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Preparation key in emergencies

April 6, 2011

This is one of several photographs taken by members of the Vince Building Company of Greensburg and by members of the Greensburg Volunteer Fire Department's Engine Company No. 6, both of whom assisted residents of Fort Allen in Westmoreland County following the tornado that struck March 23. Photo submitted by Jack Bell

Only weeks removed from a March 23 tornado that destroyed 30 homes in western Pennsylvania, Michael A. McAllister, director of Elk County's emergency management office, reminded local residents that a natural disaster can occur anywhere.
"One of the best things that I can advise people is that parents should talk to their kids about what to do during a tornado," McAllister said. "Every spring, we do a statewide weather exercise which is usually based on flooding and tornadoes.
"Every school does a simulated severe weather exercise usually based in tornadoes. So if the kids are getting educated in school and just like they practice fire drills, they practice for severe weather."
The recent tornado touched down in Fort Allen, located in Westmoreland County, and destroyed 30 homes; roughly 60 more were damaged throughout western Pennsylvania.
While no lives were lost during the weather disaster, McAllister said preparation is the key to survival.
"The FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] website, FEMA.gov, has a lot of information on severe weather preparation," McAllister said. "The first thing obviously is the safety issue; if you know a tornado is coming, they should go to the safest part of the house, something solid such as the basement, some people will use bathtubs if that's all they have, block structures below ground, that's really the safest place you can be.
"You don't want to go outside and get in your car and try to beat a tornado-- it's not going to happen, they move pretty quick. The big thing is not getting caught in the tornado unprepared."
Another website, alert.pa.gov, features alert capabilities that can be sent to cell phones.
"It's a free website and what officials have figured is how many people carry cell phones," McAllister said. "If we get alerts, we have weather alerts on the scanner, your TV picks them up, but most people might not be watching or listening to a radio or have a scanner-- that's where the cell phones come in. No matter where they are, they have their cell phone.
"You can go onto this website and choose what alerts to receive on your phone-- you can designate that you just want Elk County severe weather and when we get notified here at this office that there's a tornado, you get notified at the same time."
Those who sign up will receive text messages telling the cell phone user that there is imminent severe weather heading into the area.
"Once people are notified, then they move to safety but the problem is that most people get caught because they don't know about it," McAllister said. "The weather service is very good at tracking but on a regular basis, the way weather changes, we might get the weather alert saying there is a tornado warning and it will be in Ridgway in five minutes-- just because of how things change and you don't have the opportunity to start making phone calls to people.
"In the past, if your agency began with an 'A,' you were OK-- if it was 'C' and beyond, you're in trouble. That's what we're trying to promote, the notification and that you have to be prepared."
Seeking safe shelter is an important aspect to being prepared in the event of a weather disaster.
"You have to learn how to seek shelter and get out of the way, that's what is most important. If you're out in the middle of nowhere and you know one is coming, you're better off being out in the ditches," McAllister said. "Get low where you can, because tornadoes can pick up cars and just mangle them."
According to McAllister, most officials involved in some capacity with emergency services will say that people should plan on being able to maintain themselves for 48 to 72 hours before help arrives.

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