INTRODUCTION TO TORNADO PREPAREDNESS
Tornadoes create the most violent weather found on Earth, and the United States due to its topography and proximity to three ocean sources and cold Canadian air, features the most severe weather on Earth.
Wind speeds can blow in tornadoes to over 300mph, much stronger than a hurricane, and they can cut paths over a mile wide for 50 miles or more. For example, the Springfield Tornado of June 1, 2011 cut a path 39 miles long from Westfield through to Charlton, MA. Its ground scar was visible from satellite imagery!
HAVE A PLAN
It’s important to have a preparedness plan in place for any severe weather emergency, and tornadoes are at the top of the list.
Western Mass has had several powerful tornadoes in addition to the Springfield Tornado of 2011 in the past, including a few below:
SOME COMMON MYTHS
First of all, let’s dispel a common myth about tornado preparedness. If you are under a Tornado Warning from the National Weather Service, do NOT open your windows, or crack them. Really, you’re supposed to seek shelter immediately and leave the windows as they are, but if you have time and can close them, do so.
I fell victim to this myth myself. The theory is that by cracking the windows, you equalize the incoming very low pressure to the pressure of the inside of your dwelling, so that the extreme pressure gradient doesn’t cause your space to implode.
However, the truth is that by opening windows you’re providing the winds and debris from a tornado with another method of egress into your home, and that creates weak spots to help hasten the damage and/or destruction from your home.
So leave your windows closed when a tornado approaches.
If you’re out and about, you can hide beneath an underpass and you’ll be ok. WRONG. Underpasses ACCELERATE wind blowing under them, and also act as debris traps. This isn’t the movies. Don’t take shelter under overpasses if this situation arises for you.
BENEFITS OF PREPARATION
The biggest benefit to being prepared for severe weather, is that you don’t have to think when the time comes to act. If you don’t have a plan, you’re emotions of fear, anxiety, and panic can rule over you, which leads to poor decision making and unclear thinking, which can lead to loss of life and property, or result in injuries.
You need clear thinking when you are responding to an incoming tornado, and you need to act quickly, and decisively. This is why it’s best to have a plan, written down, where you know where it is, and one that ideally you’ve practiced.
You can also be a better help to your neighbors, if you are organized.
Remember folks, we live in New England. We get things called blizzards here, and ice storms. We experience severe weather each year, to some degree.
It’s a good moment to introduce a new term called “normalcy bias”. This is a human tendency to assume that because things have gone a certain a way for a period of time, they will continue to do so, especially when dealing with disasters of any type.
This bias can cause serious problems in your life if you fail to plan for severe weather in any season.
Remember: things get real hairy when you have no running water for 3 or 4 days. Folks in the Halloween Nor’easter didn’t have power for two weeks. Have a plan. Minimize suffering for yourself, your family, and your neighbors, when you have the means to do so.
TORNADO WARNING SCENARIO #1 – IN YOUR HOUSE/APT
If you have time, putting on some durable, sturdy shoes is helpful in case you need to travel on foot. The best place to go in your home when a tornado is coming, is the most central and lowest possible area you can get to, away from windows. If you have a basement, safe room, storm shelter, that is best. If you don’t have a basement, then the most centrally located room away from windows you can, as low as you can, with as many walls between you and the outside walls as possible. Small closets, or even crouching down between a door frame if that’s all you have available. Do NOT hang out in a wide open space. Be near structural supports that are least likely to be destroyed. Did I say to stay away from windows?
Depending on your situation, a bathtub in your first floor bathroom is the most internal space in your dwelling. Make sure to cover your head with your arms and hands, to protect from flying debris.
Getting under a sturdy piece of furniture or door frame can offer a little extra protection. Heavy blankets can also help mitigate damage from fast-flying debris.
If you live in a mobile home, these are generally regarded as cars by tornadoes, and can be sent airborne. Having a pre-arranged shelter to visit in case of severe weather is ideal.
You’re trying to make the best of an almost impossible situation. Things happen, things can go wrong, but these tips are meant to help you increase your chances of surviving the most severe weather event known to human beings on planet Earth.
TORNADO WARNING SCENARIO #2 – IN YOUR CAR, OR OUT AND ABOUT
If a tornado is approaching, this is a more dangerous situation, because you have much less structural support to work with. There are two schools of thought, and each method can be argued for its efficacy, but you will have to make this judgment call in the moment yourself. I will provide links at the bottom of this page where you can get more info.
PLEASE NOTE: Regardless of either decision you make, if you are near and have access to a building that you can get into, then follow the instructions above in that building. SOUND BUILDING STRUCTURES OFFER THE BEST PROTECTION FOR INCOMING TORNADOES
If there is no building available, and the tornado is far enough way AND (and I mean AND here) you know the geography and roads VERY well, you can do the following. Determine in which direction the tornado is generally heading. Face that direction, then, if you can (based on your knowledge of the roads and the roads available to you) drive as close to 90 degrees TO THE RIGHT of the tornado’s path. If you drive LEFT, you are going to drive right into the rain shield, hail core, and most frequent lightning in the supercell producing the tornado.
Most tornadoes have an easterly component to their path. By driving 90 degrees to the right of their path, you will be driving in a southerly component most likely, which will take you out of the path of that particular tornado.
I can only speak for myself now in this next section of my article, because you will have to make your own decision should this ever arise for you. If the tornado is too close, moving too fast, developing too fast, you don’t know the roads well, and there is no building around to get into, you have two options:
1. STAY IN YOUR CAR AND PREPARE FOR IMPACT
If it’s a relatively small tornado, like an F0 or F1, I would probably stay in my car, with my seatbelts on, and crouch down towards the steering wheel, below the windshield, with my hands over my head to protect from debris. If I had some sort of coat or blanket, I would put that over me, to protect from any glass shards that might enter the car, as my car might be rolled side over side. Most automobiles can be picked up and thrown at speeds of 120mph, and since most tornadoes are F0s and F1s, this is probably what I would do.
2. GET OUT OF YOUR CAR, AND FIND THE LOWEST LEVEL DITCH OR CULVERT NEAR YOU
If a large and violent tornado is heading my way, I’m getting out of my car, because I will likely be hurled skyward. I believe I’d have a better chance getting out of my car, finding the lowest possible ditch or culvert that I can find, and lying flat on the ground, face down, with my hands over my head and neck. By being down as low as possible, you’re hoping that any debris and strongest winds will pass OVER your without scouring down into the ditch or culvert. Remember that tornadoes are violently pulling air from all directions INTO their funnel, like a rotating vacuum.
Click here for an article by Dr. Greg Forbes from The Weather Channel discussing the pros and cons of staying in your car, or abandoning it and getting into a ditch or culvert.
WHAT ABOUT MY IMPORTANT STUFF?
You should have a plan for your important documents and personal property.
For insurance purposes, one suggestion is to videotape or photograph everything you would need to replace in case you lose it all. When you’re sure that you’ve included everything, you could also make and keep copies of your important documents somewhere away from the premises, such as a safe-deposit box. Alternately, consider taking these digital photos of your important documents and transferring those files on to a thumb drive that is kept in a safe deposit box.
Safe deposit boxes are good for essential physical documents like marriage licenses, house and car insurance information and policies, social security cards, important business or financial documents.
IF YOUR HOUSE BECOMES DAMAGED FROM A TORNADO OR MICROBURST
If you have gas lines into a house that’s been damaged, make sure you open windows and doors before lighting flame, and check for leaks. Beware of broken glass, nails, and downed utility wires near the house or on the street.
Always use flashlights first in your home if power goes out, to make sure there aren’t any gas leaks taht could ignite a fire, or explosion from built up gas. turn off the main gas valve if you suspect or smell a leak. KNOW HOW TO TURN OFF GAS OR ELECTRICITY COMING INTO YOUR HOME BEFORE AN EMERGENCY.
GENERAL SEVERE WEATHER PREPAREDNESS TIPS
Remember, even a strong thunderstorm with gusty winds can knock power out for hours, so before days with forecasted severe weather, remember to do the following:
– Charge all cell/smart phones
– Charge all laptops, tablets, and e-readers
– Top off your gas tank for your vehicles
– Locate your first-aid kit
– Know where your lighters, matches, candles, batteries, and flashlights are, and replenish supplies if you are low.
– Know where your solar and/or hand-cranked emergency radio with NOAA 24/7 forecast channels is, and make sure you charge it in the Sun once a week, or the day before severe weather is forecast. If you have a regular radio, know where it is, and make sure you have batteries on hand to power it.
– Make sure you have some potable water on hand
– Have a printed out list of important phone numbers (such as ambulance, hospital, family, friends, police, fire, etc.) and know where it is located so you can access it quickly.
– You should have enough non-perishable food and water to last 4 days. Non-perishable items such as nuts, seeds, dried fruit, beef or turkey jerky or all good choices to have on hand as part of any preparedness plan.
– Dessicant packets are good to have to help keep nuts and seeds fresher longer.
– Prescription medications.
– Have some cash on hand, perhaps a couple hundred dollars (if you can) for emergency cash purchases.
– Have a whistle so you can be found in case of severe damage (good for the increasing black bear population in WMass, too)
NO SAFETY GUARANTEES
Please note that severe weather can be violent, unpredictable, and changeable. These tips are not meant to be construed as guarantees for your safety, but meant to educate you on some of the best published practices for responding to severe weather events, including tornadoes.
I hope you’ve found this helpful, and remember, have a plan, and if you don’t have one, then start working to create one today. Take small steps, and keep working on it until it’s finished and actionable.
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
Red Cross Policy on Severe Weather Preparedness