NOTE: This article is adapted from my book When Disaster Strikes: A Comprehensive Guide for Emergency Planning and Crisis Survival.
Who could not be shocked and saddened by the images of massive devastation left in the wake of recent tornadoes that struck in Oklahoma and Texas? Though nothing can guarantee absolute safety in the path of a tornado, outside of a shelter with reinforced concrete and steel walls, understanding something about the nature of tornadoes, safety tips for surviving a tornado strike, and which common folklore is to be trusted or ignored, will improve your chances for making the right decision when confronted by a tornado.
Tornado Facts and Myths
• It is commonly believed that tornadoes happen mostly in the spring, but the peak of tornado season varies with location, and tornadoes can occur any month of the year. For example, the peak of tornado season in the northern plains and upper Midwest is June or July but it is from May to early June in the southern plains, and even earlier in the spring for the Gulf Coast.
• There is a myth that tornadoes can only spawn and strike in relatively flat areas, but they have actually occurred in high areas of the Rocky Mountains, Sierra Nevada, and Appalachian Mountains. Though more frequent in the flatter areas of the plains states and the southeast, tornadoes have been spotted in such varied locations as Vermont, upstate New York, Nevada, and one hiker spotted and photographed a tornado at 12,000 feet in the Sequoia National Park of California.
• A common myth is that trailer parks attract tornadoes. They certainly do not attract tornadoes, but due to their light weight and lack of heavy-duty anchoring to strong structural foundations, trailers are extremely vulnerable to damage from tornadoes.
• Another common myth is that you should open your windows to allow the pressure to equalize should a tornado strike your home. Do not waste your time opening windows. If a tornado strikes, it will blow out the windows, and the last place you should be is near a window, where there is the greatest danger from flying debris and glass.
• There is a common myth that owing to the direction of rotation of tornadoes in the Northern Hemisphere the southwest corner of a building is the safest place to be. This myth is totally false. Corners are areas of buildings that are most prone to damage. The safest areas are in the center of the building in a windowless room or closet, and on the lowest level (in the basement if there is one).
• There is a common myth that highway overpasses provide protection from tornadoes. In fact, the underside of a highway overpass often acts as a wind tunnel, channeling high winds and debris, and there are a number of reported deaths of people who parked under an overpass while seeking shelter from approaching tornadoes.
Tornado Prediction and Warnings
A tornado watch is issued by the National Weather Service (NWS) when they have determined that local conditions are ripe for generating tornadoes. Once a tornado watch has been issued, it is advisable to stay tuned to your local radio and television stations for further updates. If you live in tornado country, the use of a NOAA weather radio is highly recommended, especially those models that have a battery backup and can emit an audible warning whenever a severe weather alert is issued. This is the time to turn on the audible alarm switch on your NOAA radio to alert you if the watch is upgraded to a warning. Once a tornado watch has been issued, stay alert using your eyes, ears, and other senses to watch for signs of an approaching tornado, and make sure you have access to a safe shelter. Watch for unusual behavior on the part of pets and animals that might be an indication of an approaching tornado.
Once a tornado has been spotted visually, or on weather radar, a tornado warning is issued. Once a warning has been issued, you should take immediate precautions and seek shelter. If you live in a mobile home or other poorly protected building, you should seek shelter elsewhere, if possible. Bring your radio with you to listen for status updates and an “all-clear” signal when the warning is over.
Note: Sirens and severe weather alerts may provide advance tornado warnings, but tornadoes can occur in any season and without warning!
Tornado Survival Tips and Strategies
• If you are at home, seek shelter in the bottommost floor, and innermost area, such as an inner hallway, bathroom, or closet. Stay away from windows, outer walls, and building corners. Do not waste time opening windows.
• If you have a “safe room” (a specially constructed room protected by reinforced concrete and/or steel), a basement, root cellar, or storm cellar, those are the safest places to be. In the basement, the safest place is under a sturdy table or mattress, and in a position that is not directly below heavy items on the floor above, such as a refrigerator or piano.
• Protect yourself as best as possible. Wear a bicycle or hockey helmet, if you have one. Crouching in a bathtub or shower stall can provide improved protection, as can lying under a sturdy table or overturned couch.
• If you are in a car, do not try to outrun a tornado as it can travel at speeds in excess of 70 mph. However, it is worth taking a moment to watch the tornado closely, comparing its motion to a fixed object on the ground, so as to gauge its direction of travel. If you see it moving to one side or the other, and can travel in the opposite direction, then do so. If it does not appear to move to the left or right, it is headed straight for you. In that case, you must make a decision. If you have the option of traveling to the right or left, then do so, but if you are stuck in traffic, or the tornado is very close, you must abandon your vehicle and seek shelter, since tornadoes can easily pick up cars and even tractor trailers, sometimes throwing them hundreds of yards. If possible, pull your car to the side of the road and do not park in lanes of traffic, since with the heavy rains that often accompany tornadoes, a driver traveling at high speeds might not see your car parked in the middle of the road.
• If you are stuck in your car with an impending tornado strike, crouch down as low as you can, with your seatbelt buckled, staying away from the windows, and shielding your head with your arms and hands.
• If you are in the open, perhaps having abandoned your car, seek shelter in a building or culvert, or lie down flat in a ditch or depression and cover your head with your hands. Not a pleasant thought, but people have survived tornadoes by doing this! Stay away from cars and trees, since they will become heavy flying objects with the power to kill and maim.
• Do not park under an overpass, since these tend to act as wind tunnels funneling debris and magnifying winds.
• Avoid shopping malls, theatres, gymnasiums, and other buildings with large open interior spaces where the roof might easily collapse. If inside of such a building, with no time to seek shelter elsewhere, seek shelter under a doorjamb or next to an interior wall that may provide some structural support and protection in the event of a building collapse.
About The Author: Matthew Stein is SurvivalBlog’s Back Country Editor. He is a design engineer, green builder, and author of two best-selling books: When Disaster Strikes: A Comprehensive Guide for Emergency Planning and Crisis Survival(Chelsea Green 2011), and When Technology Fails: A Manual for Self-Reliance, Sustainability, and Surviving the Long Emergency (Chelsea Green 2008). Stein is a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where he majored in Mechanical Engineering. Stein has appeared on numerous radio and television programs and is a repeat guest on Fox News, Coast-to-Coast AM, Alex Jones’ Infowars, Vince Finelli’s USA Prepares, and The Power Hour. He is an active mountain climber, serves as a guide and instructor for blind skiers, has written several articles on the subject of sustainable living, and is a guest columnist for the Huffington Post.