelter in your home, the major concern is protection from flying debris which causes the majority of fatalities. Family members should go to the basement if they have one with an area that can shelter them from debris. If not, consider a first floor bathroom, closet or small interior room. 

If weather reports indicate a storm is in the immediate area, cover yourself and family with blankets, coats or mattresses to provide extra barriers from any debris. 

Also important, according to Civil Engineer Emergency Management Flight experts, is how to stay safe if a tornado catches you in a vehicle. Instead of trying to outrun the storm, you should immediately go into the nearest sturdy building and take shelter. 

If no buildings are nearby, get out of the vehicle and lie flat in a low spot. Do not shelter under bridges or overpasses, which can be more dangerous than flat ground. 

Tornado danger signs 

Learn these tornado danger signs: 
- Large hail. Tornadoes are spawned from powerful thunderstorms and the most powerful thunderstorms produce large hail. Tornadoes frequently emerge from near the hail-producing portion of the storm.
- Cloud of debris. An approaching cloud of debris can mark the location of a tornado even if a funnel is not visible.
- Funnel cloud. A visible rotating extension of the cloud base is a sign a tornado may develop. A tornado is evident when one or more of the clouds turns greenish (a phenomenon caused by hail) and a dark funnel descends.
- Roaring noise. The high winds of a tornado can cause a roar that is often compared with the sound of a freight train. 

Disaster supplies to have ready 

The Sarpy County Emergency Management Agency recommends families keep the following items available in case of an emergency: 

- Flashlight and extra batteries
- First aid kit and manual
- Non-electric can opener
- Portable, battery-operated radio and extra batteries
- Emergency food and water
- Essential medicines
- Cash and credit cards
For information on base closures due to weather, call the Snow and Information Line at 232-9922 or the Offutt Update at 232-2525.