Severe Weather

MSU Billings Facility Services is responsible for ensuring debris removal (either through staff or contractual labor) after a weather event. Under warranted conditions, Facility Services staff operates snow removal equipment and conduct deicing operations. After hours the University Police will contact the Facility Services on call personnel whom will then make the necessary call in for those responsible to maintain sidewalks and parking lots.


Despite their small size, all thunderstorms are dangerous. Every thunderstorm produces lightning, which kills more people each year than tornadoes. Heavy rain from thunderstorms can lead to flash flooding. Strong winds, hail, and tornadoes are also dangers associated with some thunderstorms. Every year MSU Billings is affected by thunderstorm activity.

Thunderstorms affect relatively small areas when compared with hurricanes and winter storms. The typical thunderstorm is 15 miles in diameter and lasts an average of 20 to 30 minutes. Of the estimated 100,000 thunderstorms that occur each year in the United States, only about 10 percent are classified as severe.

The National Weather Service (NWS)considers a thunderstorm severe if it produces hail at least three-quarters of an inch in diameter, has winds of 58 miles per hour or higher, or produces a tornado. When a severe thunderstorm WARNING is issued, review what actions to take under a tornado warning or a flash flood warning.

During a NWS WARNING (situation where a hazardous event is occurring or is imminent in about 30 minutes to an hour) Local NWS forecast offices issue warnings on a county-by-county basis.

  • Lightning often strikes outside of heavy rain and may occur as far as 10 miles away from any rainfall. "Heat lightning" is actually lightning from a thunderstorm too far away for thunder to be heard. However, the storm may be moving in your direction.
  • You are in danger from lightning if you can hear thunder. Because light travels so much faster than sound, lightning flashes can sometimes be seen long before the resulting thunder is heard. When the lightning and thunder occur very close to one another, the lightning is striking nearby. To estimate the number of miles you are from a thunderstorm, count the number of seconds between a flash of lightning and the next clap of thunder. Divide this number by five.
  • Many strong thunderstorms produce hail. Large hail, or flying glass it may have broken, can injure people and animals. Hail can be smaller than a pea, or as large as a softball, and can be very destructive to automobiles, glass surfaces (skylights and windows), roofs, plants, and crops. In a hailstorm, take cover immediately. Pets and livestock are particularly vulnerable to hail, so bring animals into shelter before storms begin.
  • Downbursts and straight-line winds associated with thunderstorms can produce winds 100 to 150 miles per hour, enough to flip cars, vans, and semi-trucks. The resulting damage can equal the damage of most tornadoes. If a severe thunderstorm warning is issued, take shelter in the manner you would if a tornado were approaching your area. Leave structures that are susceptible to being blown over in high winds, such as a mobile home.
  • Follow these basic planning steps:
    • Pick a "safe place" where people can gather during a thunderstorm. This should be a place where there are no windows, skylights, or glass doors, which could be broken by strong winds or hail, causing damage or injury. The Building Managers plan will identify safe areas.
    • Learn how to squat low to the ground. Make yourself the smallest target possible for lightning and minimize contact with the ground. Lightning current often enters a victim through the ground rather than by a direct overhead strike. Assume a crouched position on the ground with only the balls of the feet touching the ground, place your hands on your knees, and lower your head. Minimize your body's surface area, and minimize contact with the ground.

Winter Storm

By geographic location of MSU Billings, winter storms are a common occurrence. Members of the campus community are encouraged to avoid placing themselves at unnecessary risk during these events. A major winter storm can last for several days and be accompanied by high winds, freezing rain or sleet, heavy snowfall, and cold temperatures. People can become trapped at home, without utilities or other services. Heavy snowfall and blizzards can trap motorists in their cars. Attempting to walk for help in a blizzard can be a deadly decision.

Winter storms can make driving and walking extremely hazardous. Storm effects such as extremely cold temperatures and snow accumulation, and sometimes coastal flooding, can cause hazardous conditions and hidden problems for people in the affected area.

An NWS WARNING indicates that a hazardous event is occurring or is imminent in about 30 minutes to an hour. Local NWS forecast offices issue warnings on a county-by-county basis.

  • A winter storm WATCH means a winter storm is possible in your area.
  • A winter storm WARNING means a winter storm is occurring, or will soon occur, in your area.
  • A blizzard WARNING means sustained winds or frequent gusts to 35 miles per hour or greater and considerable falling or blowing snow (reducing visibility to less than a quarter mile) are expected to prevail for a period of three hours or longer.

Winter storms are considered deceptive killers because most deaths are indirectly related to the storm.

The leading cause of death during winter storms is from automobile or other transportation accidents. Exhaustion and heart attacks caused by overexertion are the two most likely causes of winter storm-related deaths. Elderly people account for the largest percentage of hypothermia victims. Many older Americans literally "freeze to death" in their own homes after being exposed to dangerously cold indoor temperatures, or are asphyxiated because of improper use of fuels such as charcoal briquettes, which produce carbon monoxide.

Fires occur more frequently in the winter due to lack of proper safety precautions when using alternate heating sources (unattended fires, disposal of ashes too soon, improperly placed space heaters, etc.). Fire during winter storms presents a great danger because water supplies may freeze and it may be difficult for firefighting equipment to get to the fire. Faculty, staff and students are to follow university protocol for utilization of alternative heating sources.

Understand the hazards of wind chill, which combines the cooling effect of wind and cold temperatures on exposed skin. As the wind increases, heat is carried away from a person's body at an accelerated rate, driving down the body temperature. "Wind chill" is a calculation of how cold it feels when the effects of wind speed and temperature are combined. A strong wind combined with a temperature of just below freezing can have the same effect as a still air temperature about 35 degrees colder.

Some best practices during a winter storm:

  • Be aware of changing weather conditions. Severe weather can happen quickly. Temperatures may drop rapidly, winds may increase or snow may fall at heavier rates. What is happening where you are may not agree with local forecasts.
  • Avoid unnecessary travel. Your safest place during a winter storm is indoors. About 70 percent of winter deaths related to ice and snow occur in automobiles.
  • Stay safe in a snowstorm by staying inside. Long periods of exposure to severe cold increase the risk of frostbite or hypothermia. Also, it is easy to become disoriented in blowing snow.
  • If you go outside after a snowstorm, dress in many layers and wear a hat and mittens. Many layers of thin clothing are warmer than single layers of thick clothing. One of the best ways to stay warm is to wear a hat; most body heat is lost through the top of the head. Keep hands and feet warm too. Mittens are warmer than gloves. Covering the mouth with a scarf protects lungs from extremely cold air.
  • Stretch before you go out. If you go out to shovel snow, do a few stretching exercises to warm up your body. This will reduce your chances of muscle injury.
  • Come inside often for warm-up breaks. Long periods of exposure to severe cold increase the risk of frostbite or hypothermia.
  • If you start to shiver a lot or get very tired, or if your nose, fingers, toes, or earlobes start to feel numb or turn very pale, come inside right away and tell someone. These are signs of hypothermia and frostbite, and require immediate attention to prevent further risk.
  • Keep dry. Change wet clothing frequently to prevent a loss of body heat. Wet clothing loses much of its insulating value and transmits heat rapidly away from the body.
  • Walk carefully on snowy, icy sidewalks. Slips and falls occur frequently in winter weather, resulting in painful and sometimes disabling injury.


Landslides are a serious geologic hazard common to almost every state in the United States. It is estimated that nationally they cause up to $2 billion in damages and from 25 to 50 deaths annually. Some landslides move slowly and cause damage gradually, whereas others move so rapidly that they can destroy property and take lives suddenly and unexpectedly. Gravity is the force driving landslide movement. Factors that allow the force of gravity to overcome the resistance of earth material to landslide movement include: saturation by water, steepening of slopes by erosion or construction, alternate freezing or thawing, earthquake shaking, and volcanic eruptions.

MSU Billings is located at the base of the rimrocks at the upper end of North 27th Street, at Rimrock Road. It is common for small landslides off of the rimrocks in the Billings area. Facility Services is responsible for dealing with debris and clean-up following such an event, either through staffing or contractual labor.

Landslides are typically associated with periods of heavy rainfall or rapid snow melt and tend to worsen the effects of flooding that often accompanies these events. In areas burned by forest and brush fires, a lower threshold of precipitation may initiate landslides.

  • Debris flows, sometimes referred to as mudslides, mudflows, lahars, or debris avalanches, are common types of fast-moving landslides. These flows generally occur during periods of intense rainfall or rapid snow melt.


Tornadoes have been reported in every state, and though they generally occur during spring and summer, they can happen any time of the year. While tornadoes can occur at any time of the day or night, they are most likely to occur between 3:00 and 9:00 p.m. There are no areas immune to tornadoes; they have been reported in mountains and valleys, over deserts and swamps, from the Gulf Coast into Canada, in Hawaii and even Alaska. Over 1,000 tornadoes are reported annually nationwide, and as our tornado detection systems improve, more are being reported each year. However, sometimes tornadoes will develop in areas in which no tornado watch or warning is in effect, so stay alert for changing weather conditions.

A tornado is a violently rotating column of air extending from a thunderstorm to the ground. The most violent tornadoes have rotating winds of 250 miles per hour or more. They are capable of causing extreme destruction, including uprooting trees and well-made structures, and turning normally harmless objects into deadly missiles. Most tornadoes are just a few dozen yards wide and only briefly touch down, but highly destructive violent tornadoes may carve out paths over a mile wide and more than 50 miles long. Although violent tornadoes comprise only 2 percent of all tornadoes, they are responsible for nearly 70 percent of tornado-related fatalities.

Tornadoes develop from severe thunderstorms in warm, moist, unstable air along and ahead of cold fronts. Such thunderstorms also may generate large hail and damaging winds. When intense springtime storm systems produce large, persistent areas that support tornado development, major outbreaks can occur. During the late spring, tornadic thunderstorms can develop in the southern High Plains along a "dry line," the interface between warm, moist air to the east and hot, dry air to the west. From the front range of the Rocky Mountains southward into the Texas Panhandle, slope flow of unstable air can cause tornadic thunderstorms to develop. While generally smaller and not as frequent, tornadoes occurring west of the Rocky Mountains of the United States also cause damage and threaten lives annually.

While tornadoes can be highly destructive and are potentially deadly, timely precautions can save lives and reduce property damage. During active weather, stay alert of the forecast by listening to radio or television or by using a NOAA Weather Radio. Contact your local National Weather Service (NWS) office, emergency management agency, or American Red Cross chapter for more information about your risk from tornadoes.

If you are inside:

  • Stay inside. Stay near the center of the building, away from windows, mirrors, filing cabinets, bookcases and electrical equipment. Watch for falling objects. Stay calm.
  • Crawl under a table, desk or sturdy piece of furniture and hold on. If not possible, get against an interior wall and protect your head and neck with your arms. Do not enter doorways, book stacks or atriums.
  • Fire danger is greatly increased after an earthquake, so take necessary precautions.

 If you are outside:

  • Stay outside. Move to an open area away from high buildings, walls, trees or power lines and poles.
  • If forced to stand near a building, beware of falling objects.

Tornadoes may appear nearly transparent until dust and debris are picked up. Stay alert for high winds even if you do not "see" a tornado.

Tornadoes often occur when it is not raining. In fact, in the Great Plains and other semiarid regions, that scenario is the rule rather than the exception. Tornadoes are associated with a powerful updraft, so rain does not fall in or next to a tornado. Very large hail, however, does fall in the immediate area of the tornado. In humid environments, rain often tends to wrap around the tornado, being pulled from the main precipitation area around the outside of the rotating updraft. The rain could make it difficult to see the tornado.

Damage happens when wind gets inside a home through a broken window, door, or damaged roof. Keep windows closed. Houses do not explode due to air pressure differences. Stay away from windows during severe storms. Flying debris could shatter the glass and cause injury.

It used to be advised to go to the southwest corner for safety; however, the southwest corner of a house is no safer than any other corner. Historical information has shown that any corner on the lowest level away from windows is as safe as any other corner. If tornado winds enter the room, debris has a tendency to collect in corners. When selecting a tornado "safe place," look for a place on the lowest level and away from windows, preferably in a small room (closet or bathroom) in the center of the house. Closer walls will help provide more support to the roof, and each wall between you and the outside will provide further protection.

Pick a safe place for people to gather during a tornado. The safest place to be is underground, or as low to the ground as possible, and away from all windows. At MSU Billings the lower the level you can seek refuge, the better. In an emergency consider an interior hallway or room on the lowest floor. Putting as many walls as you can between you and the outside will provide additional protection. Less than 2 percent of all tornadoes are powerful enough to completely destroy a sturdy building. Make sure there are no windows or glass doors in your safe place and keep this place uncluttered.

If you are in a high-rise building, pick a place in a hallway in the center of the building. You may not have enough time to go to the lowest floor. Center hallways are often structurally the most reinforced part of a building.

If at all possible get under something sturdy, such as a heavy table, hold on and stay there until the danger has passed. Being under something heavy will help protect you from falling objects. If tornado wind enters the room and the object moves, holding on with one hand will help you move with it, keeping you protected.

Use your other arm and hand to protect your head and neck from falling or flying objects. Your head and neck are more easily injured than other parts of your body. Protect them as much as you can.