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Tackling Tornadoes Takes Teamwork

Photo of a tornado near Traer, Iowa.

A tornado churns up dust in the sunset light near Traer, Iowa. (Photo by Brian Goddard, NOAA) Courtesy Photo

The U.S. flag standing atop mounds of debris where homes were destroyed by a tornado.

Tornado aftermath can be seen in Moore, Okla., May 28, 2013. An EF-5 tornado ripped through Moore, May 20, 2013, leveling schools, houses and businesses. (DoD photo by Tech. Sgt. Roberta A. Thompson, U.S. Air National Guard)

OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb. --

Across military operations, weather influences the entire spectrum of planning to execution. From carrier groups routing around typhoons to installations evacuating aircraft in advance of a hurricane, weather drives human behavior daily. Within the 557th Weather Wing, forecasters are preparing now to alert units of potential severe weather this spring and ultimately drive behavior that protects personnel and assets.    

As a winter for the history books wrapped up, the Airmen and training staff of the three continental U.S.-based operational weather squadrons honed in on convective season as one of their primary targets.

An important mission of Air Force meteorologists at an operational weather squadron is to ensure the safety of partnered units and the Airmen and families within them. These regional forecasting units support the Department of Defense, Total Force and Army and Air Force locations. With the coming of the spring season, powerful and fast-forming phenomena like tornadoes, hail, strong winds and lightning pose an increased threat to assets, installations and personnel defending the nation. A large hail event at Laughlin AFB in 2016 resulted in $134 million in damage to 39 aircraft. More recently, a tornado caused nearly $20 million in damage to infrastructure and aircraft at Offutt AFB as it moved across the airfield in 2018.

“To meet the challenge of increased environmental threats, forecasters have already completed specialized seasonal battle rhythm and continuation training aimed at quickly interpreting storms,” said Lt. Col. Perry Sweat, 1st Weather Group deputy commander.  “A key forecaster responsibility is to provide installation commanders with maximum time to mitigate damage to property and potential loss of life.”

From April through August 2020, the 15th and 26th Operational Weather Squadrons issued more than 170 tornado warnings for their supported installations in the eastern U.S.

Once bases have been warned of impending severe weather, it is crucial that Airmen and their families follow the guidance of their emergency management agencies. The key to success is preparedness. Becoming familiar with the installation notifications can save lives. Knowing where to shelter will prevent confusion, and shelter-in-place spaces are displayed in all buildings. Avoid taking cover from storms in areas with windows or potential debris. People can use their arms to protect their head and neck. These basic steps will dramatically decrease potential injuries during tornadoes for those who are unable to get to a pre-determined shelter. It is important for everyone to make preparations for severe weather in their homes as well. Have a location identified for family members to gather and have an emergency kit available. For a detailed list of items to put in emergency kits, visit https://www.ready.gov/kit.

This year, the coronavirus pandemic warrants additional precautions when sheltering in public. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have made guidelines publicly available here: https://www.cdc.gov/disasters/hurricanes/covid-19/public-disaster-shelter-during-covid.html.

Whether predicting adversary actions due to weather or driving friendly actions to shelter assets and protect service members, 557th Weather Wing forecasters are ready to provide commanders with critical decision-making information.   

“Our mission is not to provide products, we provide a skillset vital to operations,” said Col. Steven Vilpors, 557th Weather Wing Vice Commander. “Our Airmen apply their environmental knowledge every single day to assess operational risk to the force and mission.”