You might think that after years of living with a particular threat it becomes easier to deal with, but in the case of tornadoes that’s not the case. I've lived in tornado alley most of my life and it seems that today there are more tornadoes, and as I get older more to lose. Sure, the meteorologists are getting better at giving you a little warning, but it’s still mostly a guessing game. Then there are a lot of false alarms that make people lower their guard, even though the storms get more numerous every season. These days there are more storms than when I was young; call it what you will, man-made climate change or natural changing weather patterns, it still adds up to dangerous unpredictable storms.
In some parts of the country it seems to be the norm to get familiar and even comfortable with the natural disaster that threatens your area; when you move to Florida you become acquainted with hurricanes, in California you quickly understand earthquakes, and in New England you learn to deal with nor'easters and blizzards. However, for tornadoes it’s not so simple. They are not as predictable, and unlike other natural disasters they are not previously experienced by most people--if you live through one, you'll probably never see another. The don’t directly impact everyone threatened by them, in fact they directly impact very few people threatened by them which makes them that much more dangerous. People don’t have practice to help them ‘know what it feels like, so it won’t take me by surprise next time’. It’s kind of like being in the target area of a rogue bomb, often there is just no telling where they will hit.
Tornadoes: What You Need To Know To Survive
Like surviving most anything it comes down to knowledge, luck and prayers. Here’s the knowledge part:
What is a Tornado
A tornado, cyclone, or twister is a rotating pillar of air that is connected to the surface of the Earth and a cloud. They come in all shapes and sizes; some look like a small funnels and cover a few meters while others look like a wall and cover several miles. Although tornadoes have been recorded on 6 of the 7 continents most form in the US in an area between Nebraska and North Texas known as tornado alley. It is not completely clear how and why a tornado forms. There are a huge range of variables and exceptions, but many develop from a kind of storm called a supercell when cool air and warm air mix.
A tornado is classified based on strength. Although there is more than one scale to measure a twister, we are most familiar with the Fujita scale, which ranges from 0 to 5. So an F0 tornado is the weakest and an F5 the strongest and most violent. In recent times the Enhanced Fujita Scale has been adapted so you might see the classification look like this EF0 to EF5 but the numbers are still similar to the old scale with the weakest being an EF0 and an EF5 still the strongest (with winds winds over 200 mph). It’s almost impossible to know the strength of a tornado until it has already hit, as some storms pick up strength as they move across a certain area. The best thing to do is prepare for an EF5 and hope for an EF0, or better yet not to get hit.
Know When The Storm's A Brewin'
So there are thunderstorms in the forecast, what do you do? Don’t worry, you don’t have to be glued to the weather channel, but in the spring and fall it’s a good idea to pay closer attention to the weather than you might other times of the year. If you’re a gardener, you probably already do this. You just need to make a mental note as to when thunderstorms are expected so you can watch during that time. If you live in a mobile home you need to find out where the nearest storm shelter is (see below).
Keep Score On How Accurate Your Meteorologist Is
If you are new to a certain area doing this will help you figure out which meteorologist knows their stuff and which ones need more practice. So the first tornado season in an area prone to tornadoes might seem like more work than normal, but trust me the learning curve is well worth the it because you’ll be able to easily maneuver subsequent seasons.
Depending on how violent the storms are and what your meteorologist is predicting it might be a good idea to get the weather radio out. Always make sure you know where it is and that it’s charged. If you don’t have one and live in an area prone to tornadoes please buy one today. If storms happen late at night I usually either wake up during the beginning of the storm and check whether or stay up until the storms have past. I know it seems extreme but if you live in tornado alley, I feel it’s the safest thing to do. Many tornadoes have stuck in the dead of night.
Understand Tornado Watch vs Tornado Warning
A tornado watch means the environment for a tornado is present but that one has not been detected. A tornado warning means there has been rotation detected by Doppler Radar. So when there is a watch I turn on the weather radio and when there is a warning I start making sure I can get to my shelter in a matter of seconds.
Again if you don’t have a weather radio get one ASAP. If the electricity goes out then you do not have the TV to rely on and cell phone coverage is often affected by storms. It’s terrifying to hear a meteorologist say take cover and then lose the signal and not be able to get any information on your phone. I’ve been there and done that! Get a radio today if you do not have one!
Where To Go:
Of course an underground shelter is the best kind of shelter to have when a tornado hits. If you have a shelter you need to immediately go to the shelter when there is a tornado warning. So if you are thinking about investing in a shelter keep in mind that you will be spending some time in there and plan it’s location and accessibility accordingly.
What To Take With You To Your Shelter
Take your weather radio with you when you move to your shelter. Then if you don’t already have a flashlight a small amount of food and some water, grab those things on your way out if you don’t have to spend more than two minutes gathering them.
If You Don’t Have A Storm Shelter
Find an interior room in your house without windows. A basement is ideal, but if you don’t have one then a bathroom with a bathtub would be the next best thing. Make this your designated shelter and make sure your entire family knows how to take cover. Having a tornado drill is helpful especially if you have small children and animals. Take cover in an interior room in your house with a mattress or cushions on top of you. So crouched in the tub with a mattress over your head would be the next safest thing to being inside a storm shelter or a basement.
If You’re Not At Home
If you are at work, out shopping or find yourself in another building besides your home during a tornado warning go to an interior part of the building away from windows. Stay away from stairwells as falling debris can hit you, and also stay away from elevators because they can become uncontrollable during a tornado. Always protect your head with your arms if you can’t find a pillow or a mattress.
Protecting Those Who Cannot Protect Themselves
During a storm I always make my boys stay in the same room as me. If this is not possible at least know where every child is located in your house. If a tornado warning occurs make sure each child knows what to do and how to take cover. Creating a drill before a tornado season is a great way to prepare kids.
If you have an elderly person living with you make sure they know how to take cover. Bringing them, along with your children, into the same room with you during a thunderstorm is a good idea. Then you can easily help them into your shelter area.
I bring my pets indoors during storms. If you have pets that need to be in a crate or carrier make sure they are inside the cage and placed inside the safe room at the first sign of a tornado watch. If your pet is not contained make sure they are trained to come on command. If you have livestock make sure they have cover, however do not leave them in a locked enclosure where they cannot escape falling debris. Do not leave livestock in an open field. Do not tie animals up during a storm as this might cause injury to them.
Where Not To Be
If you live in a mobile home or other similar structure you must evacuate, even if the mobile home is tied down. You need to go to the nearest storm shelter, usually a government building, a school or a church near you. You can find out where the nearest storm shelter is by calling your local Red Cross chapter.
If you are in a car and you see a tornado you should drive to the nearest building to take shelter. If you are far enough away from the tornado you can drive away from the tornado by driving in right angles (as best you can). If you are in caught in your car because of traffic or some other situation then keep your seat belt on and try to crouch below your car windows.
Out In The Open
If you are out in the open you should head to the nearest building and take cover. If there is no building try to get into a ditch or a hole (something that is below the surface).
Thunderstorms often bring the threat of flash foods so be sure to take precautions to avoid areas that might flood, during and after a tornado hits. This is especially a concern if you are taking cover in a ditch out in the open.
Violent thunderstorms often produce hail, so be sure to watch for it during and after a tornado. If hail hits a person, a child or an animal in the head it can kill them. Even small pea sized hail can do some damage if you don’t have the proper protective clothing. Be sure to remain in your shelter until the storm has passed.
Before Tornado Season
There are a few things you will need to prepare your family and yourself for tornado season.
Be sure you have these supplies near the place you will take shelter during the storm:
- Weather radio
- Extra batteries
- A copy Of important documents
- 72 hours worth of food and water for you, your family and your pets
- First aid kit
- Cell phone/HAM radio
- Important medications
If you are new to an area that has a high occurrence of tornadoes it might be a good idea to check with your insurance company and go over exactly what kind of coverage you have. Many people who have had their houses completely destroyed have said they didn't know how they could have survived if they did not have good homeowners insurance. Being covered for the worst possible scenario in case of tornado is probably your best option if you live in tornado alley.
If you live in tornado alley or in another area where tornadoes are a serious threat I would seriously consider a storm shelter. A few years ago I went with the boys from my sons’ scout group to help clean up after tornadoes hit Moore, Oklahoma and in the neighborhood where we helped to clean up there were many storm shelters. After talking to the people that had just had their houses destroyed I am convinced they are alive today because they had storm shelters. If you can’t afford one perhaps you could share with a neighbor or start a project to build a community shelter.
The scariest thing about tornadoes is that even if you do each and everyone of these things there are no guarantees. Tornadoes are the most unpredictable natural disaster on earth. So don't forget that you'll need a little luck and a lot of prayers to go along with the knowledge!
How close have you been to a tornado?