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Only one month later an extreme tornado outbreak took place in multiple states yet again, killing 158, and destroying the city of Joplin, Missouri.
Are Tornadoes Getting Bigger?
It would seem that way. The loss of life and property has been staggering in these recent events.
Recent Tornadoes A Reminder: Be Prepared
It also serves as a warning for the rest of us of the need to prepare against nature’s grandest atmospheric force, the tornado. At their greatest strength, twisters can approach speeds of 320 miles per hour – enough power to level the best-constructed brick walls, rip large homes from their foundations and up into the air, and throw tractor-trailers a distance of about 300 feet.
Where Tornadoes Strike
The greatest and most frequent tornado occurrences happen in the United States. Tornadoes can in fact form in any state, but they occur most frequently in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Texas.Whether you live in this group of states – often called “Tornado Alley” – or not, spring brings the increased possibility of a deadly tornado.
Are you prepared?Learn about the atmospheric events that signal the possibility of a tornado — and what safety measures you can take to survive if a twister hits.
Tornadoes – ‘The Finger Of God’
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) defines a tornado as:A tornado is a violent windstorm characterized by a twisting, funnel-shaped cloud. It is spawned by a thunderstorm (or sometimes as a result of a hurricane) and produced when cool air overrides a layer of warm air, forcing the warm air to rise rapidly. The damage from a tornado is a result of the high wind velocity and wind-blown debris. Tornado season is generally March through August, although tornadoes can occur at any time of year. They tend to occur in the afternoons and evenings: over 80 percent of all tornadoes strike between noon and midnight.
Each year, about 100,000 thunderstorms form over the United States. Between 600 and 1,000 of those thunderstorms will give birth to tornadoes.
Some may also remember the now famous quote from the film ‘Twister’, when a character asked a group of meteorologists following a series of tornadoes – “storm chasers” – how they would define the strongest twisters. After a moment of silence, one of them replies with a depth of feeling approaching awe that such an event is “the finger of God.”
That’s a high statement. But there’s something about the greatest tornadoes that makes the highness hard to dismiss.
*Tornadoes are the most destructive of all weather-related events, and produce the most violent winds on earth. Winds inside the greatest twisters can swirl well over 300 mph.*Tornadoes can be nearly invisible, marked only by swirling debris at the base of the funnel. Some are composed almost entirely of windblown dust; others can be composed of several mini-funnels.
*Twisters can reach heights of 60,000 feet into the atmosphere.
*On average, during a tornado’s ‘path’ – the total area certain to suffer at least some destruction by its deadly force – the twister will travel about 4 miles on the ground and cut a swath about 400 yards wide; but the worst ones can travel for 100 miles and be as large as a mile wide.
*The average tornado travels along the ground at a speed of 25 to 40 mph., but can go from one place to the next at speeds of up to 70 mph.>
*Twisters stay on the ground for an average of four to five minutes; however, a tornado can touch down several times.
*Most tornadoes move from southwest to northeast.
*Most twisters in the Northern Hemisphere rotate in a counter-clockwise direction. Most in the Southern Hemisphere rotate in a clockwise direction.
*Building damage during a tornado happens when high winds cause a buildup of pressure on building surfaces. This pressure is wind velocity squared.
*Most tornadoes occur between 3 pm and 7 pm
*Tornadoes occur throughout the world; however, the greatest number and most intense, deadly tornadoes occur in the United States.
*About 800 tornadoes touch down in the United States each year.
*Half of all tornadoes occur during the spring months of April, May, and June.
*Only 2 percent of tornadoes are considered violent, but those storms cause 70 percent of tornado-related deaths.
*In November 1988, a rash of 121 tornadoes struck 15 south central states, resulting in 14 lives lost and damages reaching $108 million.
*According to the National Weather Service, about 42 people are killed because of tornadoes each year.
Luckily, we are not mere sitting ducks, even against something as powerful and unpredictable as a twister. Every year, scientists and meteorologists are learning more about the formation and behavior of the mighty winds. This has resulted in quicker and more reliable emergency broadcasts accurately predicting where a tornado will appear and its probable path.
For instance, the quick reports of twisters possibly headed into the heart of Oklahoma City in May of ’99 certainly saved many lives. Those reports were only possible because of what had been learned about twisters in the early and mid-90s.
Also, the fact that tornadoes usually strike between 3-7 pm gives us a fairly certain time frame in which to look out for them, and ensures us that most people will be awake and will probably hear reports immediately if a dangerous situation arises.
And in the US, if a situation begins as we’re outside away from a radio or TV or when we’re asleep, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) weather alert radio receiver – equipped with the famous warning siren – can warn of an impending tornado if people are away from the usual immediate sources.
The Fujita – Pearson (FPP) Tornado Scale
Shortly, this is a system of estimating and reporting both tornado wind intensity, devised by Professor T. Theodore Fujita (1920-1998), and path length and width by Allen Pearson in 1971. It was quickly taken up as the best means to rate a twister’s destructive capacity. The scale is based on the damage a tornado causes on man-made structures.
According to Fujita and Pearson, the size of a tornado’s funnel is not an indication of its intensity. The Fujita Scale is therefore based on damage, not the appearance of the funnel.
*F0 – Gale Tornado 40-72 mph
Path length 0.3-0.9 miles; path width 6-17 yards
Light damage; Some damage to chimneys; branches broken off trees; shallow-rooted trees pushed over; sign boards damaged.
F1 – Moderate Tornado (73 – 112 mph)
Path length: 1.0-3.1 miles; path width: 18-55 yards
Moderate damage; The lower limit is the beginning of hurricane wind speed; peels surface off roofs; mobile homes pushed off foundations or overturned; moving autos pushed off the road; attached garages may be destroyed.
F2 – Significant Tornado (113 – 157 mph)
Path length: 3.2-9.9 miles; path width: 56-175 yards
Considerable damage; entire roofs torn from frame houses; mobile homes demolished; boxcars pushed over; large trees snapped or uprooted; light-object missiles generated.
F3 – Severe Tornado (158 – 206 mph)
Path length: 10-31 miles; path width: 176-566 yards
Severe damage; walls torn from well-constructed houses; trains overturned; most trees in forests uprooted; heavy cars lifted off ground and thrown.
F4 – Devastating Tornado (207 – 260 mph) Path length: 32-99 miles; path width: 0.3-0.9 miles
Well-constructed houses leveled; structures with weak foundations blown off some distance; cars thrown and large missiles generated.
F5 – Incredible Tornado (261 – 318 mph) Path length: 100-315 miles; path width: 1.0-3.1 miles
Strong frame houses lifted off foundations and carried considerable distances to disintegrate; automobile-sized missiles fly through the air 100 yards or more; trees debarked; steel reinforced concrete structures badly damaged.
Awesome Power Of A Tornado
Now that you know about the awesome power behind a tornado, unless you’re a professional and risk life and limb for a living, under no circumstances should you ever attempt to follow or chase a twister down. They are, for all practical purposes, still quite unpredictable, and may surge with far greater strength, disappear and reappear, or change direction at a moment’s notice.
We are a survival site, and so the very best advice we can give is to let the storm chasing to those who are either sufficiently trained, or simply stupid enough, to follow one of these things. You’re not actors on a movie set; there is no take two in real-life. Your only worry should be to protect yourself, those you care for, and your home as best you can. How do you do that?
How To Survive A Tornado
Many thanks here to both the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Illinois Emergency Management Agency (IEMA) for their detailed information on how one can best prepare for a twister – before it hits, as it’s sweeping over you, and immediately after the event.
Many may suppose that they need only worry about the funnel cloud as it sweeps over them; but without the right preparations beforehand or maintaining the correct behavior afterward, a person could still easily end up becoming one of those injured, if not worse. Avoid such problems by knowing what to do before it happens.
Before A Tornado
The best precautions before a twister hits:
Determine the best location in both your home and where you work or go to school where you can take shelter when threatened by a tornado. A basement or cellar will usually afford the best protection. If an underground shelter is not available, identify an interior room or hallway on the lowest floor.
Conduct periodic tornado safety drills with your family.
Especially if you live in ‘tornado alley’, you should know the locations of designated shelters in places where you and your family spend time, such as public buildings, nursing homes and shopping centers. Ask whether your children’s’ schools have identified shelter space.
If a tornado is baring down, put on a helmet. Helmets with face protection (commonly worn on dirt bikes and street bikes) are the first choice to turn to. A secondary choice is a football helmet or baseball catcher’s mask with face guard. Third choice would be a helmet worn by skiers / snowboarders, or even a baseball helmet.
Have emergency supplies on hand: Candles, flashlights, 3-5 days of food for each person in your family, 3-5 days of bottled water for each person in your family, propane cooking stove, extra propane, cold weather clothing, cold weather survival gear, rain gear, axe, lighters, wooden matches, gasoline stored in approved containers away from the home such as in or outside a shed on your property.
Be Able to Turn Off Utilities
Learn how to shut off the utilities to your home. Purchase a wrench specifically for shutting off natural gas.
Have Plans for Locating Family Members
Decide how and when your family will reunite, if separated. Carefully go over a map of the area and have a Plan A meeting place as well as a Plan B (should Plan A be flooded, destroyed, or have something else take place making it unsuitable or inaccessible to meet other family members).
Make an inventory of your possessions. Take photographs and / or videotape your belongings. Keep records in a safe deposit box or some other safe place away from the premises. You may want these to aid later insurance claims.
Emergency Weather Radio
Purchase a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Weather Radio with battery backup and tone-alert feature which automatically alerts you when a Watch or Warning is issued. Or simply purchase a battery-powered commercial radio, and extra batteries. Make sure from time to time that you know where the radio is, that it still works, and that all the batteries are still good.
Know Your Area
Make sure you know the names of the towns and counties in which you live, work and haunt. They are used during both tornado warnings and watches to identify the area of potential tornadoes; therefore a solid knowledge here is essential. Keep a good, easy-to-read map in your car if you travel frequently, one that clearly details names of counties – which authorities use as the principal markers in spotting tornado activity – as well as towns.
Also, remember the terms used to describe tornado threats: Tornado Watch and Tornado Warning. What’s the difference?
A tornado watch is issued by the National Weather Service when tornadoes are possible in your area. Remain alert for approaching storms. This is the time to remind family members where the safest places within your home are located.
During a tornado watch, observe the sky and listen to radio or television for more information. Be prepared to take shelter. If you see any revolving funnel-shaped clouds, report them immediately by telephone to your local law enforcement agency. If they appear to be headed your way, seek shelter in a well-constructed, sturdy building or structure as soon as possible.
For some reason mobile homes have a tradition of being destroyed by tornadoes. If you do live in a mobile home this is the time to temporarily move to a more substantial structure. Considering how dangerous tornadoes can be, if you live in tornado alley get yourself a home that is built with tornado survival in mind, such as a cellar you can take shelter in when the sirens sound or a tornado is on it’s way. But if you find yourself living in a mobile home when a tornado strikes, it’s recommended that you find yourself a nearby ditch or culvert as soon as possible and simply lie as flat as you can and wait (and pray) for it to pass you by.
If you’re not a big fan of taking shelter in a ditch or culvert, don’t wait till the last minute to make the move from a mobile home finally. Make sure you, and those you care for, are protected. Move now, if you can. Or start making preparations to move.
A tornado warning is issued when a tornado has been actually sighted or indicated by weather radar. During a tornado warning, everyone should take shelter, turn on a battery-operated radio or television, and wait for the “all clear” announcement by authorities.
If you’ve heard there’s a tornado warning in your area, call your local emergency management office or American Red Cross chapter about it if you care to know more. Also ask about community warning signals.
If there’s one thing we can’t stress enough, it’s that you need to have your wits about you, and use all your senses in determining any danger.
If you know there’s a tornado warning in your area and the skies around you look particularly dark, or there seems to have been a sudden drop in barometric pressure, seek shelter immediately. Take along at least one radio (any one will do but an NOAA radio would admittedly be best) and some water if you can.
Consider having a pre-packed backpack with clothes and emergency food, water and survival supplies for each member of your family.
Signs A Tornado Is About To Strike
Watch for any unusual behavior out of animals: Does your dog or cat seem particularly anxious? Does there seem to be a sudden drop of birds in your area, especially since the skies have become darker or the pressure has fallen? That may also be a good indication that a twister is about to appear in your immediate area. Seek shelter when you can, taking with you the things mentioned above.
If there’s one constant with a twister, it’s the sound that accompanies the tornado: it has most often been described as a deep rumble that builds into a roar.
Even if there hasn’t been a tornado watch called in your area, if there is at least a tornado warning in your county or if the skies seem particularly ominous and the air possesses that drop in air pressure, and you begin to hear such a steady sound, seek shelter immediately. Unless you live next to a train station or airport runway (the sound of a twister has been compared to the long, low rumble of a speeding train more than anything else), take immediate precaution at anytime you hear noise that sounds like this or similar.
Don’t bother to go outside and investigate; it may be too late for that. These things can hit fast — dropping out of the sky and taking out whatever happens to be waiting on the earth below. Always be aware of that. Don’t be complacent about a possible tornado once that warning has gone out.
The simplest advice? Be ready to take shelter if and when the need calls for it.
During A Tornado
When a tornado has been sighted in your immediate area take the following actions:
Go at once to your predetermined shelter (the basement, storm cellar, or the lowest level of the building). Stay there until the danger has passed.
If there isn’t a basement, go to an inner hallway or a small inner room without windows, such as a bathroom or closet.
However much you want to see the storm, stay away from all windows, doors, and outside walls.
Go directly to the center of the room. Stay away from corners because they tend to attract debris. Get under a piece of sturdy furniture such as a workbench or heavy table and hold on to it for all you’re worth.
Use sofa cushions or your arms to protect your head and neck.
If in a mobile home, get out and seek shelter elsewhere. A mobile home can overturn very easily even if precautions have been taken to tie down the unit. If there isn’t a substantial shelter nearby, seek shelter in a low-lying area. Use your arms to protect your head and neck.
In a Public Building (School, Hospital, Factory, Shopping Center, etc.)
Go to the basement or to an inside hallway, a small, interior room, or a bathroom or closet on the lowest possible level.
Avoid places with wide-span roofs such as auditoriums, cafeterias, gymnasiums, and large hallways.
Stay away from windows and open spaces.
Get under a piece of sturdy furniture such as a workbench or heavy table or desk and hold on to it.
Don’t Stay Outdoors During A Tornado
If possible, get inside a substantial building.
If shelter is not available or there is no time to get indoors, lie in a ditch, culvert, or low-lying area or crouch near a strong building. Use your arms to protect your head and neck. Be alert for potential flash flooding.
In A Vehicle During A Tornado
Never try to outrun a tornado in a vehicle. Heavy rain, hail, and traffic may impede your movement, and tornadoes can travel as quickly as 70mph over dry land. Tornadoes can quickly change directions, and can easily lift up a vehicle and toss it through the air.
Pull to the side of the road avoiding trees, power lines and other objects that could fall or be hazardous.
Get out of the vehicle immediately and try to take shelter in a nearby building.
If there isn’t time to get indoors, get out of the vehicle and lie in a ditch, culvert, or low-lying area away from the vehicle. Use your arms to protect your head and neck.
After A Tornado
Monitor the radio or television for emergency information or instructions.
Check for injured victims. Render first aid if necessary.
Do not attempt to move severely injured victims unless absolutely necessary. Wait for emergency medical assistance to arrive.
Look out for broken glass and downed power lines.
Use the telephone only for emergency calls.
Try to get out of damaged buildings. Once out, do not reenter unless it’s absolutely necessary. Use great caution at all times.
Take photos or videotape the damage to your home or property.
If driving, be alert for hazards in the roadway.
Check on neighbors/relatives who may require special assistance.
If unaffected by the tornado, stay out of the damaged area until allowed in by officials; your presence may hamper emergency operations.
However, if a clear need arises for help, be ready and willing — but be smart — about helping others in need. May God come to your aid — he’s always just a prayer away.
The Most Important Reminders
1. The best protection during a tornado is in an interior room on the lowest level of a building, preferably a safe room.
2. Tornadoes strike with incredible velocity. Wind speeds may approach 320 miles per hour. These winds can uproot trees and structures and turn harmless objects into deadly missiles, all in a matter of seconds. Mobile homes are particularly vulnerable to tornadoes.
3. Injury or deaths related to tornadoes most often occur when buildings collapse, people are hit by flying objects or are caught trying to escape the tornado in a car.
4. Tornadoes are most destructive when they touch ground. Normally a tornado will stay on the ground for no more than 20 minutes; however, one tornado can touch ground several times in different areas.
5. Tornadoes can occur practically anywhere, but are most prevalent in the US, and are most frequent in the Midwest, Southeast and Southwest. The states of Oklahoma, South Dakota, Missouri, Nebraska, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Arkansas, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas are at greatest risk.
The media can raise awareness about tornadoes by providing important information to the community. A few quick suggestions:
1. Publish a special section in your local newspaper with emergency information about tornadoes. Localize the information by printing the phone numbers of local emergency services offices, the American Red Cross, and hospitals.
2. Periodically inform your community of local public warning systems.
3. Sponsor a “Helping Your Neighbor” program at your local schools to encourage children to think of those persons who require special assistance such as elderly people, infants, or people with disabilities.
4. Conduct a series on how to protect yourself during a tornado in case you are at home, in a car, at the office, or outside.
5. Interview local officials about what people living in mobile home parks should do if a tornado warning is issued.
Many homes in the US ‘Deep South’ are for some reason built without a basement – a fact that is particularly strange since so many southern states are part of ‘tornado alley’. In apparent response to this, a word from FEMA:
FEMA is urging people who live in tornado-prone areas to make sure they have a tornado-safe place to go during a tornado. In the absence of a basement, a tornado-safe room build within the house will protect your family during a tornado. Properly built safe rooms can provide protection against winds of 250 miles per hour and against flying objects traveling at 100 miles per hour. The plans for the safe rooms were developed along with the Wind Engineering Research Center of Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas.
Additional Tornado Survival Ideas:
Surviving Tornadoes That Surprise You
It’s reported that laying in a bath tub can offer some protection, though of course it’s not always guaranteed. Plus you wouldn’t want to lay in a bath tub on the top floor of your home. Instead, experts advise for you to choose the lowest floor to seek shelter.An adult and a small child can squeeze into an empty bathtub together, and just hope (and pray) that the tornado will not take their lives. If possible, pull a mattress and blankets into the bathroom with you, and cover yourselves, to help protect from flying debris.
Another area recommended by experts is a small closet, on the ground floor, within the interior of your home, where you’re also advised to cover yourself with a blanket (or anything you can get your hands on) to protect from flying debris. Avoid a room in your home where large appliances are in the room above. Should the floor collapse as the house sways on it’s foundations, those appliances could come down on you.
Look For A Nearby Ditch Or Culvert
There may be a ditch just outside your home, with a large “pipe” running under your driveway, called a culvert.Or perhaps there’s a culvert just a block or two away, a larger one (culverts in many neighborhoods have a smaller opening than culverts often in the rural areas, or those outside a housing development). These most often carry water run-off, that drains into ditches; sometimes these pipes are open, with nothing blocking them, other times they may be blocked by a grate of some sort. Many in neighborhoods are just big enough for children to crawl into, and as far as adults go, there’s probably enough space for most “average” weight adults to slide in backwards, preferably face down so as to cover their heads with their arms from possible flying debris that may come inside. As you flee for a culvert, right now is not the time to worry about claustrophobia, which a few might feel crawling into such a confined space. Nor is it time to worry about the mud or pollution run off — it’s time to survive, and get you and your children to a safe place.
If no culvert is handy, or if there’s simply no room in a culvert because other people have taken shelter there, lying down in a narrow ditch is said to also offer some protection.
Tornado Shelter: Build A Tornado Ditch
I once worked in construction, and had to go through training as a laborer to join the Union as I sought employment with a concrete company. One of the things we did in training was dig a small ditch, and square the sides, and to do it within a short period of time: five minutes or less, if I recall.Fact is this: If a standard ditch can offer some protection, consider that a person can dig themselves a better ditch, one that’s a bit deeper and more confined, with vertical sides, than any ditch that runs in front of your home.
With just a pick and a shovel you can be two feet deep and six feet in length in just a few short minutes, and now you have a very narrow, confined ditch you can take shelter in.
You could dig a few of these ditches weeks or months before hand (one for each member of your family), and even prep some plywood, ready to be used after you’ve crawled into your ditch to take shelter. Next (or in advance), slide the plywood in over your head so that it locks into grooves you dig into the ground.
With plywood locked in over your head, with you sheltered underneath in this ditch you’ve dug, you now have even more protection from the wind, which would hopefully simply pass right over you.
Keep in mind you could end up with something large and heavy (like a car or roof) on top of your location, so that is a danger.
Be sure to grab any emergency kits you’ve prepared for a tornado strike, and have each member of your family take food and water inside these tornado shelters.
If you find yourself trapped by tornado debris, hopefully someone later conducting a ground search will hear your shouts for help and come to the rescue. If you’re carrying a cell phone when the tornado strikes, try calling someone after the danger has passed.
Fleeing From A Tornado In Your Car
If you’re in the open country, and see a tornado, it’s advised by the National Weather Service to simply drive away from the tornado. Surprisingly, overpasses are said to not be a safe place to take shelter. If the tornado comes close, the National Weather Service advises people instead to get out of their vehicle and seek out a ditch or culvert.
Preparing For A Tornado: Building A Tornado Shelter
If you’ve got the funds, and recognize that yes, this could be the hand of God at work in the world, and that non-traditional areas are now very likely places for a massive tornado (or series of massive tornadoes) to strike, you could consider doing what many people in Mid-West states have already done: Build a tornado shelter within your home. Maybe it’s a smart thing to do anyway, as this shelter could have multiple uses. Maybe it’s a place that’s safe to go to in an earthquake, if you’re only seconds away from it. It could be a place that you keep stocked with emergency food and water, and survival supplies, for coming out ok in the aftermath of the disaster.
Talk to companies in the Mid-West about tornado shelter building, and then put them in touch with your contractor. Just maybe you’ll add a little more value to your home, and if you do one day sell, a tornado shelter might be something that appeals to your buyer.
Metal Storage Container
One creative, possibly cheaper method would be to purchase a large metal storage container, often seen carried off ships at port and then transferred on to semi-trucks for shipment to warehouses. Businesses, schools, churches and even a few residents (such as people who work in construction) sometimes use these containers as secure storage sheds, due to their size and strength, and that they lock, and hold a lot of equipment. A large hole could be dug out on your property with a back hoe (such as digging a swimming pool), and this metal storage container simply set inside, and then dirt and new lawn put right over the top. Outfit your container with a top entrance and ladder, and you have an instant tornado shelter / safe room, and perhaps even a place for the kids to play when no storms are present. (Of course your municipality may require permits for something along these lines.)
Additional Reader Suggestions & Tips to Survive a Tornado
The following advice was submitted by a reader. Though not an expert, they offer additional thinking on tornado survival.
Tracy Shultz of Seattle, WA writes…
I wandered on to your site “Secrets of Survival” while hunting around on the internet for tornado survivor stories and then read your article on surviving a tornado. It’s a quite thorough and well-researched primer on tornadoes and I look forward to reading some of your other articles. However, I’d like to make a couple of suggestions that might be helpful to add to the article and perhaps suggest an alternative view regarding survival tips. Plus a correction or two (and opinions). I mean this only to add on to what you’ve already written.
I’m not a meteorologist or storm chaser but please allow me to establish some credibility on the subject as follows:
I was born in Oklahoma City (1967) and grew up in central Oklahoma. I lived there until I graduated from the University of Oklahoma and moved to Seattle, WA in 1991. On two occasions while still fairly young I was in houses that were directly struck by tornadoes and have been in countless situations where the area I was at was under at tornado warning. The city I lived in from about age 5 to 18 was Moore, OK, a suburb abutting Oklahoma City on its south side.
That’s where I rode out the two tornadoes as a kid (weak ones back in the mid-late 1970’s…F-1 at best) but the town is much better known in tornado lore when it was devastated by the infamous “Moore/Bridge Creek” F5 on May 3rd, 1999. While not the deadliest tornado on record it still maintains the dubious distinction of being the strongest ever recorded (301 mph, revised down from the initial reports of 318 mph) and the most costly in terms of damage at over $1 billion.
Then on May 8th, 2003 nature (or Fate, God or whatever) decided to revisit Moore with a smaller but still devastating F4 that tracked along a similar path but slightly to the south of the 1999 F5, and at one point actually wiped out part of a subdivision on the East side of town that had just been rebuilt from the ’99 tornado. My former home (where my mom still lives) was mercifully spared the wrath of both tornadoes as both went north of the house although the ’03 tornado touched down on the adjacent block from our house…a very close call. However, I knew many people who lost everything except their lives to one or the other of the two tornadoes and it leveled the grade school I attended for 6 years (which was something I actually wished for quite often when I attended the school while sitting in the stifling 100+ degree non-air conditioned classrooms on late summer afternoons. But I digress).
In addition to all that, practically anyone who ever grew up in Oklahoma had tornado safety drilled into their head. Also, since I moved to Seattle I’ve become something of a tornado “junkie,” learning everything I possibly could about them. Due to my experiences with them I have something of a love/hate relationship with tornadoes and am fascinated with and terrified of them simultaneously.
So pardon that long explanation but it seemed necessary before I start spouting off advice. Most people in central Oklahoma, which has the highest concentration of F-4/F-5 tornadoes in the country, will already know all of the following simply from personal experience, but it might be helpful to those in areas where they don’t occur as often.
First, in addition to your already good advice concerning tornado watches and warnings, there are often other telltale signs that one may be about to strike. These don’t always happen and when they do it doesn’t mean one’s about to drop for certain, but just some things to keep an eye out for (and I’ll limit the scientific reasons for them since I have limited knowledge of the “why”…there are plenty of resources on the web that can explain them far better than I can):
1. Mammatus clouds are often associated with severe weather and tornadoes and are considered something of a precursor or leading indicator that heavy weather is on the way. If you see them in the sky it’s usually a good idea to heighten your sense of alertness. ( )
2. Hail, especially very large hail, is often a harbinger of bad things to come. I think this has to do with the fact that hail size has a correlation with the height of supercell t-storms…the higher the altitude of the top of the storm then the further it has to fall and thus gets larger along the way down until it wipes out the windows and paint on your car.Generally the tallest supercells generate the strongest tornadoes.
3. Another common characteristic is if the sky turns a sickly and otherworldly shade of green. (As in the movie “Twister” when Bill Paxton’s character says “It’s going green.”) As I understand it, the green color is a result of daylight being filtered through the aforementioned hail core.
4. You’re right about a sudden stillness and the reactions of animals just prior to a tornado striking. Again, I’m not sure why this is except that animals seem to have a better perception than humans do. Also, in a classic supercell formation there’s a rain-free gap sometimes between the main part of the storm and the tornado which generally is at the tail end of it (more on that below)
Some other observations:
1. Most people outside of Tornado Alley are unaware of the structure of the typical supercell t-storm. Often they think that if they’ve survived the initial stormfront then the danger has passed. Not true as in that situation the tornado is actually at the tail end of the storm and it’s easy to be lulled into a false sense of safety that the danger has passed them by. Mammatus cloudsHere’s a radar image of the ’99 Moore tornado that shows a textbook example of what I’m talking about. Also, it illustrates the “calm” gap between the bulk of the supercell and the tornado which is tagging along as indicated by the hook echo.
Not all tornados form from supercells but the ones that do tend to be the most devastating.
2. Tornadoes are often wrapped in rain and hidden from view so just because one isn’t visible it doesn’t mean that there’s not one hidden inside an intense rain shaft. Don’t take chances on it as many people have discovered over the years.
3. Many people assume that if they can visibly see a tornado and it appears to be moving away from them then they’re out of immediate danger. Not true as a rotating mesocyclone can drop satellite tornadoes several miles from the main funnel (which happened on May 3rd.) Also, long-track tornadoes often lift and then reform and drop down at different locations within the mesocyclone. So it’s a good idea to also keep an eye on what’s going on directly overhead.
4. One other thing you might want to mention is a common misconception many people have that taking shelter under an overpass will protect you. It won’t, and is more likely to get you killed. Many people still believe that tornadoes will vacuum them up into the vortex and that a solid overhead structure will protect them. But that’s not the way they work. They lift things into the air by sweeping them up from the side and then tossing them outside the funnel. Overpasses actually make things worse due to the “wind tunnel” effect where the restricted space actually increases the wind speed. At least 3 people died in the ’99 outbreak from being swept from beneath overpasses. You may recall the now-famous 1991 video taken by a pair of reporters on a Kansas turnpike in the ’90s where they took shelter under an overpass and filmed the tornado going over them. YouTube video of tornado here (assuming it works since YouTube is acting goofy today).
Problem was that it was a weak tornado (F-1 or so), didn’t pass directly over them and the overpass was built with steel beams that offered them some lateral protection from the winds. However, it just added to the myth that overpasses were a good source of shelter.
Here’s another overpass video, but not of the same one. It was obviously after the ’91 video as by then word had got out that seeking shelter beneath overpasses was a no-no. This is evidenced by the state trooper who drove by after the tornado passed and scolded the people there via loudspeaker:
And one other link from NOAA.
Ok, and now a few points I might dispute from the article or that you might wish to reconsider or add as an alternate suggestion (and again, I mean this only as constructive criticism). Your original text in italics:
1. If you’ve heard there’s a tornado warning in your area, call your local emergency management office or American Red Cross chapter about it if you care to know more. Also ask about community warning signals.
If you are under a tornado warning the last thing you need to be doing is calling anyone about anything, especially local emergency management, unless it’s to report a tornado you’ve spotted, and then only if you’re sure you’re completely out of danger. Instead you should be taking cover plus it ties up emergency resources. All of the information you need should be thought out well in advance and whatever shelter you’ve designated should already be stocked with a radio and sufficient emergency supplies since you won’t have time to be racing around trying to collect them before the tornado hits. Also (and this is an often overlooked suggestion) is that wherever you decide to take shelter it’d be a good idea to have a really loud air-horn pre-positioned and within reach. The reason for this is because even if you’ve managed to survive the storm, you may end up under piles of debris or can’t get out of your basement or storm cellar because of debris piled on top. An air horn will let rescuers know where you’re at.
Also, if you’re in an area served by natural gas utilities: no smoking and no kerosene lamps. Quite often natural gas lines are broken during severe tornadoes and it can take a while before the utility companies to shut down the mains. Plus, despite what you wrote about learning how to shut down your utilities you may not have that option if the controls have been swept away with your house. In the ’99 tornado numerous houses went up in flames after it passed and in a couple of instances some burned down days afterwards when electricity was finally restored and ignited gas lines that were broken but hadn’t been shut off.
2. If there’s one constant with a twister, it’s the sound that accompanies the tornado: it has most often been described as a deep rumble that builds into a roar.
Actually, that’s not the case. They can have many different sounds or in some cases none at all, especially if one drops down directly on you. In both cases where I was in the houses hit by tornadoes there was absolutely no sound until they actually hit. One made a big boom as it crushed a screened metal back porch like a beer can and the other mad some rattling noises as it chewed up trees in the back yard and flung them at the house. If you can hear a tornado and/or feel a pressure drop, you are in imminent danger.
3. If there is no basement, go to an inner hallway or a small inner room without windows, such as a bathroom or closet.
A bathroom is best, even if not in the center of the house or building. The reason is that the pipes in the walls tend to provide better reinforcement. Also, at least in a house, a bathtub provides an extra measure of protection. The downside though is that so many residential bathrooms these days involve glass shower doors and glass is something you want to avoid at all costs in this situation since half of it will have to be plucked out of you later at the ER, assuming you survive. So if lots of glass in the bathroom, go with the closet route. The key is to put as many walls between you and the outside as possible regardless.
4. Go directly to the center of the room. Stay away from corners because they tend to attract debris. Get under a piece of sturdy furniture such as a workbench or heavy table and hold on to it for all you’re worth.
I have to disagree with this to a degree since I don’t think the science is settled on the matter. This is for two reasons: 1) If you’re in a corner then debris can only come at you from outside the corner. If in the center of the room you’ll be hit from all sides and end up in the corner anyway, along with all the debris. Seems to me it’s be best to huddle there and use a sofa cushion as a shield for all the debris swept your way. 2) The other problem with being in the center of the room is the danger of collapse from above of a floor or roof. The problem is far worse if you’re in a large space with long-span structural support, such as a gym, as you noted elsewhere, but to a degree it’s the same in a home. The ends of any structural member or more likely to remain somewhat intact even if the structure fails. A beam will usually collapse into a “U” shape and you can survive under the little triangular portion at the edge.
If it helps add to my credibility, I’m also an architect with more than 17 years experience and have an extensive background working with structural issues.
5. Never try to outrun a tornado in a vehicle. Heavy rain, hail, and traffic may impede your movement, and tornadoes can travel as quickly as 70mph over dry land. Tornadoes can quickly change directions, and can easily lift up a vehicle and toss it through the air.
In the past few years tornado experts have begun to rethink this advice, at least in terms of it being a cardinal rule. It’s true that a car is about the last place you want to be in while facing a tornado, but in some cases it may be your best hope, depending upon the circumstances. The new thinking is that if you’re in a city or town where there’s other traffic, stoplights, visual obstructions etc., then follow the traditional advice and get out of the car and into a shelter or ditch. However, if you’re out on a well-paved highway or interstate you stand an excellent chance of evading a tornado, as long as you can clearly see it and the direction it’s moving, even if it’s coming directly at you. The best advice is to try and drive at right angles of the apparent path, but even if you can’t it’s highly unlikely that a tornado that might be following you directly down an interstate would be able to catch up with you. I believe the top speed a tornado was ever clocked at was around 70 mph. and even the pokiest vehicle should be able to drive faster than that on a good highway.
The trick is knowing which way it’s moving. If it’s moving at a cross angle to you (left to right for example) then chances are you aren’t in its path. However, if it appears stationary but appears to be getting bigger, then that’s a good sign it might be time to be leaving.
Some additional misc. info about tornado myths…:
Additional Tips From Tracy
One would be to get a NOAA Weather Radio. You’re probably aware of them, but if not they sit quietly for most of the time but are activated by a broadcast signal in case severe weather is happening or about to happen in your area. Very handy in the middle of the night if you’re asleep or during the day if you don’t have the TV or radio on.
Here’s the Wiki link if you want to tack it on: NOAA Weather Radio
The other thing would be to keep a sturdy pair of boots or shoes in your shelter or area of refuge. Seems like a no-brainer, but it’s an often overlooked item. Let’s say you’re asleep and all of a sudden you hear tornado sirens. You bolt out of bed in a still-groggy state and sprint for your shelter and the last thing you’re thinking of doing at that moment is fishing around in the closet for boots (and as far as I know, most people don’t sleep with their shoes on). This way, if your house does end up getting damaged or destroyed but you survive, you don’t emerge from said shelter to find yourself walking across walking across a debris field of broken glass and boards with nails sticking out in your bare feet.
Probably seems like an odd priority and there are other things you want to keep in your shelter as well, but if you’ve seen “Die Hard” or “Cast Away,” you’ll note that the protagonists in each faced enormous challenges in their respective situations by not having anything to protect their feet (even though neither was in a tornado situation).
Keeping An Air Horn Handy
One other thing I noticed in the coverage of the ’99 Moore tornado was that in several instances people had been trapped in their underground shelters or basements by all sorts of debris. In some cases they were able to push the shelter doors open from below but in others had to wait for rescuers to move the debris to get to them. Since phone service may go out in a disaster (and not everyone even has one in their shelter with them) it occurred to me that it might be a good idea to have an air horn or some other loud signaling advice to let rescuers know where you are.