In the eye of the storm

Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 2, 2004

AHOSKIE – &uot;The National Weather Service has issued a tornado warning…Doplar radar has indicated that the direction of the storm is in your path…seek shelter inside a building immediately…&uot;

As I listened to the warning inside a small trailer in Ahoskie, I watched closely as the meteorologist gave an NBC news Special Report on surviving severe storms. &uot;If you’re inside a house when a tornado warning is issued, take cover in an interior hallway, head to the lowest level of the home, drop to the floor and protect your eyes and face…&uot; The rain was coming down faster and I could hear the thunder in the distance.

It sounded like the storm was getting closer.

On the television, the meteorologist continued to give advice. &uot;…Avoid open rooms. If you’re out shopping when a tornado warning is issued take shelter in the center of the building or go to the lowest level, never go into the parking lot. If you’re outside, seek shelter in a sturdy building. If you are in a vehicle or mobile home, get out and lie flat on the ground in a ditch and protect your eyes and face.&uot;

The siren on the weather band radio sounded another alert, warning people in the storm’s path to take cover. Doplar radar indicated the storm was indeed in our path. The rain was intensifying with each passing moment and the thunder was getting closer.

I could hear the voice of the meteorologist. He was talking about the importance of preparing ahead of time with a carton of disaster supplies. &uot;Many people get confused between tornado warnings and tornado watches, but they need to know the difference.

&uot;When a tornado watch is issued, it means the conditions are favorable for the formation of severe weather. However, when a tornado warning is issued, it indicates that a tornado has actually been spotted; either by the human eye or by doplar radar and there is a definite danger.&uot;

The rain was a chaotic downpour of water marked by splashing so hard I could barely distinguish the pattern of the raindrops. A hollow rumble of thunder turned to a symphony of loud booming accompanied by flashes of lightning. &uot;…Thunder and lightning develop very quickly,&uot; came the studio voice. &uot;Flash flooding and hail are characteristic of these storms and they often cause crop damage, present driving hazards and…&uot;

Instantly, his voice fell silent in the darkened room as the power blinked out, leaving only the sound of furious rain, rushing wind and lightning so fierce it sounded like somebody was snapping industrial power lines inside the house.

The floor of the trailer vibrated from the vicious rage of the storm and almost too suddenly, my ears were filled with a muddled roar of nature’s madness. This was the sound of a tornado, a freight train accurately described, so deafening a scream would scarcely be heard. Yet unlike the devastation that follows a real tornado, this simulation intended to bring about storm safety and awareness was completely harmless.

Made possible by a grant from FEMA, the Ahoskie Fire Department is using the specially designed trailer as a means of educating the community about storm and fire safety.

&uot;We applied for the grant and received it sometime in July,&uot; said Ahoskie Fire Chief Ken J. Dilday. &uot;The trailer is 36 1/2 feet long by eight feet wide and is designed to resemble the inside of a mobile home.&uot;

Powered by a generator affixed to the module, it is fully equipped with electricity, a/c, heat, a functional stove and microwave, television, VCR, weather band radio, telephone, video cameras, closed circuit television monitors, surround sound speakers and stereo equipment, a door knob that is heated for the kids to practice touching the door to check for possible fire and duct work that blows chemically created smoke to simulate the atmosphere inside a building on fire.

&uot;According to the federal government, less than one percent of funds are used for prevention, so when we applied for the trailer out of the fire prevention category, the federal government gave us a 90/10 match, $33,300 on their part and the remaining $3,700 on ours,&uot; said Dilday.

The trailer, which will be used for conducting fire safety and storm survival training, will be able to travel to various schools and other locations in the county and doubles as a command center in the event of a natural disaster.

&uot;I think it’s really good,&uot; said Hertford County Public School Principal Ron Lane who came out to preview the simulation and offer his input on what age groups the training would be suitable for.

&uot;We had a lot of kids who lost their homes as a result of Hurricane Isabel last year and some who have lost their homes to fires as well and I think it’s a wonderful program to educate them,&uot; he said.

&uot;We have a fire drill every month and have gotten the kids down to a minute and a half, but our tornado drills are approximately two times that. The kids don’t take it as seriously as a fire drill. I think if they could experience this simulation, it would have more of an impact on them than simply hearing a warning on the news,&uot; he added.

Lane recommended students in the fourth grade and up for participation in the program, stating that he felt it might be too traumatic for younger children.

&uot;This is definitely not for kindergarten or first graders,&uot; said Chief Dilday, &uot;but this type of feedback is exactly what we were looking for.&uot;

The storm simulation runs for about 24 minutes, which would likely be split up the fire training to keep the program from running too long.

&uot;We are already booked to go to Bearfield Elementary during the first week in October for Fire Prevention week,&uot; said Dilday. &uot;The severe weather would likely be done during the peak of May or June when we tend to get more storms.&uot;

The mobile unit also has ramps to provide access to handicapped individuals and a smoke detector for the hearing impaired.

&uot;It’s really great,&uot; said Chuck Munford, a fire fighter with the Ahoskie Fire Department. &uot;When the kids are waiting to go inside the trailer, they can view what is happening inside from the closed circuit T.V.’s, so it kind of prepares them for the experience.&uot;

The unit can accommodate between 15 and 20 students per presentation and is available for booking at schools and other facilities to aid in fire and storm safety.

The Ahoskie Fire Department is currently in the process of acquiring a truck to pull the mobile unit so that it may bring the demonstration to others desiring to participate in the program.

For more information or to book a date, contact the Ahoskie Fire Department at: 252-332-3322.