Janice Dean: Why it's important to talk with your kids about tornado season

Tornadoes are nature’s most violent storms and one of the most fascinating weather phenomenons that meteorologists study. I remember seeing my first tornado in “The Wizard of Oz,” when a twister ripped Dorothy’s house off its foundation and sent it, with her inside, swirling up, up into the sky. It was scary for a 6-year-old, but I also remember wanting to know more about how a tornado like that was created in real life.

The most violent tornadoes are capable of tremendous destruction. With wind speeds of up to 300 mph, they can destroy large buildings, uproot trees and hurl vehicles hundreds of yards. A path of tornado damage can be more than a mile wide and 50 miles long.

We’ve all seen aerial footage of whole neighborhoods that were wiped away by a twister. I recently heard a survivor say, “We took shelter in the bathroom with a mattress over our heads, and when we emerged, we couldn’t believe what we saw. Everything around us … was gone.

In the U.S., we average 1,200 tornadoes per year. Most are on the ground for 10 minutes or less, but there are exceptions. In 1925, a tornado traveled 219 miles in four hours across Missouri, Illinois and Indiana.

Tornadoes can occur at any time of the year and can happen at all hours of the day or night. No two are alike, and we still don’t completely understand how energy from a thunderstorm can form these deadly, destructive beasts.

When I talk to schoolkids about weather, many of them are fascinated with tornadoes. The Great Plains provide the perfect environment for forming tornadoes, and they’re a way of life for families that live there. Kids have tornado drills in school. They know what to do and where to go to be safe when one is close by.

What I’ve also learned from talking to children is that they want to know why things happen in the atmosphere. They want to know how thunderstorms form, where hail comes from and if a tornado could visit their neighborhood. Many tell me stories of a big storm that came through their town and what they did to prepare. Weather can be scary, but it’s also exciting. And it’s universal. It affects all of us.

In my children’s book series, the main lesson is to “be prepared,” no matter what kind of weather is headed your way. In my latest book, "Freddy the Frogcaster and the Terrible Tornado,” Freddy is fascinated by tornadoes and why they happen. He teams up with a famous storm chaser named Tad Polar to try to see a tornado from a safe distance. They encounter one in Tad’s armored tornado vehicle, and Freddy calls in to the Frog News network to warn his fellow frogs to go to their safe place. Freddy realizes he may save lives by warning others.

The tornado does damage to Freddy’s hometown, but everyone heeds his warnings and gets to a safe place.

My goal with these books is to help kids understand why weather happens and what we can do before, during and after we are affected.

Extreme weather events like tornadoes can be scary. But the more we learn, the easier it is to help our kids (and frogs) understand what’s happening, and how to prepare and stay safe. It’s important to be like Freddy – WEATHER READY!

Here are a few things to do with your kids in tornado season:

• Make sure your family is prepared for an emergency. Make sure you can go at least three days without essentials like electricity, water, supermarkets and ATMs.

• Prepare a disaster supply kit.

• Create a Family Emergency Plan, so your family knows how to communicate during an emergency.

• Buy an NOAA weather radio.

For more information visit the Red Cross and FEMA.