You may not live in Tornado Alley, but don’t think it can’t happen to you. Tornadoes have occurred in all fifty states of the United States. However, when considering what types of weather and other natural disasters to be best prepared for, those who live in the part of the United States where tornadoes happen most often should, of course, seriously consider tornado preparation as imperative. Tornado Alley is formed by the central region of the country that begins in central Texas and runs north through Oklahoma, central Kansas, Nebraska, and eastern South Dakota. Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana are less prone to twisters than those first five states on the list, but are also included in this zone.
A tornado is a rapidly rotating column of air that descends from a cumulonimbus cloud or, in some cases, though rarely, a cumulus cloud. According to Wikipedia, most tornadoes have wind speeds less than 110 miles per hour, are no more than about 250 feet across, and travel only a few miles before dissipating. At the extreme end, though, tornadoes can attain wind speeds of more than 300 miles per hour, can span more than two miles at their base, and can wreak havoc for dozens of miles along the ground, and can be powerful enough to lift vehicles off the road.
The high wind and blowing debris is only one of the dangers of a tornado; they are usually accompanied by lightning, hail, and heavy rain that can lead to flash floods.
As I write this, early in the month of March, we’re coming up to the worst part of the year for tornadoes.
Your first indication that conditions are right for a tornado might be the issuance by local weather services of a Tornado Watch. When you hear this, it means tornadoes could form in your area, but at this time one has not been sighted.
When you hear a Tornado Warning, one has been sighted and it’s time to take immediate action. A particularly high death toll in 2011 from a tornado in Joplin, Missouri was made worse by many people not heeding a tornado warning.
Typically, tornadoes occur in the afternoon so you’ll be able to see or hear the warning signs:
- Dark, green-tinted clouds.
- Whirling dust or debris under a cloud base.
- Extremely loud, roaring noise.
- A wall of clouds where the base of a thunderhead appears to be lower than others.
- Funnels or rotating cloud formations. But be aware that sometimes tornadoes have no funnel or they occur in an extremely heavy rain so the funnel isn’t visible.
- Debris and dust walls.
- Hail or heavy rain, flowed by either dead calm or a sudden, intense shift in wind direction.
- At night, the first visual indication may be small, bright blue-green to white flashes at ground level near a thunderstorm indicating power lines are being downed. Also watch for lowering of the cloud base. You’ll only see this at night if the clouds are illuminated by lightning.
The biggest danger in a tornado is the flying debris propelled by extremely high winds. Getting sucked up, a la Dorothy Gale is rare. But debris can be hurled at over 200 MPH. Tree limbs, rocks, patio furniture, bricks from a chimney—anything can be turned into a deadly missile.
What to do when a tornado is approaching
- If at all possible, go to an underground shelter.
- If a tornado shelter is not available, go to the basement of the building you’re in or one you can get to quickly.
- Get underneath heavy furniture that can protect you from falling debris.
- Cover yourself with a mattress, sofa cushions, etc. Use anything that can protect your body and head from injury from flying debris or anything that might fall on you should the building be damaged.
- If going underground is completely out of the question, go to a windowless, interior room on the lowest floor of the building. This might be a bathroom or a closet on the lowest floor of the building. Be aware of what’s above you. Don’t go where something heavy, like a piano, might come crashing down on you.
- Crouch low to the ground, face down, and cover your head with your arms and hands. If you have a motorcycle or bicycle helmet, use it. As much as possible, protect yourself from head injury.
- Do not use an elevator. A power outage could leave you trapped.
- Back in the Stone Age, when I was a child, school teachers told us to open all windows to allow air pressure to equalize. Otherwise, the drop in outside air pressure caused by the fast-moving winds could cause the house to explode. Apparently, now in the 21st century, we’ve realized that there is no evidence to believe this may be a serious danger. On the contrary, the time spent opening windows rather than immediately seeking shelter could be the difference between life and death. Your house won’t explode. Get to shelter.
- They also used to say that you should locate yourself in the southwest corner of whatever room you go to. The logic was that tornadoes usually come out of the southwest and blow debris to the northeast. Someone forgot that during a tornado, winds blow in every direction. Get yourself to the safest location possible according to the structure of the building.
- If you’re in a car, proceed to the nearest shelter if that doesn’t put you in more danger (as in, driving toward the tornado).
- If it’s impossible to get to a safe building, don’t try to out-race a tornado. The Red Cross recommends you stop your car off the road and stay inside. Leave your seat belt on and duck down below the window line. Cover yourself with a jacket or blanket if possible and cover your head with your arms and hands. It’s a rare tornado that can pick up a car. (Sure, it happens, but you have to play the odds in these circumstances.)
- If you find yourself outside and can’t get to a building, find a low spot—a depression in the ground or ditch—and lie down. Cover yourself with anything available to protect your body from debris.
- If you’re in a boat in open water, move perpendicular—at a right angle—to the direction of the tornado. Don’t try to outrun it by moving directly away.
If you’re in a car
- Proceed to the nearest shelter if that doesn’t put you in more danger (as in, driving toward the tornado).
- If it’s impossible to get to a safe building, don’t try to outrace a tornado. The Red Cross recommends you stop your car off the road and stay inside. Leave your seat belt on and duck down below the window line. Cover yourself with a jacket or blanket if possible and cover your head with your arms and hands. It’s a rare tornado that can pick up a car.
If you find yourself outside and can’t get to a building
- Find a low spot—a depression in the ground or ditch—and lie down. Cover yourself with anything available to protect your body from debris.
- If you’re in a boat in open water, move perpendicular—at a right angle—to the direction of the tornado. Don’t try to outrun it by moving directly away from it.
Where not to seek shelter
- Do not remain in tall buildings, open rooms with windows, and buildings with flat wide roofs, such as “big box” stores (Home Depot, Costco, etc.), gyms, and schools. And for heaven’s sake, get out of a mobile home. Statistically, people are fifteen times more likely to die in a mobile home than any other location. Better to be outside in the lowest area available than in a mobile home.
- If you’re driving and a twister is approaching, don’t stop under a bridge or underpass. This area can become a wind tunnel and make the danger from flying debris even worse.
After the tornado has passed
- Stay in your shelter until the danger of tornado has passed. Be aware that multiple tornadoes can form in an area when the conditions are right. If at all possible, listen to weather radio to be sure the danger has passed before going out.
- When you do leave the shelter, tread carefully. Wear shoes! Watch for sharp debris and fallen power lines. Extremely heavy rains common with tornadoes can bring flash floods, so be vigilant of your surroundings.
- Avoid fire until you can be sure no gas lines have been broken.
- Do not enter a damaged building.
Preparation for a tornado
- Everyone in the house, all family members, should know exactly where to go ahead of time. If you cannot store emergency provisions in that location, at least have them located where they can be retrieved quickly. (Download this Emergency Preparedness Planning Guide to help guide you through planning for the unexpected.) It’s common for electricity and gas to be unavailable for hours or days after a tornado. Your supplies should be able to get you through a three-day outage.
- When you’re out shopping or at a restaurant, be aware of your surroundings and know where to go. This might be a bathroom, a shelter if available, or an interior stairwell.
- If you have time after a tornado watch, clear the outside of your house of anything that can be blown around – lawn furniture, gas grill, lawn decorations, etc. If you’re under a tornado warning, forget this step and get yourself to shelter.
- Consider building a tornado shelter if you live in a high-danger area.
- Consider downloading an app to your cell phone from the Red Cross that will send emergency warnings to you and your family. http://www.redcross.org/get-help/prepare-for-emergencies/mobile-apps