Massachusetts residents know to be prepared in February for driving snow, freezing rain and high winds, but after a tornado tore through the town of Conway in late February there is a new winter hazard to be prepared for.
"It's hard to take these different hazards and tie them to any particular seasons. We now know we can have tornadoes in February," Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency Director Kurt Schwartz said. "So being prepared is an everyday thing because there isn't a time of year when there isn't a threat out there from a natural hazard or other hazards."
The EF-01 tornado that touched down in Conway on Saturday night, Feb. 25, destroyed homes and businesses with maximum estimated wind speeds of 110 miles per hour. The twister in Franklin County was the first to touch down in Massachusetts in the month of February, according to the National Weather Service.
Since 1950, when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's historical record begins, there have been 170 tornado touchdowns in Massachusetts, according to the NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information. Every county in the state except for Nantucket has experienced a tornado, and they have resulted in 105 deaths, 1,560 injuries and more than $533 million in property damage, according to NOAA.
Since 1980, tornadoes have touched down 57 times in Massachusetts —17 times in the 1980s, 15 during the 1990s, 10 during the 2000s and 15 since the start of 2010, according to data from NOAA. Nationally, however, the last five years have all seen below average tornado activity, NOAA said.
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"I've been either here at MEMA or supervising MEMA for going on 11 years and in the past 11 years I would say that we get one to three a year," Schwartz said.
MEMA does not have a dedicated tornado preparedness program, Schwartz said, but instead takes an "all hazards" approach to preparedness.
"Tornadoes are relatively rare, earthquakes are relatively rare, hurricanes are relatively rare; so there are a lot of threats and hazards out there that are relatively rare but they cause similar types of impacts," he said. "So each year as we go through the process of preparing for hurricane season we prepare our search and rescue capabilities, we prepare our ability to deploy technical rescue for collapsed buildings, we prepare for debris removal, we prepare to stand up an incident command in the field on short notice ... we are always preparing for the types of impacts you're going to see in a tornado."
Though MEMA prepares to respond to a tornado, the agency also works to educate residents about household preparedness and what they should do as severe weather approaches.
"We continue to remind the public they need to know how to receive information and have to have a way to receive timely information about fast-breaking or emergency events, and a tornado is a perfect example," Schwartz said, adding that the public needs to take severe thunderstorm watches and warnings seriously. "People need to have a plan, people need to think in advance ... be able to get info in a timely way, have a plan, practice your plan and have a kit, have the resources in your house and in your car that you're going to need if there is an emergency."
Because tornadoes are rare in Massachusetts, Schwartz said, MEMA uses the anniversaries of the 1953 Worcester tornado, the 2011 tornado in the Springfield area and others as reminders of the power of nature.
"We will continue to use Conway to remind people that tornadoes happen in Massachusetts," he said. "Apparently even in February."