Tornado Safety

Why is tornado safety important? If you don't heed tornado watches and warnings, you could put yourself and your family in a dangerous situation.

What is the difference between a tornado watch and warning?

funnel cloud

Tornado Watch: Tornadoes are possible in our area. Remain alert for approaching storms. This means the weather conditions are such that tornadoes could occur.

Tornado Warning: A tornado has been sighted or indicated by weather radar. If a tornado warning is issued for your area and the sky becomes threatening, move to your pre-designated place of safety.

This picture is of a funnel cloud outside of our home in Texas. It never did touch the ground, thankfully.

This is what happens when people don't pay attention:

On May 22, 2011, one of the deadliest tornados in United States history devastated Joplin, Missouri killing 159 people and injuring hundreds more. There was time for many of the 50,000 residents to take cover, so why didn't more of them survive the tornado?

According to a National Weather Service study on the Joplin tornado: A majority of residents did not immediately seek shelter when tornado warnings were issued. People needed between two and nine risk signals to take action and seek shelter. For example, if they heard the sirens going off they would look in the sky, go to a TV to get information, call a friend, etc.

The time it took between the warning and the search for confirmation of risk cost lives. To better understand why tornado safety is so critical, it is important to develop an appreciation for the kind of storm that we're dealing with.

What is a Tornado?

A tornado is defined as a violently rotating column of air extending from a thunderstorm to the ground. The most violent tornadoes are capable of tremendous destruction with wind speeds of 250 mph or more. Damage paths can be in excess of one mile wide and 50 miles long.

We're talking about a potentially HUGE mass of rotating air. I have personally seen a tornado pick up a semi-tractor trailer and lift it up as though it were a toy. It was incredible. The funnel cloud in this picture was taken from in front of my home in Heath, Texas a few years ago. It never made it to the ground, thankfully.

Why does this matter to me? Both of my girls attended Briarwood Elementary in Moore, Oklahoma when they were younger. That school had to be torn down because the destructive forces of the tornado were so intense. It was devastated by the May 2013 EF5 tornado. We used to visit the horse farm next door to the school all the time. Most, if not all of the horses are gone. The tornado picked them up and dumped them miles away. My memories are forever impacted. My heart aches for the loss. I can't change anything.

Protecting Yourself and Your Family

So, how do you protect yourself (and your family) if a tornado is headed your way?

The key to surviving a tornado and reducing your risk lies in planning, preparing, and practicing what you and your family will do if a tornado is headed in your direction. This includes planning for what you all do when you are at home, at work, at school or outdoors.

Tornado Safety Means Planning In Advance

Meet with your family to create a plan.

Consider how you will find each other if you are separated. Disasters may force you to evacuate your neighborhood. Someone may be at work or at school while someone else may at home. Pick two places to meet: a spot outside your home for an emergency, such as a fire, and a place away from your neighborhood in case you can't return home.

Think about how you will communicate with your family. What if your local cell tower is not functioning? The best thing to do is have everyone get in touch with an out-of-town family member to let them know what is happening. That way, there is a central contact point and one person will know what is going on with everyone.

What happens if your home is destroyed?

If your home is wiped out or you can't access it, you have to maintain a supply of your own personal resources to take care of your needs and those of your family. You need to have some basic supplies with you at all times in case of an emergency. Medications, clothing and toiletries are not going to be easily accessible if a tornado strikes, so having a simple emergency disaster bag in your car, home, business, etc. is essential.

Implementing a Tornado Safety Plan

Purchase a NOAA weather radio that has an automatic warning option. Know where to find it and keep extra batteries with the radio.

Post emergency telephone numbers in several locations, specifically by telephones. Make sure all family members have immediate access to these numbers. Include numbers like Poison Control (1-800-222-1222).

Install safety features in your house, such as smoke detectors and fire extinguishers.

Go through your home and look for potential hazards (such as items that can move, fall, break or catch fire) and correct them. Make sure exits are free of hazards in case you need to leave quickly.

Have your family learn basic safety measures, such as CPR and first aid; how to use a fire extinguisher; and how and when to turn off water, gas, and electricity in your home. Keep the right tools nearby when an emergency strikes so that you don't have to search for them when you have to take quick action.

emergency sign

Teach children how to call 9-1-1 and when are the appropriate times to make those calls.

Purchase or put together a disaster supplies kit with items you may need in case of an evacuation. You will want to have enough supplies and medications to last at least 3 days.

Keep important family documents in a waterproof container. You may want to store these documents with your disaster supplies kit.

Tornado Safety Means Having Disaster Supplies On Hand:

  • MagLite Flashlight
  • Solar/Hand Crank AM/FM/NOAA Weather Alert Radio
  • First Aid Kit
  • Emergency Food Bar - 3 Day / 72 Hour Package
  • Emergency Survival Water Pouches
  • Manual Can Opener
  • Essential medicines
  • Emergency Mylar Thermal Blankets
  • Cash and credit cards
  • Sturdy shoes
  • A set of spare keys to vehicles
  • Personal identification
  • Camera (for documenting your damage)

Practicing Your Tornado Safety Plan

Having an emergency plan is good, but you won't remember it if you don't practice it. Take the time to practice your plan with your family. Designate an area in your home as a shelter, and regularly practice having your family go there as if there were a tornado. Who would you contact? Where would you go? What steps would you take if it were a real event? Make sure your family knows the difference between a "tornado watch" and a "tornado warning."

There is a reason why people are so frightened of tornadoes.

Flying debris causes most deaths and injuries during a tornado. That is why being in a safe room, a storm shelter or underground is the most advisable location during a tornado watch or warning. Don't wait until you see a funnel cloud to take action. That is what ends up taking lives. People wait too long to get to a safe location.

When you hear a tornado warning (tornado seen by spotters or detected on radar) seek the best shelter you can find immediately. Don't waste time checking multiple sources of information. You may have only seconds to find a safe place.

This means you need to find a reliable source of information so that you know when it is safe to come back out. One of the best tools is a NOAA Weather Radio (also known as an Emergency Weather Radio). Make sure your radio model has a tone-alarm feature, which will activate the radio when warnings or watches are issued for your area. Next, be sure you know the county in which you live. Severe weather warnings are issued for counties, or for portions of counties. If you are new to an area, this is something you'll need to know in advance.

Tornado Safety Means Knowing Where To Seek Shelter

In a house with a basement: If you can, go to the corner of the basement and put something over you, such as a mattress or pillows. If you can get under a desk or a workbench, you can do that, too. If there is a bike helmet handy, put that on, too. Any extra protection is great. Do not go to a part of the basement where there is something large or heavy overhead, such as a piano or a refrigerator. It could always come crashing down. Stay away from windows.

house without basement

If you don't have a basement: Go to the room in the middle of the building and on the lowest floor. Closets and bathrooms, or under stairs are best. Again, stay away from windows. Crouch low and put your arms over your head, pulling something over you, such as a mattress or pillows. Just like I said above, if you have a bike helmet handy, put that on, too. Any extra protection is great.

If you are at work in any kind of building: to an interior, windowless area in the center of the building on the lowest floor possible. Crouch low (if possible) and cover your head with your arms. As mentioned before, stay away from windows. Interior stairwells are good places to take shelter, and if not crowded, allow you to get to a lower level quickly. Do NOT get into an elevator. You could get stuck there.

Mobile home: Get out! Go to a nearby building – any permanent structure – and take refuge there. Follow the instructions given to you there.

At school: Follow the instructions provided by your teacher. Go to the interior hall or room in an orderly way as you are told. Crouch low, head down, and protect your head with your arms. Stay away from windows.

In a car or truck: Vehicles are not safe in a tornado. underpassIf the tornado is visible, far away, and the traffic is light, you may be able to drive out of its path by moving at right angles to the tornado. The best option is to seek shelter in a sturdy building. The best option is to go underground. If the situation is dire and you are caught by extreme winds or flying debris, park the car as quickly and safely as possible -- out of the traffic lanes. Stay in the car with the seat belt on. Put your head down below the windows; cover your head with your hands and a blanket, coat, or other cushion if possible. If you can safely get noticeably lower than the level of the roadway, leave your car and lie in that area, covering your head with your hands. Do not EVER go to an underpass to seek shelter.

In the open outdoors: Lie flat and face-down on low ground, protecting the back of your head with your arms. If there is any flying debris, this will protect your head. Stay away from trees, cars and anything else that might blow into you. In a shopping mall or large store: Move as quickly as possible to an interior bathroom, storage room or other small enclosed area. Listen for any instructions that direct you to a lower area and away from windows. Crouch face-down and protect your head with your arms.

In a church or theater: Move quickly but orderly to an interior bathroom or hallway. Stay 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. If there are cushions that you can use, grab them and place them over your head and body.

Shelter for People with Access and Functional Needs

If you are in a wheelchair, get away from windows and go to an interior room of the house or building where you are located. If possible, seek shelter under a sturdy table or desk. Cover your head with anything available, even your hands.

If you are unable to move from a bed or a chair and assistance is not available, protect yourself from falling objects by covering up with blankets and pillows.

If you are outside and a tornado is approaching, get into a ditch or gully. If possible, lie flat and cover your head with your arms.

After the Tornado - Tornado Recovery

Round your family up and keep them together and safe. Wait for emergency personnel to arrive. If you see anyone who is hurt, render aid as best you can. Use the first aid kit in your emergency disaster supplies to assist whomever you are able to help. Don't try to move the seriously injured unless they are in immediate danger of further injury. Keep listening to your radio for reports so you are aware of the situation and can update others around you.

Note that many injuries can occur in the aftermath of a storm as people come in contact with debris and other hazards. Be very careful where you step. Power lines could be down and still carrying electricity. The possibility of electrocution is real. Use caution. Watch your step to avoid broken glass, nails, and other sharp objects. In addition, many buildings will be damaged. They could easily collapse. Only return to your home when the authorities say it is safe. Try to remain calm and alert, and listen for information and instructions from emergency crews or local officials.

Use your telephone only for emergency calls or to take pictures of the damage (the house and its contents--for insurance purposes).

A few quick tips:

If you lose electricity, use battery operated light sources instead of candles. Sparks from electrical switches could ignite gas and cause an explosion.

Never use generators in your home or garage, only outdoors where there is no danger of fumes entering your home.

Clean up spilled medicines, bleach, or gasoline or other flammable liquids immediately.