You can increase your chances of surviving even a strong tornado by having a safe place and following a good emergency plan during a tornado warning.
♦ Be prepared
Surviving a disaster starts with courage and hope, so it’s good to know at the outset that many people, surprisingly, have come away relatively unharmed, even after close calls from violent tornadoes.
On April 15th, 2011, a Lowe’s store in Sanford, North Carolina, was destroyed by an EF-3 tornado, and yet the hundred or so people inside came through it all right without serious injuries.
Twelve days later, during the largest tornado outbreak in US history, an EF-4 tornado in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, reduced the Full Moon Bar-B-Que to rubble. Incredibly, although they initially had to wait for rescuers to find them and dig them out, only three of the thirteen people who had been inside when the twister hit were still hospitalized the next day, and no one died.
These remarkable examples of survival weren’t coincidences. Knowing what to do in a tornado emergency is the most vital part of being prepared, and it’s also second nature to most Alabamans and North Carolinians, who live in a lesser known “tornado alley” sometimes called “Dixie Alley.”
The basic idea, if in a sturdy building, is to get away from glass and into a safe, sturdy place at ground level – something as simple as the basement (underneath something solid), closet or hallway or as elaborate as an in-home storm shelter – and put as many walls between you and the tornado as possible, ideally in less than 5 minutes. Upper stories should be avoided, so if you are renting or traveling and not on the ground floor, get down there and indoors as quickly and safely as possible before the tornado gets close.
Manufactured housing can quickly turn into a death trap during a tornado. When warned, residents should immediately leave their mobile home and get into a safer place, such as a sturdy frame-built structure or one of the FEMA-approved storm shelters for buildings without foundations (link is to PDF file).
♦ Away from home
Drivers may have few choices in a tornado. If a storm does approach while you are on the road, the general advice is to get out of your vehicle, since winds can easily make it an airborne missile; lie down flat somewhere and cover your head with your hands.
It generally is a bad idea to continue driving when visibility is close to zero. Don’t blindly follow other drivers, as they may not know what they’re driving into, not even truckers. You are the one responsible for your own safety during a tornado. When you’re not sure, pull over wherever you can do so safely. After making sure that you are away from things that might fall on your car, assess the situation.
The vehicle will give some protection from lightning but not from flooding, and if you see debris of any size out there, especially if it is accompanied by a roaring sound (although not all rain-wrapped tornadoes give this audible warning), get out of the car and take cover immediately. Highway underpasses are poor places to shelter from a tornado.
In the United States, the Storm Prediction Center (SPC) and local National Weather Service (NWS) offices monitor conditions and issue tornado watches and warnings that local meteorologists use to alert the public whenever possible, even going into live radio and TV broadcast mode in some markets during an emergency. You can get this information on a car radio or with a NOAA weather radio that has an alarm to sound when warnings are issued for your area. Free cell phone and email alerts are also available.
Before heading out, you can check conditions almost in real time online at the SPC and local NWS websites. When conditions are right for tornadoes, and especially if there is a warning, you might want to consider altering your daily schedule and putting off errands until after the bad weather is over.
It’s an individual choice for adults, but schools will hold kids after school, if necessary, rather than send them out on buses when there is a tornado warning in effect. In any public building, the most dangerous areas are the long spans of unsupported roof. School hallways are effective shelters. In malls and other such areas, employees will probably know the best places to hide. Follow their instructions quickly, as you may only have a few minutes in which to act.
♦ Know how the tornado will come at you
Wherever it may catch you, use what you know about tornadoes to find the best possible shelter.
Every tornado is a vortex of fast-moving air, often turbulent, that spirals between the ground and its parent storm cloud; some of the big supercells can spawn whole families of tornadoes, one after another. There are several theories of how twisters form, but nobody knows for sure because direct field measurements and observations are impossible, as instruments are destroyed in the tornado’s field of debris that can be whizzing around at anywhere from an estimated 65 to 85 mph for an EF-0 tornado up to over 200 mph in an EF-5.
That high-speed debris is one of the main causes of tornado deaths and damage, but there are others. Inflow of air into the funnel can be strong, especially in violent storms – on April 15, 2011, meteorologist James Spann tweeted that spotters, who were at a safe distance from an EF-3 tornado near Scooba, Mississippi, reported experiencing an 80 mph inflow jet. Such winds can easily get underneath your car, pick it up, and carry it directly into the tornado.
Air pressure changes near a twister can shift solidly built buildings off their foundations or even turn them over. However, structures only appear to explode in the tornado. What actually happens is a rapid series of catastrophic failures once the wind has forced its way inside.
Scientists have learned that tornado winds often destroy a building by first lifting off the roof, leaving the building’s outer walls and uppermost story with no support at the top. Weakened, these fail quickly, leaving the inner room walls without support, and the cycle repeats itself. Only a building’s smallest inside rooms or halls at ground level may be left fairly intact; the studs in these smaller spaces are closer together and provide more support. (See National Weather Service et al. [October 10, 2006]. A Recommendation for an Enhanced Fujita Scale (EF-Scale) [p. 11]. Texas Tech University, Lubbock, Texas, a PDF file, for more information.)
This is why public safety experts have stopped telling people to open windows as a tornado approaches. Its winds will open windows and do much, much more. Spend that extra time seeking a good shelter.
♦ Reduce risk
There are numerous sources to turn to for more information that can help you prepare for a tornado at home, at work or school, or while traveling. Check with local, state and federal emergency preparedness people to see what the risk is for areas you will be in. Use the methods they suggest to protect yourself and to get started on recovery after the storm.
One of the many reliable online aids available is the Storm Prediction Center’s Online Tornado FAQ to help you understand this terrible marvel of nature better. The Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety has a free online publication on ways you can reduce your tornado risk. The Federal Emergency Management Agency offers FEMA 320: Taking Shelter From the Storm: Building A Safe Room For Your Home or Small Business.
As Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, the only thing to fear is fear itself, but preparation for a tornado is a multi-step process. People can and do survive most tornado disasters, although for the most extreme storms, like an EF-5 tornado, the only safe place is underground. Still, your chances for survival are improved once you have understood how tornadoes destroy things and acted on that knowledge: have a safe place handy; are able to hear any warnings authorities may issue; and know what to do, regardless of where you might be, when a tornado hits.