The safety advice your friendly neighborhood weatherperson doles out on a regular basis is as routine and forgettable as the safety demonstration at the beginning of every flight. Few fliers actually take a moment to look for the nearest emergency exit or thumb through the pamphlet to see what to do if the airplane is in trouble. We treat tornado safety the same way. The information is drilled into us from an early age, but do you really know what to do if a tornado threatens your location? Here are a few tips to help you deal with the unimaginable if you find yourself in a bad spot this severe weather season.
1. DON'T PANIC ...
Not panicking is easier said than done. I flail around if a bee comes too close to me, so I completely understand the impulse to freak out if you find yourself under a tornado warning, admittedly a much more serious situation. Keeping calm will help you make better decisions, and this is important because seconds count when a life-threatening storm is bearing down on you. The average lead time between the moment a tornado warning is issued and the arrival of the tornado is about 15 minutes, but sometimes it’s as low as a minute or two.
2. ...BUT DON'T UNDERREACT, EITHER.
More people will find themselves underreacting to a tornado warning than overreacting to one. The “it won’t happen to me” mentality is a scourge that has cost countless lives during disasters. It probably won’t happen to you, but it could happen to you, and you can’t be completely sure until the storm is over.
3. GIVE YOURSELF PLENTY OF WARNING.
A tornado watch means that conditions are favorable for a tornado. A tornado warning means that a tornado is imminent or occurring. You need to know that you’re under a tornado watch or warning the second one is issued so you have time to prepare.
The most common way people receive tornado warnings these days is through the Wireless Emergency Alert feature on their smartphones, but you need to have redundant sources for warnings so you can still get timely alerts if, for example, your battery dies or you lose a signal. Buy a weather radio, a special device that you can program so it sounds a loud tone when a watch or warning is issued for your county. Monitor local television and radio stations so you’re aware of what’s going on.
Please don’t rely on tornado sirens as your only alert during a storm. In addition to being wildly unreliable, these systems are there to provide warning to people outdoors—tornado sirens are not designed to be heard indoors.
4. FIND YOUR SAFE PLACE.
Scout out a safe spot wherever you most commonly find yourself during the day, whether it’s at home, work, or school. The safest place to be during a tornado is underground—a dedicated in-ground tornado shelter is your best bet, but a basement works as well. If you have a basement, take a moment to think about what heavy furniture is above you in case the floor gives out.
If you can’t get underground, you should get to the lowest level of the building and as close to the middle as possible. The idea is to put as many wall as possible between you and the flying debris. A small interior closet is great, but an interior bathroom is ideal since the pipes in walls (and the bathtub!) might help stop debris from hitting you.
5. NEVER, EVER TAKE SHELTER UNDER A BRIDGE.
Seriously, don't do it. A bridge will not protect you from a tornado. You know that famous video of people riding out a tornado in Kansas by hiding under a bridge? They lived because the tornado didn’t actually hit them. If it had, the winds would have sped up as it passed under the bridge, likely sucking them out and into the open.
If you’re out on the road during a tornado, take shelter in the nearest sturdy building you can find.
6. INVEST IN A HELMET.
It’s not the wind that kills you; it’s the flying two-by-four from your neighbor’s den that does it. Deaths and injuries from tornadoes are horrifically graphic, often including massive head wounds, impalement, amputation, and other gruesome wounds. This is why the “duck and cover” routine is so widely taught as a staple of tornado safety.
Investing in helmets for you and everyone in your household is a great way to provide extra protection if a tornado hits your house. If you can prevent a serious blow to the head, your chances of survival tick up, even if just a little bit.
7. MIND YOUR CLOTHES (AND YOUR FEET).
If the unthinkable happens and you find yourself in the immediate aftermath of a tornado, you’re going to have to walk (and possibly climb) through dangerous debris. You don’t want to have to step through a pile of snapped wood and sharp glass in shorts and flip-flops. If you know the weather could get rough that day, try to wear pants that go down to your ankles and closed-toe shoes that would help you walk through debris more safely.
8. IGNORE THE MYTHS.
Nobody is “immune” from a tornado. Tornadoes can and have touched down in all 50 states. Tornadoes can and do hit cities. Tornadoes can and do cross bodies of water like rivers and lakes. Tornadoes can and do cross mountains. Opening your windows and doors before a tornado only lets the wind destroy your house more easily. Tornadoes can move in any direction, not just from southwest to northeast. The sky doesn’t always turn green before a tornado.
Learning the facts about tornadoes and knowing what you’ll do in case of emergency will go a long way to help you if you find yourself having a bad day. It probably won’t happen to you, but at least you’ll be prepared in case it does.