We don’t have live TV at the house, so explaining this morning to the hubby why I was back in our bed and not working at PraiseShare was new news to him! His exact response to what happened in Oklahoma: “Are you serious?” A few hours later, when it sunk in that the severe weather was coming our way, panic and protection was first in his mind. “What do we do? Where do we go? The trees are blowing really hard right now!!” Yep, he was panicking, because this Northern California man had never been in a tornado, hurricane, or even earthquake for that matter. I on the other hand have experienced it all (well, except the earthquake thing). In between growing up around Houston, going to school in Waco, and spending my first years of radio in New Hampshire, natural disasters are preparation I’ve been through.
Now, if you’re unlike me and more like the hubby, or you just need a refresher, here are tips on what to do to stay as safe as possible during tornadoes (thanks to NOAA and our KVNE friend Mary Brown for passing these along):
What is a tornado watch? A tornado watch defines an area shaped like a parallelogram, where tornadoes and other kinds of severe weather are possible in the next several hours. It does not mean tornadoes are imminent, just that you need to be alert, and to be prepared to go to safe shelter if tornadoes do happen or a warning is issued. This is the time to turn on local TV or radio, turn on and set the alarm switch on your weather radio, make sure you have ready access to safe shelter, and make your friends and family aware of the potential for tornadoes in the area.
What is a tornado warning? A tornado warning means that a tornado has been spotted, or that Doppler radar indicates a thunderstorm circulation which can spawn a tornado. When a tornado warning is issued for your town or county, take immediate safety precautions.
Long ago, I was told to open windows to equalize pressure. Now I have heard that’s a bad thing to do. Which is right? Opening the windows is absolutely useless, a waste of precious time, and can be very dangerous. Don’t do it. You may be injured by flying glass trying to do it. And if the tornado hits your home, it will blast the windows open anyway.
I’ve seen a video of people running under a bridge to ride out a tornado. Is that safe? Absolutely not! Stopping under a bridge to take shelter from a tornado is a very dangerous idea, for several reasons:
- Deadly flying debris can still be blasted into the spaces between bridge and grade, and impaled in any people hiding there.
- Even when strongly gripping the girders (if they exist), people may be blown loose, out from under the bridge and into the open–possibly well up into the tornado itself. Chances for survival are not good if that happens.
- The bridge itself may fail, peeling apart and creating large flying objects, or even collapsing down onto people underneath. The structural integrity of many bridges in tornado winds is unknown–even for those which may look sturdy.
- Whether or not the tornado hits, parking on traffic lanes is illegal and dangerous to yourself and others. It creates a potentially deadly hazard for others, who may plow into your vehicle at full highway speeds in the rain, hail, and/or dust. Also, it can trap people in the storm’s path against their will, or block emergency vehicles from saving lives.
So if I’m in a car, which is supposed to be very unsafe, and shouldn’t get under a bridge, what can I do? Vehicles are notorious as death traps in tornadoes, because they are easily tossed and destroyed. Either leave the vehicle for sturdy shelter or drive out of the tornado’s path. When the traffic is jammed or the tornado is bearing down on you at close range, your only option may be to park safely off the traffic lanes, get out and find a sturdy building for shelter, if possible. If not, lie flat in a low spot, as far from the road as possible (to avoid flying vehicles). However, in open country, the best option is to escape if the tornado is far away. If the traffic allows, and the tornado is distant, you probably have time to drive out of its path. Watch the tornado closely for a few seconds compared to a fixed object in the foreground (such as a tree, pole, or other landmark). If it appears to be moving to your right or left, it is not moving toward you. Still, you should escape at right angles to its track: to your right if it is moving to your left, and vice versa–just to put more distance between you and its path. If the tornado appears to stay in the same place, growing larger or getting closer–but not moving either right or left–it is headed right at you. You must take shelter away from the car or get out of its way fast! If the tornado starts to hit your car, get as low as you can while staying in your seatbelt, leaning down and away from the windows and windshield as far as possible.
I have a basement, and my friend said to go to the southwest corner in a tornado. Is that good? Not necessarily. The SW corner is no safer than any other part of the basement, because walls, floors and furniture can collapse (or be blown) into any corner. The “safe southwest corner” is an old myth based on the belief that, since tornadoes usually come from the SW, debris will preferentially fall into the NE side of the basement. There are several problems with this concept, including:
- Tornadoes are not straight-line winds, even on the scale of a house, so the strongest wind may be blowing from any direction; and
- Tornadoes themselves may arrive from any direction.
In a basement, the safest place is under a sturdy workbench, mattress or other such protection–and out from under heavy furniture or appliances resting on top of the floor above.
What is a safe room? So-called “safe rooms” are reinforced small rooms built in the interior of a home, which are fortified by concrete and/or steel to offer extra protection against tornadoes, hurricanes and other severe windstorms. They can be built in a basement, or if no basement is available, on the ground floor. In existing homes, interior bathrooms or closets can be fortified into “safe rooms” also.
Are there smartphone apps that offer warnings for tornadoes and other kinds of dangerous weather? Yes, private companies have developed several apps that relay NWS tornado warnings to smartphones, based on their location and/or user-specified places. For example, you can set some apps to always provide warnings for certain ZIP codes or addresses of interest away from your current location, such as those of your home, business, or friends and loved ones. We cannot endorse any particular apps, but a search in your device provider’s app store should yield some that are highly rated, along with reviews by users. Also, some local governments have enacted warning-alert systems that alarm phones in their jurisdictions when warnings are issued. Please check with your local emergency management agency to see if such a system is in place in your area, or soon will be. Caution: cell-phone warnings cannot work if the phone system is disabled, and might fail or be delayed if the network is overloaded (as can happen during a major storm or other disaster).
Prevention and practice before the storm: At home, have a family tornado plan in place, based on the kind of dwelling you live in and the safety tips below. Know where you can take shelter in a matter of seconds, and practice a family tornado drill at least once a year. Have a pre-determined place to meet after a disaster. Flying debris is the greatest danger in tornadoes; so store protective coverings (e.g., mattress, sleeping bags, thick blankets, etc) in or next to your shelter space, ready to use on a few seconds’ notice. When a tornado watch is issued, think about the drill and check to make sure all your safety supplies are handy. Turn on local TV, radio or NOAA Weather Radio and stay alert for warnings. Forget about the old notion of opening windows to equalize pressure; the tornado will blast open the windows for you! If you shop frequently at certain stores, learn where there are bathrooms, storage rooms or other interior shelter areas away from windows, and the shortest ways to get there.
In a house with a basement: Avoid windows. Get in the basement and under some kind of sturdy protection (heavy table or work bench), or cover yourself with a mattress or sleeping bag. Know where very heavy objects rest on the floor above (pianos, refrigerators, waterbeds, etc.) and do not go under them. They may fall down through a weakened floor and crush you. Head protection, such as a helmet, can offer some protection also.
In a house with no basement, a dorm, or an apartment: Avoid windows. Go to the lowest floor, small center room (like a bathroom or closet), under a stairwell, or in an interior hallway with no windows. Crouch as low as possible to the floor, facing down; and cover your head with your hands. A bath tub may offer a shell of partial protection. Even in an interior room, you should cover yourself with some sort of thick padding (mattress, blankets, etc.), to protect against falling debris in case the roof and ceiling fail. A helmet can offer some protection against head injury.
In an office building, hospital, nursing home or skyscraper:Go directly to an enclosed, windowless area in the center of the building — away from glass and on the lowest floor possible. Then, crouch down and cover your head. Interior stairwells are usually good places to take shelter, and if not crowded, allow you to get to a lower level quickly. Stay off the elevators; you could be trapped in them if the power is lost.
At school: Follow the drill! Go to the interior hall or room in an orderly way as you are told. Crouch low, head down, and protect the back of your head with your arms. Stay away from windows and large open rooms like gyms and auditoriums.
In the open outdoors: If possible, seek shelter in a sturdy building. If not, lie flat and face-down on low ground, protecting the back of your head with your arms. Get as far away from trees and cars as you can; they may be blown onto you in a tornado.
In a shopping mall or large store: Do not panic. Watch for others. Move as quickly as possible to an interior bathroom, storage room or other small enclosed area, away from windows.
In a church or theater: Do not panic. If possible, move quickly but orderly to an interior bathroom or hallway, away from windows. Crouch face-down and protect your head with your arms. If there is no time to do that, get under the seats or pews, protecting your head with your arms or hands