Thunderstorms can be an awe-inspiring glimpse into the power of Mother Nature, but their fury presents real risks if you are caught off guard when storms approach while you're outdoors.
Severe weather can develop at any time of year, so it's best to prepared. If you plan on spending time in one of the Forest Preserve District's preserves, know the forecast before you go, Forest Preserve Police Chief Tracy Chapman advised.
"We have such good information readily available now," she said. "Just follow the weather (forecast) and check before you go."
You should also consider installing a weather app on your cell phone that will alert you to approaching bad weather and any weather warnings. For example, the American Red Cross's free Emergency: Alerts app is available on both iPhone and Android phones.
Know the difference between severe weather watches and warnings. A watch is issued when conditions are favorable for severe weather to develop, while a warning is issued when severe weather is imminent.
When you arrive at a preserve, take a look around to find the best place to take shelter in the event a storm hits. While outdoors, keep your eyes on the skies and pay attention to changing conditions — increasing wind, flashes of light, claps of thunder. If you hear a storm nearby, heed this advice: When thunder roars, go indoors.
Chapman said visitors to the preserves should not travel too far from their vehicles when severe weather is forecast or in the area. And people should not leave their vehicles or be out in the preserves if lightning is in the vicinity, she explained.
Remember that all thunderstorms produce lightning — thunder is the sound lightning makes — and lightning strikes can occur in all seasons.
If a storm approaches while you're outdoors, take shelter. The safest place to be is inside a building. If no buildings are nearby, hard-topped vehicles are the next-safest choice. Picnic shelters, pop-up campers and tents are not safe shelters during a storm.
If you can't make it to a building or vehicle, seek shelter under a low clump of shrubs or trees in a natural depression. Do not stand under tall, lone objects — be it a tree, fence, pole or power line — and stay away from metal objects such as bikes, baseball bats, fishing poles and camping equipment.
Keep in mind that if you can hear thunder, you can be hit by lightning. Lightning can strike as far as 10 miles away from rainfall. If your hair feels like it's standing on end, it is an indication lightning is about to strike. If this happens, crouch low to the ground on the balls of your feet with your hands over your ears. Do not lie flat on the ground!
If a tornado is nearby and you cannot safely shelter in a building, move as far away from trees, cars and other large objects as possible. Lie face down flat on the ground and protect your head with your arms.
Don't be tricked by blue skies and sunshine following a storm. Stay in your shelter spot for 30 minutes after the last clap of thunder before moving on. And be cautious of standing water, heeding the National Weather Service's advice: Turn Around Don't Drown. As little as 6 inches of fast-moving water can sweep people off their feet, and 18 inches to 24 inches of water is enough to move most cars.
If you're traveling as a group, choose a spot to meet up if you get separated. If you are alone, tell someone where you will be and when you plan to return.
If you'll be hiking, remember to bring water and dress for the weather. Stay on the trail to avoid injury as well as ticks and poisonous plants.
Always carry your cell phone while in the preserves, and Chapman stressd the importance of knowing where you are on a trail or in a preserve.
In the event of an emergency or if you fear for your safety, call 911. To reach a Forest Preserve District police officer in a non-emergency situation, call 815.727.6191 and follow the prompts.
Chapman said if people are lost or stranded when severe weather is approaching, they can call the non-emergency number and an officer will be dispatched to help them. In these cases, it's helpful to provide as much information as possible about your exact location so you can easily be found.
"Always know your location," she said, adding that people should pay attention to which direction they are traveling when leaving the parking lot and how far they have gone.
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