BRIDGEPORT, W.Va. — West Virginia’s deadliest tornado hit Harrison and its surrounding counties 75 years ago, claiming more than a hundred lives and injuring hundreds of others.
Numerous severe thunderstorms and tornadoes have since affected the Mountain State, leading the region’s experts to assure are all prepared.
“We always think that things can’t or won’t happen here. That we aren’t prone to events like tornadoes, but the reality is that it can happen here,” said Laura Pysz, director of Harrison County Office of Emergency Management. “This year will be the 75th anniversary of the Shinnston tornado, and it serves as a reminder that we should always be prepared for anything that Mother Nature can throw our way.”
To kick off West Virginia Severe Weather Awareness Week, representatives from the West Virginia Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, Harrison County Emergency Management, and the National Weather Service gathered for a news conference at the Harrison County Emergency Management Agency in Bridgeport, with the message that it has and can happen here.
“It was a 60-mile long track tornado and up to a mile wide at times, so we’re talking about a tornado that you would think would occur in Oklahoma or Kansas but happened right here in Harrison County,” Tony Edwards, Warning Coordination Meteorologist with the National Weather Service West Virginia. “It’s important to understand that large and deadly tornadoes have happened in the past, and they can happen again in the future.”
The F4 tornado ripped through Harrison, Marion, Taylor and Barbour Counties before blowing out in Randolph County, Pysz said.
Though Harrison County no longer has sirens due to their inability to cross mountaintops and ridges, Pysz said we are better prepared today than in 1944.
“We have better warning systems in place since that time,” she said. “Between your local TV and news outlets, social media, and warnings that can be alerted on your cell phone, there’s a great deal of advanced notice that can happen before an emergency takes place.”
In Harrison County and many others throughout the Mountain State, residents can subscribe to a free emergency notification system. Subscribers will not only receive alerts for situations like boil water advisories and road closures, but also the weather watches and warnings that are issued for the area.
“Make sure no matter where you live, you subscribe to these free notification systems,” Pysz said.
Additionally, she said, hospitals now have generators in place to continue performing vital services in the event that power would be disrupted.
“No matter how well we are prepared, residents still need to make sure that they are prepared,” Pysz said. “Have a family emergency plan. Know where your family would meet or communicate in a time of a disaster. Be informed and be prepared because it’s not if an event will happen, but it’s when.”
Continuing with preparedness, a Statewide Tornado Safety Drill will be held at 10:30 a.m. Tuesday, with all residents urged to practice safety measures.
Though statewide tornado drills are performed annually, this year’s will be initiated with a live tornado warning issued from the National Weather Service, assuring it will be played on many more devices.
“At that time, we hope that people will go to their safe space — lowest floor, interior rooms, away from windows and doors,” Edwards said. “If folks are in a trailer, we want them to understand that mobile homes are not safe in tornadoes and it’s best to be outside laying down in the ditch than riding out that tornado in a mobile home.
“That goes against people’s perceptions of safe, but it’s a fact that a lot of people’s lives have been saved when they’re laying down in a ditch, and their trailer or mobile home is totally destroyed,” he said.
In the event of a real-life warning, residents are urged to get inside, stay away from doors and windows, avoid using running water, avoid using landline phones or anything plugged into an electrical outlet, and for those unable to get to sturdy shelter — get into a car but do not touch anything metal.
“One of the best things people can do to be safe and prepared is develop a 72-hour emergency kit,” Edwards said. “It’s just 72 hours worth of food, water, and medicine and anything you need to be comfortable for 72 hours.
“It can take up to 72 hours for emergency responders to get to you when all communications are cut off, all access to your property has been cut off, so you need to be self-sufficient for up to 72 hours,” he said. “We want everyone to come out of this week more prepared than when they entered it.”
To learn more about severe weather safety and the Statewide Tornado Safety Drill, visit https://dhsem.wv.gov/