During tornado season, a friend of mine often tells a family story: Years and years ago, her great-uncle, then a little boy, was taking a bath in his home located in a rural North Carolina town. It was summertime, and, as is frequent in the South, a tornado watch was issued. Since the house had no basement, everyone in his family headed to a neighbor's cellar and told little George to get out of the tub and flee. Ever the stubborn child, George refused, and the family left the willful boy on his own. Minutes later, after spotting an upcoming storm, he came running down the main street -- in his birthday suit -- screaming, "A cyclone's coming! A cyclone's coming!"
Fortunately, the tornado did not hit town, and George's close encounter became the stuff of small town legend and a charming family anecdote. But, all joking aside, tornadoes are very serious weather events. Some of the most violent storms on the planet, tornadoes are columns of air that rotate from the base of a thunderstorm to the ground. They can appear to be transparent until they pick up dust and debris to form a funnel cloud.
Although tornadoes can follow tropical storms or hurricanes, they also can strike suddenly with little or no warning and cause massive damage. Tornadoes frequently occur in the U.S. east of the Rocky Mountains during spring and summer. In the South, tornadoes are most prevalent from March to May, while in the North, they strike most frequently in the late spring and early summer. Although tornadoes usually move southwest to northeast, they can go in any direction and range in speeds from 30 to 70 miles (48 to 112 kilometers) per hour. Usually, they happen between 3 and 9 p.m. when the ground and air are at their warmest temperatures.
Scary stuff, right? Sure, but there's a lot you can do to prepare for a tornado and keep your family safe. With an emergency kit on hand and a talk to your family about a tornado plan, you can safely weather a tornado.
Items for Your Tornado Safety Kit
The tornado emergency kit and preparations made by Amy and Jake Burnett of Piedmont, Okla., may have saved their lives and the lives of their two children. In May 2011, Jake called Amy to alert her that a tornado was on the way, according to Redbook magazine. Amy took their two children to the safe room they'd built in their garage, while Jake rushed home from work. The storm hit, and their home, along with much of their block, was swept away in the torrent.
Because the Burnetts' tornado shelter was fully stocked and their safe room was prepared, they stayed safe in the storm. In case a tornado strikes, you should have the following items on hand. Store them in the area where you will take shelter in the event of a tornado or in a duffel bag or backpack so that they are easily mobile.
- Extra batteries
- Battery-operated radio
- First aid kit
- Extra supply of prescription medications
- Manual can opener
- Emergency food and water
- Emergency medicine
- Well-built shoes, long-sleeved pants and shirts to wear for protection after the tornado
After you've put together your emergency kit, you'll next want to think about the best place for a safe room in your home. Ideally, you should pick a place that is below ground level. Remember that basements may flood during a heavy storm such as a tornado, so make sure water does not have a tendency to accumulate in your designated safe room. If you don't have a basement or cellar, select the most-interior room on the lowest level of your home. Your safe room should have strong walls that will sustain strong wind and accompanying debris. For more information on safe rooms, go to the FEMA Web site.
Tornado Safety Tips
In "The Wizard of Oz," as a twister quickly approaches, Dorothy, too late to join her family in the storm cellar, seeks shelter in her house and is knocked out by a window frame. She definitely did not pick the safest place to wait out a tornado.
If a tornado strikes and you're in a house, apartment, hospital, or other large building, go to a basement, cellar or the lowest level in the building. If there is no basement, go to the most interior room on the lowest level away from windows and doors, like a closet or hallway. (An interior stairwell can work too). Get under a table, and use your arms to protect your head and neck. Or cover yourself with a mattress or blankets.
If you're in a mobile home, leave immediately and go to the lowest floor of the nearest sturdy building. Mobile homes are extremely dangerous places -- most tornado-related deaths occur in and around them. If you're outside or in your car with no shelter in sight, duck into a ditch or depression in the ground, and cover your head and neck. Don't seek shelter under a bridge or overpass.
Once you've headed to your shelter, stay inside and protect yourself until you know for sure that the storm is over. Listen to the radio to get updated information about the weather. Whatever you do, don't leave until you've received official notice that the tornado has passed. While in the shelter, always use battery-powered equipment rather than electronic tools. Using electrical equipment such as grills or generators could put you at for risk carbon monoxide poisoning.
Once you're sure the storm has passed, use caution when entering a possibly damaged structure, and remember to make use of those sturdy shoes, long sleeves and gloves that you packed in your emergency kit. Look out for nails and broken glass; avoid contact with power lines that have been knocked down, and report downed power lines to the police and the utility company. If you suspect that damage has been done to your home, cut off the electrical system at the circuit breaker to avoid risk of a fire.
Perhaps most importantly, cooperate with law enforcement and public safety officials. They have the latest news on not only the status of the tornado but also evacuation procedures and safety.
- Federal Emergency Management Agency. "Tornadoes." (Jan. 24, 2012). http://www.ready.gov/tornadoes
- Mills, Chellie. "Is Bathtub Safe Place during Tornado?" KFOR.com. (Feb. 6, 2012). http://www.kfor.com/news/local/kfor-is-bathtub-safe-place-during-tornado-20110527,0,610525.story
- Naasel, Kenrya Rankin and Thompson, Jihan. "We Survived": 3 Inspiring Stories from Families Who Survived This Year's Tornadoes." Redbook. (Feb. 2, 2012). http://www.redbookmag.com/health-wellness/advice/tornado-survivors
- Red Cross. "Tornadoes." (Jan. 24, 2012. http://www.redcross.org/portal/site/en/menuitem.86f46a12f382290517a8f210b80f78a0/?vgnextoid=62a7da30df3ea110VgnVCM10000030f3870aRCRD
- Tornado Safety. Storm Prediction Center. (Feb. 2, 2012). http://www.spc.noaa.gov/faq/tornado/#Safety