I’d thought about doing a piece on tornadoes later this spring, but the events just this afternoon in Michigan reminded me that it’s not too early.
What is a tornado? It’s a rotating column of air that touches both a) the cloud base, and b) the ground.
In the United States:
Even my little town of Colebrook had a tornado last year. It was a tiny EF0, but it went up Bridge Street not a hundred yards from my house, and it uprooted trees.
The “EF” in EF0 stands for the Enhanced Fujita Scale, a scale for classifying tornadoes based on their wind speed, derived from damage assessment. The original Fujita Scale ran from F0, hurricane speed, up to F12, Mach 1. In practice, however, nothing was ever rated above an F5, because at F5 the determinant was complete destruction. The revised version, the Enhanced Fujita Scale, only goes to EF5.
When a tornado shows up, you may have only minutes to seconds to decide what to do. That’s why I advise thinking through some scenarios in advance and making preparations before a tornado arrives.
Make a plan. Practice the plan. Stay alert to the situation. That advice is very similar to what you’re going to do to prepare for any emergency.
All the watches and warnings in the world won’t help if you don’t hear them. Get a nice weather radio with battery backup, tone alert, and SAME technology. (SAME is Specific Area Message Encoding. That allows you to select exactly which warnings, for exactly which areas, you’ll receive. Tone alert means it only turns on when the specific warning you want comes across.) I really like the Midland WR-300 (costs ninety bucks new from the manufacturer, but you can find ‘em for half that by looking around on-line). Other manufacturers make similar devices. (In my opinion, however, it’s Midland, then all the others.) If you don’t have one, go get one now.
While you’re waiting for your weather radio to be delivered, designate a place in your house where you’ll go in case of a tornado. Select a spot that’s underground, if possible (basement), away from windows, in the smallest room possible. Basement bathrooms and closets are good. Store your bicycle or motorcycle helmets there. Under a heavy table, with a sleeping bag to pull on top of you to protect from debris is good. Folks used to recommend sheltering in the southwest corner of a basement, but, really, no corner is safer than any other, and debris tends to collect in corners. Instead, get as close to the center of the building as you can. If you do shelter under a heavy table, grab ahold of one leg so that if it gets blown around you’ll stay under it. Protect your head and neck with your other hand.
If you have the time, and money, and you own the building, you might consider building a safe room.
When selecting your shelter spot, keep in mind the possibility of flooding. Tornadoes are often (but not always) accompanied by heavy rain.
If you’re on the upper floor of a high-rise you may not have time to get to the basement. Go to an interior hallway (away from windows). If you’re in a trailer, go to the nearest sturdy building and shelter in the basement away from windows.
Put together a 72-hour kit in case you have to shelter in place. (That’s enough food and water to hold out for three days. A Flu Pre-pack is almost identical.) At the same time, put together a Go Bag (jump kit; bug-out bag), in case you have to leave in a hurry.
Plan with your family where you’ll meet up afterward if you’re scattered when disaster strikes. Pick a spot in your house, a spot in your neighborhood if your house is gone, and a spot at some distant location in case your neighborhood is gone, for a rallying point. Have a designated out-of-state contact person who can receive and relay messages, and carry that person’s phone number with you.
Now the storm is upon you.
Tornadoes can blow up suddenly. Perhaps there wasn’t a broadcast warning. Things to look for:
Don’t bother to open your windows. Low pressure isn’t what causes structural damage. High winds and flying debris cause the damage. If you have heavy shutters, closing them can help keep high winds and flying debris outside. Otherwise, flying debris will open your windows for you. Try to stay clear of windows: Shards of glass can cut you.
Go to your safe area with your radio, your flashlight, and a map (so you can follow the weather broadcast announcements of exactly where the storm is). Wait it out.
If you’re away from home, and there’s a tornado, stay out of areas with wide-span roofs (e.g. shopping malls, gymnasiums, cafeterias). If you’re in a car, depending on how far away the tornado is, the local geography (and how familiar with the local roads you are), and the traffic situation, don’t try to outrun the tornado, or drive at right-angles to its path (they can move pretty darned fast, and their paths can be erratic, assuming you can even figure out what the path is…). Instead, stop and get into the nearest sturdy building. If no sturdy buildings are available, get away from your car, find a low point in the ground, lie in it, and cover your head and neck. (Same thing if you’re in a mobile home and there’s no sturdy building handy. Get well away, find a low spot, and make yourself one with the ground.)
The amount of energy in a tornado is titanic. There is no sure safety.
Flying debris is the main danger during a tornado. Afterward, the main danger is fire. If you heat or cook with gas, know where the master shut off is located. If shutting it off requires a special wrench, get one of those wrenches. Know how to shut off electricity in your house at the fuse box or breaker box. You’ll want sturdy shoes/boots. Stepping on broken glass and nails afterward causes half of the casualties in a tornado.
Stay safe. Assess the damage. Render what aid you can to others.