Time for twisters: Early tornado season brings safety warnings
Western North Dakota has already seen three tornadoes this month and more could be right around the corner.
Last week, tornadoes touched down near Bowman and on the south side of Billings County, and National Weather Service meteorologist Patrick Ayd said it could only be the start of a wild weather summer.
"June and into the first half of July is kind of a peak season for tornadoes across all of North Dakota," Ayd said. "This year, I would say without looking at the same kind of drought that we saw last year, we are probably going to see more severe weather than we did see last year, but right now it's looking like it's going to be anything out of the normal from what we would expect to see any given year."
He said the possibility of a tornado hitting the Dickinson area is slim because the chances of a funnel cloud touching down is unlikely in any specific zone or area. However, the odds of a tornado hitting southwest North Dakota again is highly possible.
"There's definitely going to be additional tornadoes across western and southwestern North Dakota," Ayd said. "The chance of them hitting any single point is quite low, but say within a 50- to 100-mile radius of any town, there's probably 30 to 40 percent chance of somewhere within that huge radius there may be a tornado this year."
Weather that leads up to a tornado varies, but there are some highly common conditions that create tornadoes. Leading up to the tornadoes near Bowman, there was only a fairly weak thunderstorm in the area. But, Ayd said, there was plenty of spin in the atmosphere from the difference in pressure systems, which stretched and formed the tornado.
"(It's) much like a figure skater when they spin. They clinch up the faster they spin," Ayd said. "(A tornado) is able to take the rotation of it's resistance in the atmosphere because of the low-pressure system and stretch that."
However, a light storm is not typical of a leadup to a tornado. According to the NWS, a dark or greenish sky, a wall cloud, large hail, and/or a loud roar similar to that of a freight train can be signs of a coming tornado. Changing wind speeds or direction in vast amounts can also be a telling indications of a forming tornado.
Still, there is no concrete way to tell if a tornado is coming. While there are complicated theories of how to predict a tornado, none are seen as foolproof. Hence, there is no definite way to tell if a tornado is coming until it is already in the making, which is a complicated process.
"A majority of the time, it is severe thunderstorms during the summer in which there will be high humidity levels and a lot of changing winds or wind shift in the atmosphere," Ayd said. "Winds changing speed and direction in the atmosphere are able to get the thunderstorms able to rotate. That rotation of the thunderstorm helps to create hail by lofting the hail up to the thunderstorms several times where it'll collect more and more supercool water to grow bigger and bigger and that rotation also leads to the potential formation of tornadoes."
Though we are now in tornado season, Ayd said that North Dakota has seen tornadoes anywhere from late March to early November.
In essence, they can happen at just about anytime, day or night.
Emergency planning at home
There is no generic way to deal with a tornado, which is why North Dakotans must know what to do in almost any given situation so that when the NWS sends out a tornado warning, the situation doesn't spin out of control.
"In Stark County, we've got sirens which reside in the city of Dickinson and every other incorporated city within the county," Stark County Emergency Manager Bill Fahlsing said. "So when a severe thunderstorm warning is issued, we no longer sound the sirens for the warning, but we do encourage all citizens to be aware of the weather. Stay up to date on the changing weather conditions, and then develop a plan on what citizens or their families will do in the event of severe weather and/or a tornado."
Whenever a tornado warning is announced by NWS, the Stark County Department of Emergency Services will sound the sirens for the appropriate city or wherever the storm will hit.
The most vital lesson Fahlsing could pass along was knowing what to do after the sirens go off. He said that people should be prepared well before the threat of a tornado materializes.
"The biggest piece of advice that I can give to all residents is to have a plan in place," Fahlsing said. "If you are in a unsecure structure, such as a mobile home or an RV, identify friends or family members that have a secure structure that you can stay at."
There are no severe weather or tornado shelters in Stark County, which is why the connection is so key, Fahlsing said.
Fahlsing also stressed being aware of what's going on during a storm. If people are within a stable structure before a storm hits, they are strongly advised to stay where they are.
"Developing that plan is really key, and then maintaining situational awareness so you know what to do if imminent bad weather does hit the area," Fahlsing said. "If we were to have a severe thunderstorm, any severe weather moving through, we don't actually recommend evacuating because that puts the people in harm's way, getting outside of a structure."
Weather safety in the Oil Patch
Others that may be vulnerable to tornadoes or severe weather are workers on area oil rigs.
Not only are they commonly away from shelter, but some rig locations aren't close enough for Stark County sirens to be audible.
The oil industry in North Dakota stresses safety, including weather safety said Katie Haarsager, a spokesperson for Enbridge Pipelines.
Not only does her company have a plan in place for adverse weather conditions, it also practices emergency drills so its employees know how to act swiftly and minimize danger and damages "The safety and security of Enbridge's employees, contractors and visitors is our top priority," Haarsager said Thursday in an email. "We have emergency response plans in place to work promptly and effectively with local emergency responders in the event of any severe weather conditions."
Haarsager said Enbridge employees regularly meet and train with local emergency responders in order to be prepared for tornadoes or any other severe weather that is know to sneak up quickly in North Dakota.
The company's objective for its safety procedures is to not only meet, but exceed regulatory expectations, which are then reviewed and approved by the Office of Pipeline Safety, the federal pipeline safety regulator.
"At Enbridge, we believe the best policy is to be prepared," Haarsager said. "Our operating manuals are written to address most safety situations and outline the proper way for employees to proceed."
Enbridge has a step-by-step process when dealing with weather-related emergencies such as tornadoes or lightning storms.
It first assesses the situation by reviewing weather reports before working and checking for weather that might delay processes during work. Before, during and after any harsh weather, the company also looks for any safety violations that may occur, such as damaged equipment or soft ground that may impair workers' abilities to do their jobs.
"All employees have recommended procedures to follow for each type of weather condition as well as proper safety gear," Haarsager said.
In the unlikely event that tornadoes or severe weather does major harm to its system or equipment, Enbridge has a policy that the entire pipeline be shut down. From there, any damage is inspected and then assessed and if any landowners are by damages to the pipeline, Enbridge representatives compensate them.
"Enbridge will complete a safe repair and resume shipment of product to regional refineries, while completing cleanup and moving toward long-term restoration of the area affected,"