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Though twisters can occur any time of the year, tornado season is in full swing across much of the nation and Naval Support Activity South Potomac (NSASP) emergency officials are emphasizing the importance of taking all the appropriate precautions. Sadly, 55 people have already perished at the time of writing in storms that devastated states in the Midwest and South. Though Virginia and Maryland are not part of Tornado Alley, the central area of the United States that experiences the most frequent and damaging storms, deadly twisters can and often do touchdown in the region.

Less than 10 years ago, southern Maryland was devastated by a tornado that caused F4-level damage and killed five people. That infamous storm, the most powerful ever recorded in the state, destroyed large swaths Charles and Calvert Counties. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA's) National Climactic Data Center (NCDC), it was only one of 323 tornadoes recorded in Maryland since 1950; in Virginia, 700 tornadoes occurred during the same timeframe, including six in King George County.

"Tornadoes are the most violent storms nature can develop," said Tim Bennett, emergency management director for NSASP. "They are formed from large thunderstorms that begin rotating. When they begin their rotation they typically become a funnel shaped cloud extending from the sky to the ground. The most violent aspect is the wind speeds that can reach up to 300 miles per hour. As we have recently and tragically seen, they can annihilate entire towns and cause many fatalities and injuries."

Situational awareness is the key to staying safe during tornado season. "Unfortunately [tornadoes] develop so rapidly that little to no advance warning is possible," said Bennett. "If you do receive a warning, go immediately to an interior room or a basement, as you normally have less than five minutes to take precautionary actions. The most important tip is to be aware of the surrounding weather and the clues you can see."

NSASP-hosted personnel are encouraged to enroll in two Navy disaster management systems. The Naval District Washington (NDW) Wide Area Alert System (WAAN) can alert personnel about emergency situations though email, text and phone calls; the Navy Family Accountability and Assessment System (NFASS) helps authorities maintain accountability of Navy personnel in the wake of an emergency.

Additionally, county-wide alert systems are in place in King George and Charles Counties. Enrollees will receive potentially life-saving text and email alerts in the event of an emergency, with localized information and instructions. For more information about these free services, visit www.kgalert.com and http://www.charlescountycns.com.

Preparing for tornadoes is only part of a comprehensive emergency management plan, however. Bennett reiterated how important it is for all NSASP-hosted personnel to prepare for all kinds of disasters, be they natural or man-made. "To begin preparing, you should build an emergency kit and make a family communications plan," he said.

The Navy has online resources to help its service members, employees and their families do just that. For a list of items that should be included in an emergency kit, visit http://www.cnic.navy.mil/navycni/groups/public/pub/hq/eprr/documents/document/cnic_042014.pdf

Guidance about how one can put together a family communications plan is also available online at http://www.cnic.navy.mil/navycni/groups/public/pub/hq/documents/document/cnip_047116.pdf

While the recently-installed Giant Voice systems onboard Naval Support Facilities (NSFs) Dahlgren and Indian Head will announce instructions in case of dangerous storms, the unpredictable nature of tornadoes is such that all individuals have a responsibility to stay tuned to the weather report and keep an eye on the sky.

"Listen to NOAA Weather Radio or to commercial radio or television newscasts for the latest information," said Bennett. "In any emergency, always listen to the instructions given by local emergency management officials. Be alert to changing weather conditions. Look for approaching storms."

The following is a list of tornado danger signs offered by Bennett:

*Dark, often greenish sky

*Large hail

*A large, dark, low-lying cloud (particularly if rotating)

*Loud roar, similar to a freight train.

"If you see approaching storms or any of the danger signs," said Bennett, "be prepared to take shelter immediately!"