Michael Kasitz worked for APSU for six years, and he was the chief of APSU Police before July this year. Note that the interview is paraphrased rather than exact words based on notes I made during the interview since it was my first time so take the dialogue with a grain of salt. I try to be as accurate as I can. However, he had some interesting thoughts on the weather, especially tornadoes. The interview is below. My dialogue is in bold while Kasitz’s is plain.
I have done a lot of research in meteorology and atmospheric science in the past, and my projects during past couple summers involved instrumentation and programming for severe weather and tropical cyclones. However, I am curious how folks involved in safety and emergency management approach severe weather or other inclement weather scenarios. So, what do you think is the biggest weather concern here at Austin Peay?
Tornadoes are definitely the major concern here at Austin Peay. They’re considered life and safety issues here, so we have to send out text alerts, sound the campus sirens, put out messages on-campus computers, and use all other methods of warning people should a tornado warning be issued for Clarksville by National Weather Service. We also have storm shelters under Governor’s Terrance North, South and Eriksson that automatically open during tornado warnings.
Well, it’s interesting to point out that the research showed that roughly half of all recorded tornadoes that occurred in Tennessee happened after dark. What do you think about these nocturnal tornadoes?
Nocturnal tornadoes are special concerns since most people are usually sleeping at that time. Some people are deep sleepers, and we had a few who slept through fire alarms before. Although, hall staff will ensure that each student is safe, even though they would have to wake the students up themselves.
Interesting. When I went to Oklahoma for a summer internship, the program director told me that I should not worry too much about tornadoes after 10 p.m even in the middle of the Tornado Alley. I also got a surprised look from someone who lived in Oklahoma for years when I mentioned that I got up at 2, 3… 5 a.m. in the morning for tornado warnings.
Even nocturnal tornadoes are rare in Oklahoma, they still can happen at any time of the day.
Yes, that sounds about right. Anyway, what are some top weather concerns for Austin Peay besides tornadoes?
We do have severe thunderstorms like the one we saw this summer.
I saw the whole thing on the radar, satellite and social media from Boulder, Colorado. Any others?
We saw some flash flood or river flooding before, especially during 2010. Since we’re close to rivers, it still poses issues for APSU.
I do remember that during my freshman year here, a remnant of Hurricane Harvey dumped at least six inches of rainfall in such a short period of time here in Clarksville.
I want to add that a major earthquake from New Madrid Fault under the Mississippi River is still a very small, but potentially devastating possibility.
Right, I heard about New Madrid earthquakes. I wanted to ask you about extreme heat since Clarksville seems to see at least a few advisories and warnings every summer. Do you think that heatwaves are a recurring issue here?
Yes. We do have heat-related illnesses, such as heat exhaustion and heat strokes, here. The humidity here just makes it much worse, but hopefully, things would cool down some as we head into fall. We never know, though. Unfortunately, we have a few children die in hot cars every summer, too. They are tragic.
That’s sad. So, you mentioned severe thunderstorms as one of the top concerns, how a severe thunderstorm warning is addressed here?
We use the speakers on campus sirens to inform people. In most cases, we do not use text alert for severe thunderstorms since text alerts are reserved for life and safety issues. We want to avoid desensitizing people to text alerts or causing panic.
What if the severe thunderstorm in question is a very intense storm?
We look at severe thunderstorm warnings for the information since severe thunderstorms are case-by-case situations. We also watch how a storm progresses. If we think that the storm does pose dangers to the lives and safety of people on campus, we will treat it accordingly. It was a bit of close call with one we had this summer because straight-line winds can be as strong as weak tornadoes.
Okay, that means if there is a severe thunderstorm producing a combination of baseball-sized hail and 80+ mph winds, or there is high-end derecho producing hurricane-force winds, you would use text alerts for the severe thunderstorm warning?
That’s correct. Obviously, they’re very dangerous storms.
Going back to tornadoes, how would you approach potentially strong to violent tornadoes? Perhaps a tornado emergency?
APSU was struck by an F-3 tornado in January 1999 at 4 a.m., but new buildings that were constructed during recovery were more durable and well-constructed compared to the older ones. Also, Governor’s Terrance North, South and Eriksson were built in 2013, and underground storm shelters were added to those.
That would help. About tornado emergency, I wish to point out that 1999 Clarksville F-3 took place a few months before a National Weather Service meteorologist in Oklahoma issued the first-ever tornado emergency for Bridge Creek / Moore, Oklahoma F-5. It turned out that the twister had the fastest measured winds of at least 300 mph, and it went through a populated area. Nowadays, tornado emergencies are issued if a tornado approaching or already in a populated area is suspected to be very strong to violent. There were several issued for along-track EF-4 tornado that touched down in urban Tuscaloosa, Alabama on April 27, 2011.
Interesting, I want to share my story from Kentucky. Many years ago, there was a tornado siren in a town that went off so many times that people became desensitized to it and ignored it. One day, the siren went off again so people weren’t paying attention, but there was a tornado coming. Three people got killed as a result of them not responding to the siren. Afterward, people took shelter every time the siren went off.
That was an interesting story. I am curious. Should, in a very small chance, a violent, long-track tornado is going to hit Austin Peay or Clarksville in general and the National Weather Service issue a tornado emergency for that tornado, how would it be addressed? Would you use strong wordings?
It would be treated as if it is a normal tornado warning, but the messages would be updated and amended with all of the available information regarding the tornado. There may be strong wordings, such as ‘there is a very large, potentially violent tornado on the ground approaching Clarksville.’
Okay, regarding safe places, there are some building that has no basement or underground shelter.
For those without, I’d recommend going to the lowest floor and stay away from the window. Bathrooms are good place, and try avoiding exterior walls.
That’s what I would do. I usually go to the bathroom in my apartment. I also frequent at Maynard because of my math classes, so I’d go to the 1st-floor bathroom.
Also, at the previous university I worked at, there was a 20-story dorm building that does not have enough space in an underground shelter for all students. So, the students took cover in stairwells up to 6th floor during tornado warnings.
I do remember back in February 2018, I went back into Sevier Hall to take cover when tornado warning went out while I was watching lightning outside of Subway. The National Weather Service confirmed tornado on the ground on radar using debris signatures. It turned out that there were two tornadoes in Montgomery County.
It was a very close call with these tornadoes, but had a tornado struck APSU campus, what would be done?
Someone noticed debris falling through a hole in Dunn. It was roughly same time Dunn Center was struck by lightning during a tornado warning, however.
We would start checking for damages, and start search and rescue if necessary. We would start at worst damaged areas and evacuate these buildings until they are determined by structural engineers to be safe.
So, what would be the worst-case scenario?
Also, you mentioned that nocturnal tornadoes are special concerns, I’d agree since they’re nearly impossible to see.
EF-4 or 5 tornadoes. It can destroy well-constructed buildings.
Yes, we may not see the tornado itself, but we can see power flashes when it hits power lines.
Yes, we do have fast storms here. Good thing the National Weather Service keeps up with their pace well.
Radar could be used to observe tornadoes after dark. Tornadoes could be hidden in heavy rain even in the daytime. We had an EF-4 tornado in Great Smoky Mountains National Park fifteen miles from where I lived at that time. I was in middle school then. No one saw it as far as I know, and one hiker who was in the area said that he thought it was heavy rainfall and winds until someone told him that he had a close run-in with a mile-wide EF-4 tornado. Lastly, it seemed that the storms here move much faster on average compared to Plain storms. Normally 45-70+ mph.