What should I do in case of a tornado?
That depends on where you are. This list of tornado safety tips covers most situations.
What is a tornado watch?
A tornado watch defines an area shaped like a parallelogram, where tornadoes and other kinds of severe weather are possible in the next several hours. It does not mean tornadoes are imminent -- just that you need to be alert, and to be prepared to go to safe shelter if tornadoes do happen or a warning is issued. This is the time to turn on local TV or radio, turn on and set the alarm switch on your weather radio, make sure you have ready access to safe shelter, and make your friends and family aware of the potential for tornadoes in the area. The Storm Prediction Center issues tornado and severe thunderstorm watches.
What is a tornado warning?
A tornado warning means that a tornado has been spotted, or that Doppler radar indicates a thunderstorm circulation which can spawn a tornado. When a tornado warning is issued for your town or county, take immediate safety precautions. Local National Weather Service offices issue tornado warnings.
Do mobile homes attract tornadoes?
f course not. It may seem that way, considering most tornado deaths occur in them, and that some of the most graphic reports of tornado damage come from mobile home communities. The reason for this is that mobile homes are, in general, much easier for a tornado to damage and destroy than well-built houses and office buildings. A brief, relatively weak tornado which may have gone undetected in the wilderness -- or misclassified as severe straight-line thunderstorm winds while doing minor damage to sturdy houses -- can blow a mobile home apart. Historically, mobile home parks have been reliable indicators, not attractors, of tornadoes.
Long ago, I was told to open windows to equalize pressure. Now I have heard that's a bad thing to do. Which is right?
Opening the windows is absolutely useless, a waste of precious time, and can be very dangerous. Don't do it. You may be injured by flying glass trying to do it. And if the tornado hits your home, it will blast the windows open anyway.
Absolutely not! Stopping under a bridge to take shelter from a tornado is a very dangerous idea, for several reasons:
- Deadly flying debris can still be blasted into the spaces between bridge and grade -- and impaled in any people hiding there.
- Even when strongly gripping the girders (if they exist), people may be blown loose, out from under the bridge and into the open -- possibly well up into the tornado itself. Chances for survival are not good if that happens.
- The bridge itself may fail, peeling apart and creating large flying objects, or even collapsing down onto people underneath. The structural integrity of many bridges in tornado winds is unknown -- even for those which may look sturdy.
- Whether or not the tornado hits, parking on traffic lanes is illegal and dangerous to yourself and others. It creates a potentially deadly hazard for others, who may plow into your vehicle at full highway speeds in the rain, hail, and/or dust. Also, it can trap people in the storm's path against their will, or block emergency vehicles from saving lives.
The people in that infamous video were extremely fortunate not to have been hurt or killed. They were actually not inside the tornado vortex itself, but instead in a surface inflow jet -- a small belt of intense wind flowing into the base of the tornado a few dozen yards to their south. Even then, flying debris could have caused serious injury or death. More recently, on 3 May 1999, two people were killed and several others injured outdoors in Newcastle and Moore OK, when a violent tornado blew them out from under bridges on I-44 and I-35. Another person was killed that night in his truck, which was parked under a bridge. For more information, meteorologist Dan Miller of NWS Duluth has assembled 25-slide online presentation about this problem.
So if I'm in a car, which is supposed to be very unsafe, and shouldn't get under a bridge, what can I do?
ehicles are notorious as death traps in tornadoes, because they are easily tossed and destroyed. Either leave the vehicle for sturdy shelter or drive out of the tornado's path. When the traffic is jammed or the tornado is bearing down on you at close range, your only option may be to park safely off the traffic lanes, get out and find a sturdy building for shelter, if possible. If not, lie flat in a low spot, as far from the road as possible (to avoid flying vehicles). However, in open country, the best option is to escape if the tornado is far away. If the traffic allows, and the tornado is distant, you probably have time to drive out of its path. Watch the tornado closely for a few seconds compared to a fixed object in the foreground (such as a tree, pole, or other landmark). If it appears to be moving to your right or left, it is not moving toward you. Still, you should escape at right angles to its track: to your right if it is moving to your left, and vice versa -- just to put more distance between you and its path. If the tornado appears to stay in the same place, growing larger or getting closer -- but not moving either right or left -- it is headed right at you. You must take shelter away from the car or get out of its way fast!
I have a basement, and my friend said to go to the southwest corner in a tornado. Is that good?
Not necessarily. The SW corner is no safer than any other part of the basement, because walls, floors and furniture can collapse (or be blown) into any corner. The "safe southwest corner" is an old myth based on the belief that, since tornadoes usually come from the SW, debris will preferentially fall into the NE side of the basement. There are several problems with this concept, including:
- Tornadoes are not straight-line winds, even on the scale of a house, so the strongest wind may be blowing from any direction; and
- Tornadoes themselves may arrive from any direction.
In a basement, the safest place is under a sturdy workbench, mattress or other such protection -- and out from under heavy furniture or appliances resting on top of the floor above.
What is a safe room?
So-called "safe rooms" are reinforced small rooms built in the interior of a home, which are fortified by concrete and/or steel to offer extra protection against tornadoes, hurricanes and other severe windstorms. They can be built in a basement, or if no basement is available, on the ground floor. In existing homes, interior bathrooms or closets can be fortified into "safe rooms" also. FEMA has more details online.
What about community tornado shelters?
Community tornado shelters are excellent ideas for apartment complexes, schools, mobile home parks, factories, office complexes and other facilities where large groups of people live, work or study. FEMA has some excellent design and construction guidance for these kinds of shelters; and a licensed engineer can help customize them to the needs of your facility.
What about tornado safety in sports stadiums or outdoor festivals?
Excellent question -- and a very, very disturbing one to many meteorologists. Tornadoes have passed close to such gatherings on a few occasions, including a horse race in Omaha on 6 May 1975 and a crowded dog track in West Memphis AR on 14 December 1987. A supercell without a tornado hit a riverside festival in Ft. Worth in 1995, catching over 10,000 people outdoors and bashing many of them with hail bigger than baseballs. Just in the last few years, tornadoes have hit the football stadium for the NFL Tennessee Titans, and the basketball arena for the NBA Utah Jazz. Fortunately, they were both nearly empty of people at the time. There is the potential for massive death tolls if a stadium or fairground is hit by a tornado during a concert, festival or sporting event -- even with a warning in effect. Fans may never know about the warning; and even if they do, mass-panic could ensue and result in casualties even if the tornado doesn't hit. Stadium and festival managers should work with local emergency management officials to develop a plan for tornado emergencies -- both for crowd safety during the watch and warning stages, and (similar to a terrorism plan) for dealing with mass casualties after the tornado.
I am a school administrator, and I don't know where to start with developing a safety plan.
Gladly. Every school is different, so a safety plan which works fine for one may not be well-suited for another. There is a website with preparedness tips for school administrators which can provide helpful tips in devising a safety plan. These strategies can be adapted for nursing homes, dorms, barracks and similar structures as well.
I am seeking advice to protect employees in a large, one-story commercial building that has pre-poured cement outer walls and a metal roof. We have no basement, the interior offices are drywall partitions with a dropped ceiling and there does not appear to be any area that is secure. The local fire department has no suggestions.
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This manner of construction is very common; however, it's hard to know the integrity of any particular building without an engineering analysis, preferably by hiring a specialist with experience in wind engineering. My experience doing damage surveys is that large-span, pre-fab, concrete and metal beam buildings are very sturdy up to a "break point" -- which can vary a lot from site to site -- but then crumple quickly and violently once that threshold is reached. A concrete-lined (and -topped) safe room with no windows is recommended. This is an emergency bunker that may double as a restroom, break room or employee lounge, but should be big enough to fit all occupants in the event of a warning. For more information on safe rooms, see FEMA's safe room page, which deals mainly with residential construction, but which can be adapted for office use. As noted there, the Wind Engineering Research Center at Texas Tech University also provides technical guidance about shelters. Their toll free number is 1-(888) 946-3287, ext. 336.
What would happen if a large, violent tornado hit a major city today?
This has happened on several occasions, including in parts of Oklahoma City on May 3, 1999. Because of excellent, timely watches and warnings and intense media coverage of the Oklahoma tornado long before it hit, only 36 people were killed. The damage toll exceeded $1 billion. Still, it did not strike downtown, and passed over many miles of undeveloped land. Moving the same path north or south in the same area may have led to much greater death and damage tolls. The threat exists for a far worse disaster! Placing the same tornado outbreak in the Dallas-Ft. Worth Metroplex, especially during rush hour gridlock (with up to 62,000 vehicles stuck in the path), the damage could triple what was done in Oklahoma. There could be staggering death tolls in the hundreds or thousands, and overwhelmed emergency services. Ponder the prospect of such a tornado's path in downtown Dallas, for example. The North Texas Council of Governments and NWS Ft. Worth has compiled a very detailed study of several such violent tornado disaster scenarios in the Metroplex, which could be adapted to other major metro areas as well.
Could we have some sort of alert system where a computer automatically calls people in a tornado warning to let them know they could be in danger?
This idea has some merit. Right now, though, there are several logistical problems. First, a tornado may take out phone lines, or the power to run them. Barring that, the phone network reaches saturation pretty easily if someone (or something) tries to try to dial thousands of numbers at once. Finally, people would need to be patient and willing to accept a majority of false alarm calls. Most tornado warnings do not contain tornadoes, because of the uncertainties built into tornado detection which we can't yet help. And even when a tornado happens, it usually hits only a tiny fraction of the warned area (again, because of forecasting uncertainties); so most people called by the automated system would not be directly hit.
I recently moved from the Plains and noticed that there are no "tornado warning" sirens here. Is this because tornadoes don't occur here? Isn't it required to have sirens everywhere?
Siren policy seems to vary a lot from place to place; and it is something over which the National Weather Service has no control. There is no nationwide requirement for tornado sirens. The NWS issues watches and warnings; but it is up to the local governments to have a community readiness system in place for their citizens. In conversations with emergency managers and spotter coordinators, I have found that the two most common reasons for a lack of sirens are low budgets and the perception that tornadoes cannot happen in an area. The latter is false; and the former is a matter of fiscal priorities. Your city and/or county emergency manager would be the first person to query about the tornado preparedness program in your community.
Our office would like to print signs (universal symbol image type signs) similar to "emergency exit," "fire extinguisher," etc. that could be used to identify designated tornado shelter areas. Is there a graphic or something I can use?
Sure! There isn't a universal tornado shelter symbol yet. Any such sign should be very bold and noticeable -- yet designed to be simple, with minimal visual clutter, so even a small child can recognize it. In response to this question, here is one possible tornado shelter sign which may be printed and used freely. There are also versions with arrows pointing right, left, up, and down. The signs ideally should be printed in color, on heavy card stock or sticker paper for durability.
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