Each year about a thousand tornadoes touch down in the United States. Only a small percentage actually strike occupied buildings, but every year a number of people are killed or injured. The chances that a tornado will strike a building that you are in are very small; however, you can greatly reduce the chance of injury by doing a few simple things.
One of the most important things you can do to prevent being injured in a tornado is to be alert to the onset of severe weather. Most deaths and injuries happen to people who are unaware and uninformed. Young children or the mentally challenged may not recognize a dangerous situation. The ill, elderly or invalid may not be able to reach shelter in time. Those who ignore the weather because of indifference or overconfidence may not perceive the danger. Stay aware and you will stay alive!
If you don't regularly watch or listen to weather reports, but strange clouds start moving in and the weather begins to look stormy, turn to the local radio or television station to get the weather forecast. Check for updated weather information by television, radio, internet, cell phone or a NOAA weather radio.
If a tornado "watch" is issued for your area, it means that a tornado is "possible."
If a tornado "warning" is issued, it means that a tornado has actually been spotted or is strongly indicated on radar and it is time to go to a safe shelter immediately.
Be alert to what is happening outside as well. Here are some of the things that people describe when they tell about a tornado experience:
- A sickly greenish or greenish black color to the sky.
- If there is a watch or warning posted, then the fall of hail should be considered as a real danger sign. Hail can be common in some areas, however, and usually has no tornadic activity along with it.
- A strange quiet that occurs within or shortly after the thunderstorm.
- Clouds moving by very fast, especially in a rotating pattern or converging toward one area of the sky.
- A sound a little like a waterfall or rushing air at first, but turning into a roar as it comes closer. The sound of a tornado has been likened to that of both railroad trains and jets.
- Debris dropping from the sky.
- An obvious "funnel-shaped" cloud that is rotating, or debris such as branches or leaves being pulled upwards, even if no funnel cloud is visible.
If you see a tornado and it is not moving to the right or to the left relative to trees or power poles in the distance, it may be moving toward you! Remember that although tornadoes usually move from southwest to northeast, they also move toward the east, the southeast, the north and even northwest.
There is no such thing as guaranteed safety inside a tornado. Freak accidents happen and the most violent tornadoes can level and blow away almost any house and its occupants. However, extremely violent EF5 tornadoes are very rare. Most tornadoes are actually much weaker and can be survived using the following safety ideas.
Prevention and Practice Before the Storm
At home, have a family tornado plan in place based on the kind of dwelling you live in and the safety tips below. Know where you can take shelter in a matter of seconds and practice a family tornado drill at least once a year. Have a pre-determined place to meet after a disaster.
Flying debris is the greatest danger in tornadoes so store protective coverings (e.g., mattress, sleeping bags, thick blankets, etc.) in or next to your shelter space, ready to use on a few seconds' notice.
When a tornado watch is issued, think about the drill and check to make sure all your safety supplies are handy. Turn on local TV, radio or NOAA weather radio and stay alert for warnings.
Forget about the old notion of opening windows to equalize pressure; the tornado will blast the windows open for you!
If you shop frequently at certain stores, learn where there are bathrooms, storage rooms or other interior shelter areas away from windows and the shortest ways to get there.
Know the Signs of a Tornado
- 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 that doesn't fade in a few seconds like thunder does.
- 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 winds, 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.
What to Do...
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, a dorm or an apartment: 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 bathtub 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 an office building, hospital, nursing home or skyscraper: Go directly to an enclosed, windowless area in the center of the building — away from glass and on the lowest floor possible. Crouch down and cover your head. Interior stairwells are usually good places to take shelter, and if not crowded, allow you to get to a lower level quickly. Stay off the elevators; you could be trapped in them if the power is lost.
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.
At a primary or secondary school: Follow the drill! Go to the interior hall or room in an orderly way as you are told. Crouch low, head down and protect the back of your head with your arms. Stay away from windows and large open rooms like gyms and auditoriums.
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.
In a shopping mall or large store: Do not panic. Watch for others. Move as quickly as possible to an interior bathroom, storage room or other small enclosed area, away from windows.
In a church or theater: Do not panic. If possible, move quickly but orderly to an interior bathroom or hallway, away from windows. Crouch face-down and protect your head with your arms. If there is no time to do that, get under the seats or pews, protecting your head with your arms or hands.
After the Tornado...
Keep your family together and wait for emergency personnel to arrive. Carefully render aid to those who are injured. Stay away from power lines and puddles with wires in them; they may still be carrying electricity! Watch your step to avoid broken glass, nails and other sharp objects. Stay out of any heavily damaged houses or buildings; they could collapse at any time. Do not use matches or lighters, in case of leaking natural gas pipes or fuel tanks nearby. Remain calm and alert, and listen for information and instructions from emergency crews or local officials.
If you must travel:
- Do not attempt to drive over flooded roads. Turn around and go another way. Water moving at two miles per hour can sweep cars off a road or bridge.
- Watch for areas where rivers or streams may suddenly rise and flood, such as highway dips, bridges and low areas.
- If you are in your car and water begins to rise rapidly around you, abandon the vehicle immediately.
If you need to use a generator:
- Before installing a generator, be sure to properly disconnect from your utility electrical service. If possible, have your generator installed by a qualified electrician.
- Run generators outside, downwind of structures. Never run a generator indoors. Deadly carbon monoxide gas from the generator's exhaust can spread throughout enclosed spaces.
- Fuel spilled on a hot generator can cause an explosion. If your generator has a detachable fuel tank remove it before refilling. If this is not possible, shut off the generator and let it cool before refilling.
- Do not exceed the rated capacity of your generator. Most small, home-use, portable generators produce 350 to 12,000 watts of power. Overloading your generator can damage it and appliances connected to it, and may cause a fire. Follow the manufacturer's instructions.
- Keep children away from generators at all times.
Avoid carbon monoxide poisoning:
- Do not operate generators indoors; the motor emits deadly carbon monoxide gas.
- Do not use charcoal to cook indoors. It, too, can cause a buildup of carbon monoxide gas.
- Do not use your gas oven to heat your home. Prolonged use of an open oven in a closed house can create carbon monoxide gas.
- Install a carbon monoxide alarm.