Dr. T. Theodore Fujita never let anyone take the wind out of his sails.      

Known as Dr. Tornado, Fujita spent a life studying weather and making meteorological discoveries. Though his accomplishments were many, my introduction to him came last week after a brush with the potential power and temerity of a tornado.

Fujita is the guy who developed a scale for measuring the intensity and damage of a tornado. This F-scale assesses the damage to human structures and vegetation caused by tornadoes. While it was inconclusive whether a tornado formed last week, conditions were ripe for this weather phenomenon, causing a tornado warning to be issued.

Tornadoes can result when an intense rotating column of air or strong winds connects to the ground from a cloud during a powerful storm system. It is the connection between the sky and the land that makes it a tornado. If the phenomenon occurs over water, it is considered a water spout but not a tornado. Thus, saying “there’s a tornado on the ground,” or “the tornado has hit land” is redundant.

The damage that a tornado can cause is extreme. With wind speeds up to 300 miles per hour, these funnels can uproot trees, hurl vehicles hundreds of yards, and damage buildings. The wild winds can also do odd damage, with reports of straw penetrating tires, vinyl records embedded in trees, and chickens completely defeathered after a tornado moves through an area. The distance record for the displacement of an object was a cancelled check that was found 305 miles from its original location after a tornado hit Kansas. Even more farfetched, a few live horses were located a quarter of a mile from their farm after this same tornado.

Though the East Coast is not a tornado hotspot, we know that tornadoes do hit occasionally. Massachusetts claims the most tornadoes in New England states, with approximately two and a half recorded tornadoes per year, though I am not sure what a half a tornado looks like. Since 1951, when records began to be kept, there were about 42 tornadoes in our state, putting us at number 42 of the 50 US states in their frequency.  Since record-keeping began, only four tornadoes have been recorded in Barnstable, Dukes, and Nantucket counties. Only two, one in 1951 and another in 1958, have been recorded by the Tornado History Project on the Vineyard (though that is not to say they haven’t missed a few). 

No matter whether the risk is high or low, it is most important to have a plan, since the warnings can come quickly as a storm builds and conditions allow for a tornado’s formation. Get in inside and go to basements and windowless spaces, which are the safest.  If there isn’t a basement, stay on the first floor and consider bathrooms and closets to be the nearest things to safe havens. Definitely don’t open windows; and if you are in your car, avoid bridges (both under and on them) as wind and projectiles can exacerbate conditions in that location.

Remain calm and think about your options. Remember the advice of magician David Copperfield, who reminded us, “There is a safe spot within every tornado.” 

Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown, and author of Martha’s Vineyard: A Field Guide to Island Nature and The Nature of Martha’s Vineyard.