tornado clean up

The National Weather Service confirmed that a tornado briefly touched down in West Cocalico Township, Lancaster County, late Sunday, May 19, 2019. A tree that smashed through a mobile home on Oak Ridge Park in West Cocalico Township was removed by a crane on Tuesday, May 21.

THE ISSUE

The National Weather Service confirmed that a tornado touched down Sunday night in West Cocalico Township, LNP’s Lindsey Blest reported. A “line of powerful storms ripped roofs from houses, flattened trees and tossed outbuildings around,” Blest noted. Several people were injured, though none suffered life-threatening injuries. Dozens of houses sustained structural damage in West and East Cocalico townships. With winds of 105 mph, and measuring roughly 125 yards wide, the tornado touched down for two minutes, wreaking destruction for a mile, the National Weather Service said Tuesday.

The roof of the ranch house belonging to Sandra and Charlie Thom, of West Cocalico Township, blew away Sunday night.

It just had been replaced Friday. The rancher the Thoms had built more than 20 years ago still stood Monday, but the contents of its main floor had been damaged.

The Thoms, who wisely took sanctuary in their basement during the storm, were uninjured. And while she told Blest that her “head hasn’t caught up with the reality” of what had happened, Sandra Thom was grateful she and her husband were physically unscathed.

“The rest is just stuff,” she said.

Indeed.

When their heads catch up to their hearts, the Thoms may experience pangs of regret over the material damage to their home and its contents. And no one would blame them — keepsakes and photos, especially, are hard to let go. But Sandra Thom’s first instinct was to be grateful for what really mattered.

If only more of us shared her perspective.

We fill our homes with stuff, and occupy our hours in the pursuit of more stuff. And none of it really matters, so long as we and our loved ones are safe.

So please heed these words: When a tornado warning for your area sounds, do what the Thoms did and go to your basement to wait out the storm.

If you don’t have a basement, go to an interior room on the lowest floor in your home — an interior hallway, for example. Stay away from windows and doors. Thick blankets or sleeping bags can help shield you from flying debris.

If you’re walking outside or driving, or reside in a mobile home, seek shelter in the nearest sturdy building.

And when the storm passes, if you’re able, do what Steve Leed, of West Cocalico, did.

After the winds had quieted Sunday night, Leed said he emerged from his basement and checked on his neighbors. The roof had flown off the nearby house of an elderly couple (not the Thoms). He found the couple in the basement of their home with a refrigerator blocking the door. Leed helped them out of the basement and took them back to his house. He said both had been injured by debris and were taken to the hospital. He told Blest he also checked on the Thoms.

And he smartly waited until it was safe to do so. The last thing emergency responders need is for people to take chances during severe weather.

This being Lancaster County, it wasn’t surprising to learn that neighbors helped neighbors. Or that volunteers turned out to help residents clear branches from felled trees.

That a tornado briefly touched down here wasn’t surprising either.

We may associate tornadoes with Tornado Alley states such as Nebraska, South Dakota and, of course — thanks to “The Wizard of Oz” —\!q Kansas.

But as LancasterOnline reported earlier this week, “Pennsylvania has seen a record number of tornadoes in 2019, with 16 touching down since the beginning of the year.”

And of the nearly 900 tornadoes recorded in Pennsylvania since 1950, according to National Weather Service data, more than 30 were in Lancaster County.

So when a tornado or severe weather warning is sounded here, we ought to take it seriously.

Apparently, we missed Severe Weather Awareness Week in late April (we were surprised, frankly, to learn that a week was designated as such).

Some of the advice offered by the National Weather Service for a severe thunderstorm is the same as for a tornado. For instance: “When indoors, go to an interior room on the lowest level. Stay away from windows and exterior doors.”

But this piece of advice surprised us because we assumed it was a myth: “Do not use electrical appliances and avoid using the telephone, as lightning can travel through electrical and telephone lines.”

This is true just for landlines, not for cellphones. (The more you know.)

If you’re driving when a severe thunderstorm hits, the weather service advises you to “safely pull over to the side of the road until the storm passes. Heavy rain falling from any thunderstorm can flood roads quickly, so never try to drive through an area where water covers the road, even if you think it is shallow.”

The National Weather Service calls lightning “the most underrated weather hazard. ... Studies have shown most people struck by lightning are struck not at the height of a thunderstorm, but before and after the storm has peaked.”

The weather service urges people to remember this rule: “When thunder roars, go indoors and stay there until 30 minutes after the last clap of thunder.”

As the effects of climate change worsen, and our weather grows more severe, we’re going to need to pay as much attention to summer storms as we do to winter ones. (Weather isn’t climate, but climate change certainly impacts our weather.) We are going to need to be prepared.

Checking that one’s homeowners or renters insurance is up to date is a good idea, and so, too, is having our insurers’ contact information at hand. The Pennsylvania Insurance Department suggests that we take inventory of our homes and photograph or take a video of our belongings (a link for an inventory checklist is here). Note: Standard homeowners insurance won’t cover flood damage.

In the end, of course, that just has to do with stuff.

The most important thing we can do is to respect a storm’s potential to wreak havoc and cause harm. And, when a storm is looming, get ourselves and those we love to safety.