"It can't happen here" and "it can't happen to me" are phrases commonly heard when it comes to extreme weather or emergency situations.
But with the recent string of tornadoes which hit the South and Midwest more than a month before what is considered tornado season - and the devastating effects they left behind - local weather, insurance and emergency management officials agree it can't hurt to be prepared.
Dan Boyles, director of Blair County Emergency Management, said everyone should have a prepared, written and well-rehearsed plan that can be used in the wake of any emergency or disaster.
Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski
Southern Alleghenies American Red Cross emergency response specialist Jayme Houck prepares an American Red Cross Preparedness Kit.
"I call it a pregame show," he said. "That's what you're doing. You're putting a pregame plan together to keep yourself safe, along with everyone in your jurisdiction."
Boyles said the plan needs to spell out the "who, what, when, where, why" - or whose job it is to complete safety tasks in the most efficient and timely manner. He also suggested making an emergency kit complete with "anything that will make you operational," like necessary medications, flashlights, granola bars, dried fruits, bottles of water and emergency numbers or points of contact.
Families may also want to practice their emergency plans, Boyles said, even going so far as living without electricity for 24 hours. This type of practice could mitigate what Boyles said is the most widely-held misconception about extreme weather events.
"It won't happen here, that's the biggest thing," he said, adding last summer's earthquake and the tornado two years ago in the southern part of the county.
Bill Syrett, manager of the Joel N. Myers Weather Center in State College and Penn State lecturer in meteorology, said the weather-related event our region is most at risk for is flash flooding. However, after a mild winter, there is a lower chance of flooding this year with the decline in snow melt.
"I don't think there's anything across Pennsylvania except on ski slopes," he said.
Warmer winters don't necessarily increase our risk for tornadoes, Syrett said, but as recent events would suggest, he's not sure if a warm-weather trend would cause tornado season to start coming earlier than then usual May to June time frame.
"This is not a forecast, but this trend would suggest severe weather seasons may be early," he said, adding that this also includes things like hailstorms and damaging winds.
Since it's not easy to predict when and where severe weather instances will strike, Syrett said it's important that people take severe weather warnings seriously.
"Obviously, if a warning is issued, the National Weather Service's objective is to protect life," he said. "People can get a false sense of security and ignore warnings, but I don't think it's wise to treat any of them lightly."
The best thing Syrett suggests is buying a weather radio with battery back-up and an alarm that will wake you up during an emergency situation at night.
"Just be aware that it can happen any time of year, and keep your eyes open," he said.
Homeowners and renters should also be aware of how well they're set up to deal with the devastating effects of an emergency. According to State Farm Insurance spokesman Dave Phillips of the Glen Mills office, the top two claims made in Pennsylvania are for water and wind and hail damages. In terms of cost, the average water claim costs the homeowner $5,396 and wind and hail claims cost an average of $7,545.
Phillips said damage from earthquakes and sinkholes is also on the rise. And unfortunately, coverage for some of these catastrophes isn't covered under certain homeowners policies.
"Unfortunately, people find out after disasters that their coverage is not applicable," Phillips said.
Tammy Kehr, an Altoona State Farm Insurance agent, said the same trend in weather-related claims also apply to our area. Because homeowners policies are not uniform from company to company or regulated by the state like car insurance, Kehr suggests that anyone unsure of what their policy covers should review it with their agent.
"After going through the most terrible thing of your in life, it can really help put the pieces back together," she said of things like renter's insurance, which cannot only ensure damaged belongings, but provide reimbursement for living expenses and alternative housing.
"That's a thing people don't often think about, "What if I can't live in my home?," she added.
Kehr said the best line of defense against disaster is to just be informed of what's going on around you and planning ahead.
"Stay informed and have a plan, that's what it is," she said. "You do it in school. ... You don't always think about those things in your personal life anymore, but they're important whether you're an individual or have a family."
The Blair County Emergency Services office offers free classes on emergency preparation that can be given to schools, church groups and other community organizations. Call 940-5905 for more information.
Mirror Staff Writer Beth Ann Downey is at 946-7520.