My version of "tornado precautions"


Chuck Doswell

Posted: 18 June 2008 Updated: whenever

Disclaimer: This page is not officially condoned in any way - it has no formal recognition by anyone. I offer these ideas in the spirit of providing information that can benefit people seeking to develop a plan for what to do in the unlikely event they find themselves in the path of a tornado. This information carries with it no implication of providing absolute safety from tornadoes or other thunderstorm hazards - rather, it's aimed at improving your odds of not having a bad experience with the hazards produced by thunderstorms. If you have suggestions, additions, or corrections, please e-mail me [use the hyperlink or cut and paste the email, replacing the # with @]. I reserve the right to add your comments to this page.

I'm providing this list of tornado precautions because in general, I have problems with most of the available materials. In addition to the basic content, I'll be explaining why I have problems with other specific versions of these.

Tornado Precautions & Preparations

Prepare a tornado plan for your family

1, Pick a place in your home that provides the best available shelter. Obviously, this location has to be large enough that everyone can fit in. If you can't find a single place where everyone can fit, you'll need multiple shelter locations, and everyone will need to know where they need to seek shelter. In order of preference, use for a shelter location:

  1. A properly designed "safe room" or in-ground tornado shelter
  2. If your house has a basement, find a place in that basement where you'll be safe from falling debris: under the basement stairs, a closet, or under a sturdy workbench or table. It's now understood that the southwest corner is not necessarily the best place to be, so don't follow that old admonition. Make certain your designation location stays uncluttered and you have easy access to it in a tornado situation.
  3. An interior first-floor closet, hallway, or bathroom without windows. The idea is to put as many walls between you and the outside as possible. Bathrooms often survive tornadoes because the plumbing in the walls provides added structural strength to those walls. If you use a bathroom, the bathtub is a good option unless it's under a window to the exterior. Bring something like a mattress to put over your heads to protect you from falling debris. Closets and hallways provide additional structural stength. If you have access to the space under a stairway, that might be a good option. An interior laundry room might also be acceptable, if it's an interior room. By the way, a room next to the garage is for all practical purposes, an exterior room because garages are particularly vulnerable to tornadoes.
  4. If you live in a mobile home, abandon it immediately for some proper shelter. Have this shelter pre-selected, which needs to be reached in 5 min or less. Mobile homes are extremely vulnerable in tornadoes, even when tied down.
  5. If you live in a high-rise building, find a safe location on the first floor of the building, but in the event you can't get there in time, find an alternate space on your floor, away from exterior walls and windows. Bring something to protect yourself from flying and/or falling debris.

2. Buy a weather radio and use it. Make sure everyone understands the difference between a tornado watch and a tornado warning. Listen to your local radio and TV stations for updated storm information. The weather radio can be critical at night, when most people are in bed (night shift workers can use this during the day, as well) - many weather radios can be programmed to sound a loud alert tone if severe weather is detected approaching your area, which might be your best way to avoid being surprised while asleep in bed. In a situation where severe weather could occur overnight, it's especially important to have your weather radio operating in "alert" mode - it's a matter of maintaining situation awareness.

3. Stay away from windows - don't open the windows to "relieve the air pressure". This old admonition has been shown to be a myth. Opening or closing windows wastes time you need to get to your designated shelter.

4. If your children (and other family members) have safety helmets, such as for motorcycles or bicycles, put them on. Head injuries from flying debris are a common cause for serious injury or death.

5. Have a tornado "kit" ready at all times near your designated tornado shelter, including:

6. If you have time, turn off the electricity and gas, but only if you have time.

7. Have two designated locations, one near your home and another at least 1/4 mile away, where everyone would meet after the tornado if you're separated.

8. Make sure everyone in the family knows the details of the plan and rehearse going to shelter at least once a year.

9. It's possible to evacuate the tornado path in your vehicle, provided

Knowing the expected path of the tornado is critical to the decision for using your vehicle to evacuate. Your home actually might not be in the path so leaving in your vehicle to escape might put you at risk from a traffic accident or even driving into the path of the tornado. If you have any doubts about the way the tornado is moving, where it is, or how fast it's approaching, don't evacuate your home - take shelter in place.

Tornado plans at school and in the workplace

1. Find out if there's a plan for tornadoes at your children's schools and at the workplace. Any worthwhile plan should include having a tornado-resistant shelter location readily available to everyone within 5 min or less. The school should have a weather radio and some other access to weather information to help them make their severe weather decisions. Make sure their plan has been reviewed by someone qualified to review such things and has been approved. If the plan being used has flaws, it can compromise everyone's safety. If they have no such plan, organize a campaign for them to develop one.

2. Make sure the plan is rehearsed by the school staff at least once per year. Work with your children to be certain they know and understand that plan.

3. Sometimes, tornadoes threaten schools near the time when school is letting out. Find out what your school's plan says about how to deal with such a contingency. Demanding to take your children home in your vehicle on such an occasion can put you and your children both at great risk. Your children likely would be safer seeking shelter at the school rather than possibly being caught by a tornado in your vehicle.

Tornado plans during recreation and/or shopping

1. Find out if the recreational venues (ball parks, racetracks, campgrounds, etc.) and/or businesses have a tornado plan to ensure the safety of their customers. Any worthwhile plan should include having a tornado-resistant shelter location readily available to everyone within 5 min or less. Make sure it's a plan that's been reviewed by someone qualified to review such things and has been approved. If the plan being used has flaws, it can compromise everyone's safety. If they have no such plan, organize a campaign for them to develop one.

2. Make sure the plan is rehearsed by the facility managers at least once per year. Familiarize yourself with that plan.

Tornado plans while driving your vehicle

1. A critical element while driving is to maintain situation awareness. This requires you to be aware of the possibility of dangerous weather along your intended route. If severe weather including tornadoes is possible, and you encounter darkening skies with lightning, then you should be listening to local radio to keep up with ongoing severe weather, and not drive blindly into darkening skies, either with or without rain and/or wind, in situations with severe weather potential. Many people have driven into tornadoes without even realizing what they're doing. Generally speaking, being caught by a tornado in your vehicle is extremely dangerous.

2. If you see a tornado while driving, it may or may not be possible to escape it in your vehicle. Outside of urban areas, on highways without excessive traffic, you should seek to drive at right angles to the path of the tornado. This requires you to have a good estimate of which way the tornado is moving, how far away it is, and how fast it's moving. On a limited-access highway, traffic conditions permitting, it should be possible to outrun a tornado to the point where you can move at right angles to its path. If you have any doubts about which way the tornado is moving, how fast it's moving, or how far away it is, then you should abandon your vehicle immediately and seek the best shelter you can find.

3. If you're in an urban area, or anywhere with high traffic volume, abandon your vehicle immediately and seek the best shelter available. Sometimes, culverts are available, or public restrooms. If you can find an open building, seek the best first-floor shelter you can find in that building. A last resort is to lie face down in a ditch or low spot with your hands over your head.

4. Do not seek shelter under highway overpasses! These provide virtually no shelter at all from the tornado, and might actually be more dangerous than using the ditch. See here for more detailed discussion. Parking under the overpass creates a traffic hazard that can prevent other people from escaping a tornado.