They can journey for miles on the ground, then lift into the dark, gurgling sky, change direction, and strike again. They are temperamental, flirtatious, seductive. According to an emergency-management notice from the D.C. government, they are “nature’s most violent, erratic storms.” And if you read the news release announcing the District’s Tornado Preparedness Day, you’ll fear that a swirling killer could arrive here at any minute.

It could, of course, but the statistics suggest it won’t. In 1994, National Weather Service figures listed the District dead last in the nation—a ranking we’re used to—in tornado numbers, deaths, injuries, and adjusted damage since 1950. The nation’s capital suffered exactly one reported twister between 1950 and 1996. “I think one hit the arboretum in the last four or five years,” says James Woodward, a planner with the District’s Emergency Management Agency (EMA).

The Maryland State Climate Office is a little more specific than that, providing detailed data saying that the last official tornado to hit D.C. was May 18, 1995, just west of the Anacostia River at the National Arboretum. The small twister uprooted some oak trees, causing approximately $50,000 worth of damage. No one was injured.

This pesky lack of twisters, however, didn’t stop EMA from teaming up with Maryland and Virginia to mark March 23 as an official day of tornado awareness. “You must stay alert to danger signs, such as severe thunderstorms with strong, gusty winds; a ‘funnel’ (dark column spinning from sky to ground); [and] a loud, roaring noise (similar to a freight train),” reads an EMA statement.

NBC 4 meteorologist Bob Ryan says that a tornado blowing through town “certainly is rare, but not unheard of,” and rather ominously adds that a twister hit D.C. “during the War of 1812, killing hundreds of soldiers.” He, too, is stone-faced serious about our need for tornado know-how.

OK, we’ll play along—hell, worrying about wind-borne death beats angsting away about crumbling roads, disappearing bus service, and Y2K. So if you do happen to come across a hellish fury of wind—on its way out to the Dust Bowl after a brief tourist visit, no doubt—be sure to follow these rules issued by the EMA: (1) “Protect yourself and your family, seek shelter immediately”; (2) If you are “in your car, ‘Stop,’ get out and lie flat in a low area [and] cover your head”; and, most importantly, (3) “Do not try to outrun a tornado on foot or in a car.” —Sean Daly