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How to Prepare for a Tornado

Tornados are awesome forces of nature. These high-powered, rotating funnel clouds can reach peak speeds of over 250 mph and cut mile wide paths of destruction. Tornados develop during specific patterns of weather. Most are caused by the clash of differing temperature air and humidity, typically generated through strong thunderstorms. Tornados (or twisters) may also accompany hurricanes or tropical storms that come ashore. Though they tend to occur between 3-9 p.m., they can strike anytime and transpire all year long.

Although we know much about tornados, our response time is minimal. A mere 18 minutes (or less) is the average notice given to seek shelter. Why is this? Tornados appear quickly and unlike weather patterns of hurricanes are quite small. Once the National Weather Service announces a tornado warning, you have just a few moments to perform the correct measures for saving yourself and your family.

Preparedness for tornados starts long before you hear warnings and the sky takes on an ominous greenish cast. There are measures you can do today to begin planning for these intense life-threatening storms.

Getting Ready for a Twister:

  1. Know the risks. Most people aren’t injured by the twister itself, but by flying objects swirling in horrific wind velocities. The force of a tornado can be strong enough to drive steel rods into buildings, pick up vehicles and drop them miles away in a tangled mass of metal and level entire communities. You don’t want to be unprotected from the debris these funnel clouds toss about.
  2. Get informed. The best way to stay informed about threatening conditions is not through television, internet or cell phone alerts. Power outages are common in all severe thunderstorms. Pick up a weather radio that runs on battery back-up and has regular bulletins from the National Weather Service for current updates.
  3. Understand terminology: A “Tornado Watch” defines conditions which are favorable for developing a tornado. Be ready if a watch is announced to seek shelter. “Tornado Warning” means a tornado has been sighted and is imminent. Immediate shelter must be obtained. Make sure all family members understand these terms.
  4. Identify shelter areas. The safest places are underground- storm cellars, basements, crawl spaces. If there isn’t one readily available, an inner reinforced room (without windows) such as a closet or bathroom is a good option. Bathrooms work particularly well, since plumbing in the walls adds support against strong winds. Closets under stairwells are often excellent choices.
  5. Consider the options. In some cases, bathrooms or closets are on outside walls or have other risky options like windows, skylights or glass ceilings. Elect for interior hallways in an emergency. Consider asking a nearby neighbor with a basement if you can seek shelter there during threatening conditions. Advance planning this is imperative. Arrange for entry if your neighbor isn’t home when a tornado occurs.
  6. Test your safe zone. Make sure your family knows the shelter areas and that there is enough room for everyone. Children benefit practicing this as a drill. All family members should know where to go quickly and how to know there is tornado potential.
  7. Assume the position. If a tornado does strike your home, you’ll want to be low and protecting your head, even in your shelter area. Strong winds can still penetrate some rooms. Many families take mattresses, blankets or pillows into their shelter areas. If you are using a basement or closet as a shelter, you can create a corner with these items stashed for emergency use. When a bathroom or hallway is the shelter, decide in advance what you can quickly grab on your way.
  8. Emergency contact lists. Establish out of state contact persons in case family members are separated. Include fire, rescue, and medical and utility company numbers. Make sure all family member cell phone numbers are listed. Place a copy in your shelter area, in children’s backpacks and vehicles.
  9. Make a kit. Almost universally, the strong storms that accompany tornados also knockout power and phone lines. Downed trees and debris in roads can disrupt travel. Expect this. Though rare, tornados have been reported to stay on the ground for up to 50 miles and have been as much as a mile wide. Other storm systems have spawned multiple tornados, which touch down over large geographic areas. This means a widespread region can be affected.

You could be without power, drinking water and transportation for several days. Create an emergency kit that carries you and your family through at least 72 hours. Ideally, this should be stored in your deemed shelter area. However, if you don’t have enough room in your place of refuge, consider keeping your survival kit at a neighbor’s house or tucked in tight fitting lidded plastic tubs in a closet or under a bed.

Tornados pass very quickly. Since most of your kit below is for the aftermath of a storm, keep a backpack with just a few necessary items handy to grab for entering small closets or bathrooms used as shelter areas. Include in this flashlights and portable radio, spare batteries, extra car keys, mini first aid kit and a couple of bottles of water and non-perishable snacks. Add a map to track location of tornados. Maintain a fire extinguisher in your shelter area. Make sure it’s charged and family members know how to use it.

72 Hour Emergency Kit:

  • Water. 1 gallon/per person, per day. Keep at least 3 days of water supplied. Include plain household bleach and containers for disinfecting additional water if needed.
  • Food. Choose non-perishable items, such as granola or energy bars, canned meals, tuna, or soups, peanut butter, crackers, trail mix. Infants or pets should have supplies as well. Include manual can opener, pot or pans for heating, paper plates/utensils and sterno cans for heating. BUT do not use any source of flame unless you are certain there is no risk of gas leaks.
  • Substantial First Aid Kit with a Manual. Bear in mind that rescue workers may not be able to reach you for extended periods of time. You may have to perform basic first aid, CPR and life saving skills. Don’t mince on your first aid kit for emergencies. Make sure it’s well stocked. Know how to use each item. Consider taking a first aid or CPR class in advance.
  • Blankets, Warm Clothing, Gloves, Sturdy Shoes. (store these in large, waterproof bags or containers)
  • Essentials. Prescription medication and copies of prescription refill, spare contacts or eye glasses, flashlights, candles, matches, extra batteries, trash bags, ABC fire extinguisher, portable radio, waterproof tarp, disinfectant wipes, toothpaste/toothbrushes, personal care items, (deodorant, soap, shampoo, feminine products), toilet paper.
  • Tools. Pliers, hammer, rope, duct tape, ax, shovel, sharp knife and crescent wrench.
  • Priority Items. A small amount of cash, copies of emergency contact information, driver’s license(s) and insurance papers. In worst case scenarios, your entire home could be destroyed or deemed unsafe. Keep a copy of important documents in a safety deposit box as well as in your kit.
  • Comfort items. Paper and pen, plus books, cards or small stuffed animals to pass the time and for soothing children.

A word of caution: Mobile homes are notorious death traps during the strong winds of twisters. Plan to evacuate by selecting a nearby secure refuge. Many trailer parks have a designated storm shelter. Other options are hospitals, police stations or any reinforced community building that is open to the public. Investigate possibilities before a tornado strikes and determine a shelter site for your family.

Elderly or disabled mobile home residents may have challenges getting to shelter quickly. Advance planning for these individuals is absolutely crucial.

According to new studies, getting into your vehicle, buckling up and driving at right angles to the storm to avoid the path of a tornado, seems safer than staying in a mobile home. In a recent wind test, some motor vehicles fared better in lower tornado strength winds than mobile homes. However, there is no substitute for a sturdy building as a tornado shelter. Get into a ditch or a depression and cover your head in lieu of staying in mobile homes, recreational vehicles or unsafe buildings.

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