One minute there’s a rumble of thunder and streaks of lightning, and the next the sky is a purple-green hue, followed by a funnel cloud touching down with 300-mile per hour winds. North America averages 1,262 tornadoes a year; most are relatively small, but then there are the storms that cut damage paths 50 miles long, overturn homes and displace homeowners, and trigger violent hailstorms and flash floods. They’re nature’s most violent and destructive storms, but it’s their unpredictability that makes them difficult for homeowners to prepare for.
While the Great Plains region – nicknamed “tornado alley” – typically has the largest and most dangerous tornadoes, supercells and tornadic activity can occur anywhere in North America where there are thunderstorms. Tornadoes are most common during the spring and summer months, and they typically occur between 3 p.m and 9 p.m. Thunderstorms create the energy that powers tornadoes. No one can prevent a tornado, but you can take simple steps to make sure your family and home are as prepared as possible. Here are preparation tips to get you through a tornado safely.
Know the Signs
Tornadoes are volatile and unpredictable… they’re the wild cards of weather that can strike with little – to no – warning. Even with today’s technology, the National Weather Service has to predict the right combination of atmospheric conditions well in advance to be able to issue a tornado watch or alert. While you can’t always depend on an official tornado warning, there are other indicators, however, that a tornado might be approaching. Look for the following signs:
- Dark or green-colored skies
- Dark, low-lying clouds
- Large hail
- A loud, rumbling sound – the noise is often compared to a freight train
- An approaching cloud of debris or debris dropping from the sky
- A strange silence after a vicious thunderstorm
Part of knowing the signs of a tornado is understanding the difference between a tornado watch and a tornado warning. If your area is under a tornado watch, the meteorological conditions are right for tornadoes to form. In other words, a watch means that tornadoes are possible. This is the time to discuss the emergency plan with your family (remember all those tornado drills we did as kids?), check supplies in emergency and first aid kits, gather water, food, medications, documents, and anything else you might need in the safe room. A tornado warning, on the other hand, means a tornado has been sighted on radar. There is an imminent danger to life and property, and you need to take shelter immediately.
Prepare for a Tornado
Preparedness involves a continuous process of planning, equipping, training, and exercising. Preparing for a possible tornado is the key to getting through the storm safely. Know where you’re going to take shelter, become familiar with the community’s emergency warning system, and have a basic emergency and first aid kit packed and ready.
When choosing a safe shelter in your home, it’s best to go to the lowest floor possible, preferably a basement. If your home doesn’t have a basement, take shelter in an interior room or hallway and hide under something sturdy such as a heavy workbench or table. Don’t take shelter in a room with windows – windows are easily blown out in high winds, and this can cause injuries. Steer clear of doors and outside walls as well. According to FEMA, most tornado-related injuries and fatalities are caused by being cut or struck by falling or wind-blown debris.
Tornado-prone areas have a siren system warning people when to take shelter. If there’s a tornado warning, then take shelter immediately. Stay tuned to local radio and TV stations for any weather updates.
According to FEMA, a basic emergency kit includes the following:
- Three days of drinking water
- First aid kit, including extra necessary prescriptions
- Flashlight and batteries
- Battery powered TV or radio
- A whistle to signal for help
Tornado preparedness is key to weathering a storm, but what if you’re in a car on the highway when a tornado alert blasts through the radio? Depending on the situation, pull over and seek shelter in the basement of a building. At no time should you attempt to outrun the tornado in your vehicle. If debris is flying around, however, don’t get out of the car. Pull over and park on the side of the road – steer clear of parking under overpasses or bridges – put your head between your knees, well below the level of the windows, and cover yourself with a jacket or blanket. Keep the seatbelt tightly fastened. If you’re in a car, low, flat locations provide the best protection from tornadoes.
Secure Important Information and Documents
Keep a log of important personal information and store it in a safe, secure place. Don’t just put the documents in a metal file box with a lock; secure them in a water and fire-resistant steel security box. If there’s damage to your home during a tornado, you want documents such as birth certificates, social security cards, passports, wills and insurance policies to be undamaged. If you have electronic records, be sure they’re backed-up and stored on a digital cloud. Keep an updated list of medications your family uses as well as emergency contact names and numbers, including:
- Fire, police, paramedics, and local medical centers
- Relatives, friends and neighbors
- Electric, gas, and water companies
- Insurance agents
- Bank and credit card companies
Stay Informed at All Times
Staying informed is vital to weathering a tornado. Timely information and emergency broadcasts help determine when and how you should take action. While it’s important to monitor weather reports and emergency broadcasts prior to a tornado, it’s equally as important to listen to them after a tornado has touched down. Before you exit your home to check on relatives and neighbors, you need to know that it’s safe to go outdoors. Is there flash flooding? Are power lines down? Are roads passable? What areas of the community received a direct hit? Are power, gas, communications, and other services still running? If the wreckage outdoors poses a risk, continue to shelter in place. Go outdoors and begin accessing the damage only when authorities say it’s safe.
Finally, whether your community is under a tornado watch or a tornado warning, it’s important not to panic. You can’t prevent tornadoes or control the weather, but you can be prepared during a worst case scenario.