It's severe-weather season -- and time to put your guard up

  • Article by: BILL MCAULIFFE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 18, 2010 - 7:18 AM

A tornado that hit Minneapolis last August was a reminder of the dangers of summer storms.

A television show about tornadoes last summer had an impact on Stephanie Covart-Meyerring.

"I remember thinking how lucky we were to be close to downtown," said Covart-Meyerring, co-owner of the Electric Fetus music store on the southern edge of downtown Minneapolis. "I was so naive. I thought [tornadoes] never came through here."

Monday is the beginning of Severe Weather Awareness Week. Few people have the awareness Covart-Meyerring does now.

Weeks after she breathed that sigh of relief, a surprise, cool-weather tornado, considered weak by most standards, lifted the roof off the landmark shop, broke several display windows, bent gas lines, and scattered bits of the old brick walls. The final phase of the estimated $1 million repair project begins, by coincidence, Monday.

The Aug. 19 tornado was the first in 29 years to strike the city of Minneapolis, where it also destroyed trees and rooftops in south Minneapolis and damaged the steeple at Central Lutheran Church and the roof of the Minneapolis Convention Center downtown.

While it's true that relatively few strike core cities, experts say that's only because tornadoes are small and that as cities grow, twisters will wreak increasing urban damage. Minnesota's last two tornado fatalities, in 2006 and 2008, have been in metro suburbs.

Where the danger lies

Tornadoes are only one of several weather threats common in Minnesota, and in fact aren't even at the top of the list of summertime killers. Heat waves and flash floods rank No. 1 and No. 2, having killed more Minnesotans than tornadoes since 1993. The National Weather Service, the Minnesota Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, and other agencies are taking this week to remind Minnesotans that, despite the calm of recent weeks, destructive weather is again o its way.

"Heat kills more people in Minnesota than any other phenomenon, because we get dehydrated," noted Department of Public Safety spokeswoman Kristine Chapin. "It's ironic, because we're so well-known for our winter weather."

Indeed, books have been written about Minnesota blizzards. But severe weather is more frequently a warm-weather phenomenon because the atmosphere carries more heat energy and water vapor in the summer than it does in the winter. Those are the key ingredients needed for rain, hail, lightning and tornadoes.

Dry conditions the past several summers, and even so far this spring, have created a relative calm across much of the state, and across the Great Plains. The national tornado count is below normal for the year, said Greg Carbin, warning coordination meteorologist for National Weather Service's Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla. An ongoing El Niño might also keep the jet stream running west-to-east across the southern United States, pinning tornado storm tracks below the Upper Midwest.

Storms and the stock market

Last year, a team of more than 100 tornado researchers, the largest group ever mobilized, fanned out across the Great Plains for five weeks in May and June hoping to encounter twisters, but crossed paths with only one. The project, VORTEX2, is scheduled for a second round this year.

But Carbin said that severe weather trends operate much like the stock market: "You can't rely on past performance to give you any kind of indication what the upcoming season will be," he said.

Covart-Meyerring said the Electric Fetus has always trained its employees how to respond to emergency situations, including when to move to the basement, and when to keep customers in the store, or move them out. But she said she's always thought a robbery would be more likely than a tornado. In fact, hearing the noise upstairs from the basement that day last August, Covart-Meyerring said she thought it was a robbery in progress.

This year Covart-Meyerring is making sure that even the basement remodeling at her home includes a comfortable spot to wait out severe weather. "You never know what can happen," she said. "Even at home, I'm telling people you have to have a plan."

Bill McAuliffe • 612-673-7646

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