BY MALINDA OSBORNE
It doesn't take a meteorologist to figure out that when the clouds start to darken and the wind starts picking up, it's time to get indoors and turn on a radio.
Fortunately, the Sauk Valley hasn't seen any twister action yet this year, although it's already well into tornado season - March through October in Illinois.
That's not to say area residents shouldn't be prepared, particularly since the state lies in Tornado Alley - a flat stretch of land from Texas to North Dakota, and an ideal breeding ground for tornadoes.
According to www.livescience.com, it's where dry polar air from Canada meets warm moist tropical air from the Gulf of Mexico. In the northern states, more tornadoes occur in the late spring and summer, although they can occur at any time of the year, day or night.
Nocturnal twisters tend to be the most dangerous, because even the most highly trained weather-spotter can have difficulties deciphering just how bad and just exactly where the storm is, said Frank Lachat, emergency coordinator for Lee County amateur radio emergency systems.
"If you don't have a lot of lightning strikes, it's hard to see it coming, so you rely on radar. It gets scary if you can't see where it's at, but we know vantage points," Lachat said.
He and about 26 other trained weather-spotters and amateur radio operators work with the National Weather Service in the Quad Cities to report incidents of severe weather on their ham radios. Many have their own areas scouted out. Lachat's is "Doppler's Hill" on the Ohio ridge, the highest point in the county.
"Amateur radio is used for emergencies, and weather-spotting is kind of an emergency. We hope you don't spot a tornado, because you don't like to see them," said Lloyd Sherman, another weather-watcher and the assistant emergency coordinator for the 35-member amateur radio group in Whiteside County.
Spotters in that region prefer areas north of Sterling, past Oak Knoll Cemetery, and in Prophetstown, an area notorious for tornados, which tend to follow the river, Sherman said.
If you see a dark cloud with a big white cumulus coming out the top, that means there's an updraft, indicating an intense storm that typically produces tornadoes, he said.
In the event of a severe storm, tune in to a local radio or television station, don't call 911. When a disaster occurs, about 70 percent of the calls they receive are nonemergency; "we can't handle that kind of load, and that's taking time away from people who need help," Lee County 911 Director Shelley Dallas said.
People also should not call 911 to report weather sightings, because, unlike law enforcement officers and first responders who also are trained weather-spotters, dispatchers do not have the authority to activate emergency sirens.
Planning ahead is key to surviving a tornado. Families should develop an emergency plan and rehearse it, said Sharon Kersten, Lee County Red Cross disaster services coordinator.
Put together an emergency storm kit in a water-proof container; include a transistor radio, flashlight, batteries and simple first-aid items, and store it in your safe room. It also helps to make a complete inventory of your possessions ahead of time, for insurance purposes.
If a tornado warning is issued, those in a home or high rise without a basement should go to an interior room where there is heavy support. Mobile home residents should get to another location if there is time, Lee County Sheriff John Varga said.
And because tornadoes can reach speeds up to 260 mph, people in cars shouldn't try to outrun them - they should lie in a ditch, and not get under an overpass, where the winds can suck them out, he said.
No matter what, use common sense. Dixon Police Lt. Clay Whelan remembers a tornado that came through south of town, and police activated the warning siren. Much to their dismay, "everyone came out of their houses" to see what was gong on.
Tornado safety tips
* Nationally, about 60 people die each year in tornadoes. Here are some tips for keeping safe:
* A tornado watch means conditions are favorable for tornadoes to develop. A tornado warning means a tornado has actually been sighted. Learn the warning signals used in your community, and if a siren sounds, stay inside and take cover.
* Put together an emergency storm kit including a transistor radio, flashlight, batteries and simple first-aid items in a waterproof container.
* Make a complete inventory of your possessions for insurance purposes.
* Conduct drills with your family in the home; make sure each member knows the correct procedures if they are at work or school when a tornado hits.
* The safest place to be during a tornado is underground, preferably under something sturdy like a work bench. If there's no basement or cellar in your home, a small room in the middle of house, like a bathroom or a closet. The more walls between you and the outside, the better.
* Residents in mobile homes, even those with tiedowns, should seek safe shelter elsewhere at the first sign of severe weather.
* If you live in a mobile home park, talk to management about the availability of a nearby shelter.
* Tornadoes can toss cars and large trucks around like toys. Never try to outrun a tornado.
* If you see a funnel cloud or hear a tornado warning issued on the radio or by siren, get out of your vehicle and seek a safe structure or lie down in a low area with your hands covering the back of your head and neck; keep alert for flash floods.
Source: State Farm Insurance
Reach Malinda Osborne at (815) 625-3600, (815) 284-2222 or (800) 798-4085, ext. 526.