TOWNSEND -- Everyone knows the old New England saying: If you don't like the weather, wait a minute.
Better make that wait 15 minutes. A lightning strike can occur when the storm cloud is miles away, said National Weather Service SKYWARN trainer William Babcock.
In fact, the storm can still be dangerous when it is 30 minutes away, the senior forecaster told a group of 30 people preparing to become severe weather-spotters. The electrical bolt is going to take the path of least resistance to the ground.
The free program at Townsend Meeting Hall was arranged by the Townsend Emergency Management Agency. The training is not required for the local volunteers, but is fun and helpful, said Shirley Coit, director of TEMA. "You can pick up on things as they happen and not wait for the weather service," she said.
Townsend is smack dab in the middle of "tornado alley." While destructive tornadoes are not all that common in New England, they do happen, usually away from the shoreline where the ocean temperatures can moderate a storm, Babcock said.
Springfield was hit with a strong tornado in 201l that left a path of destruction that could be seen on satellite images. A tornado classified as violent damaged Worcester in 1953.
Even thunderstorms can create devastating winds. The wind runs in a straight line, not in a funnel like in a tornado. The strong downdraft can generate winds up to 175 miles per hour and sounds like a freight train, Babcock said. A tornado can have the same sound.
Aspiring storm-watchers could confuse the two types of storms. "Report what you actually see, not what you think you see," he said.
On June 2, 1989, a microburst, strong winds caused by a thunderstorm, hit nearby Fitchburg, killing a woman when her car was crushed by the steeple of the First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church. The winds, a product of a severe thunderstorm, damaged a swath of buildings.
Coit was at work in the Fitchburg Public Library when the storm hit. Townsend was a mess after the storm, she said. Tree branches and other wind damage was obvious, but the damage was minor.
TEMA responds when groups of people need assistance. During bad weather -- most recently the October 2012 snowstorm and before that the December 2008 ice storm -- TEMA ran an overnight shelter at Hawthorne Brook Middle School.
The agency has come a long way since the ice storm, Coit said. Now, there are nearly 40 trained volunteers. Supplies are stored with the Fire Department for easy access.
In a shelter situation, caring for pets can be a problem. During the ice storm, Coit was out of action, hospitalized with a stroke. Volunteers and town officials did the best they could, but caring for the animals brought to Hawthorne Brook was a problem, Coit said.
She met with the animal control officer and purchased supplies to address similar problems in the future.
This winter the team was called on to set up a shelter in place for Atwood Acres. The boilers at the senior housing building began to fail, and the crew organized a shelter at Townsend Woods, the newer building next door.
Volunteers set up cots and a pet area for residents of the cold building. Volunteers were lined up to cover the shelter 24/7. Although it was not used because people chose to stay home, Coit said, "It was a good field exercise for us."
Coit said offering courses like SKYWARN helps keep people involved when there are no emergencies. The agency is always looking for more volunteers, including amateur radio operators.
In the future she hopes to offer Community Emergency Response Team training. CERT is part of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Contact the town clerk for information on volunteering for this and other town committees.