Tornadoes are a frightening phenomenon when they touch your life. We had some near misses when we lived in Colorado and have had to scrambles into the basement even here in Maine when we are under tornado warning. We have learned to reduce our risk of being injured in a tornado through these experiences.
Living with Tornadoes
A tornado is a violently rotating column of air extending from a thunderstorm to the ground. Before they touch the ground they are called funnel clouds. If they touch down over water they are called water spouts. They can be up to a mile wide and travel on the ground or over water for over 50 miles.
Tornadoes may appear nearly transparent until dust and debris are picked up or a cloud forms within the funnel. The average tornado moves from southwest to northeast, but tornadoes have been known to move in any direction.
On average 70 people are killed a year and 1500 injuries occur because of tornadoes in the US each year.
The scale used for the strength of a tornado is called the Fujita Scale. The scale is explained here. It ranges from an F0 (slight damage) to an F5 (incredible damage)
There are three things you need to do to reduce
your risks in a tornado.
1. Learn the tornado history of your area
You should know if you live in an area that experiences tornadoes and their sizes so you can make sure your shelter is adequate and you can plan accordingly. There are a few places you can see the history of tornadoes in your area.
This one from ESRI’s community is great – you can zoom in and see the history for you area.
Tornadoes in the last 48 hours – is a neat resources from the University of Michigan
Tornado maps (USA) – a wide range of maps on this site.
Tornadoes around the globe – a great summary with maps.
2. Have a warning system and know the visual signs.
Having a way to get a warning from the weather service is important during tornado season. Most cable TV stations will put up over-signal warnings (ie they interrupt the program to provide you a warning or put a moving banner over the program).
Some smart phone weather apps can provide a warning through your phone.
The Storm Weather Shield App turns your phone into a NOAA Emergency Radio (it costs a few dollars).
Even with these methods, a tornado can occur without any official warning. So you need to know what the visual signs of a possible tornado are and keep you eye on the sky especially ding turbulent thunderstorm weather days.
Visual signs (from Roger Edwards, Storm predication Center, OK)
- Strong, persistent rotation in the cloud base.
- Whirling dust or debris on the ground under a cloud base — tornadoes sometimes have no funnel!
- Hail or heavy rain followed by either dead calm or a fast, intense wind shift. Many tornadoes are wrapped in heavy precipitation and can’t be seen.
- Day or night – Loud, continuous roar or rumble, which doesn’t fade in a few seconds like thunder.
- Night – Small, bright, blue-green to white flashes at ground level near a thunderstorm (as opposed to silvery lightning up in the clouds). These mean power lines are being snapped by very strong wind, maybe a tornado.
- Night – Persistent lowering from the cloud base, illuminated or silhouetted by lightning — especially if it is on the ground or there is a blue-green-white power flash underneath.
3. What do you do when a tornado arrives
This is dependent on where you are (again from the Storm Prediction Center the full list is here)
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: 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 a mobile home: Get out! Even if your home is tied down, it is not as safe as an underground shelter or permanent, sturdy building. Go to one of those shelters, or to a nearby permanent structure, using your tornado evacuation plan. Most tornadoes can destroy even tied-down mobile homes; and it is best not to play the low odds that yours will make it.
In a car or truck: Vehicles are extremely risky in a tornado. There is no safe option when caught in a tornado in a car, just slightly less-dangerous ones. If 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. Seek shelter in a sturdy building, or underground if possible. If 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. Avoid seeking shelter under bridges, which can create deadly traffic hazards while offering little protection against flying debris.
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.
What do you do with animals?
It seems there is lots of debate on if you should leave animals inside a barn or let them loose. Sturdy heavy constructed barns will offer protection form flying debris – but tine light weight barns will easily topple in strong tornado winds. What is more important here is that in the time you have to make the decision, you may be putting yourself at greater risk by not taking protection. It will be a hard decision (we know that) but we leave our animals where ever they are and hope that we don’t have a direct hit.
We hope that everyone stays safe in tornado season – where ever you happen to be! We hope these notes might help you to reduce your risk from tornadoes in the future!