This is only a test: Ohio launches statewide tornado drill

Kathryn McGonagle

A siren rang out and a voice boomed across campus the morning of March 14 as Kent State participated in a statewide tornado drill.

In 2008, the National Weather Service reported that 13 people were fatally wounded during severe weather in Ohio.

Thomas Schmidlin, chair of the geography department, conducted research that changed the Red Cross and National Weather Service’s recommendations for what to do in a tornado, but Kent State’s Web site has yet to be updated.

“There have been deadly tornadoes in the Cleveland area, Akron, all over, so every place is vulnerable,” Schmidlin said. “No place in Ohio is safe from tornadoes and tornadoes can go pretty much wherever they want.”

Schmidlin said Ohio gets about 15 tornadoes a year and Northeast Ohio sees about four to five of those. His research concentrated on the best place for mobile home residents to go during a tornado. For years, both the National Weather Service and Red Cross recommended that if below-ground shelter was unavailable during a tornado, getting into a ditch or depression was the safest place to be. But after 10 years of research, Schmidlin proved them wrong.

“There are few deep ditches that give shelter from the wind and they’re often filled with water,” Schmidlin said. “The first priority should be getting out and finding a sturdy shelter. If you can’t do that then stay in your car, buckled in and wait for the storm to pass.”

If on campus, said students should not worry because the buildings and residence halls are sturdy and have tornado shelter areas. He said students are most likely safer during a tornado on campus than at home.

The Public Safety Department’s emergency guides on Kent State’s Web site, which tell students what to do in many different disaster scenarios, instructs students during a tornado to “get out immediately and go to the lowest floor of a sturdy building. If there is no nearby building still get out — remaining inside a vehicle during a tornado is extremely dangerous.”

As of 2009, the Red Cross and National Weather Service advise those in their car who are unable to find sturdy shelter to “stay in the car with the seat belt on. Put your head down below the windows, covering with your hands and a blanket if possible.”

Matthew Radigan, Kent State police support services manager, said it’s difficult to keep up with the many nuances of every discovery that’s made by Kent State professors and others regarding what to do in an emergency. He said these plans aren’t stagnant but constantly changing, and many organizations have conflicting recommendations.

“There is a personal responsibility for the students, staff, and faculty that in an emergency that prior to that they take some time to familiarize themselves with the information that’s online,” Radigan said.

And though all students should review the emergency guides, he said he’d be surprised if a majority of students have even looked at them.

But some students feel Kent State doesn’t educate students well enough on what to do in a natural disaster.

Kelsey Milloy, freshman hospitality management major, said she doesn’t know what to do if a tornado were to hit Kent State, and she hasn’t looked at the university’s online recommendations.

“If something serious ever happened and we needed to know what to do during a tornado, I definitely think we should know how to handle the situation in a safe way,” Milloy said.

Christine Gion, junior French major and commuter student, also hasn’t looked at the online emergency guides but said she wants the university to do more to educate students about what to do in a tornado.

“I think I would know what to do, but it’s been a while since I’ve done a tornado drill,” Gion said. “It’s important to keep everyone safe if something like that happened.”

Junior anthropology major Anthony Ondrus said he hasn’t been told by anyone what to do if there is a tornado on campus and also hasn’t looked at the online emergency guides and didn’t even know they existed.

“The university should be obligated to at least inform the students of how to go about protecting themselves if there is a tornado,” Ondrus said. “I don’t think they should blow it out of proportion, but it’s definitely something students should know.”

Radigan said there are places like the Allerton parking lot and ball field that aren’t near sturdy shelter for students in severe weather. The recommendation, he said, is to find a ditch and get into it, making yourself as small as possible.

Schmidlin, the Red Cross and the National Weather Service all recommend staying in a vehicle and driving away if possible.

“We do not do regular tornado drills,” Radigan said. “It’s something we’d certainly like to do, but it’s the interruption of the academic day that becomes difficult.”

He said students are paying a lot of money for their education and disrupting classes would reduce the amount of time students have in class.

Daniel Fitzpatrick, associate director of Public Safety, said the annual review of the emergency guides is currently ongoing and there are no plans to change the current tornado warning recommendations.

“They’re changed when the evidence becomes compelling or when FEMA changes their recommendations,” Fitzpatrick said. “We’re not necessarily waiting on FEMA; we’re waiting until the argument becomes compelling.”

The Public Safety Department is working in conjunction with Campus Environment and Operations to upgrade the tornado evacuation signs in the more than 130 buildings on campus. Fitzpatrick said that the evidence has yet to become compelling enough to change the recommendations, but it is good that students have multiple options of what to do when weather conducive to tornadoes occurs.

“We are in an area where there are tornadoes and there’s a responsibility we have to take to keep students safe,” Fitzpatrick said. “These are suggestions that aren’t going to help them at just Kent State, but anywhere.”

Professor Schmidlin said that no matter what path students choose to take, they should take it quickly.

“If you wait until the storm is on you, you may not have enough time,” Schmidlin said. “You don’t keep teaching until the windows start breaking because then it’s too late.”

Radigan agreed that fast, decisive action and knowledge of tornado shelters will save lives.

“I think students need to be informed,” Radigan said. “Our best defense against chaos is information.”

Contact College of Arts and Sciences reporter Kathryn McGonagle at [email protected].