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Survival Skills

Tornado survival tips: Weather the storm safely

Tornado survival tips: Weather the storm safely

I’ve always been afraid of tornadoes, even before I heard of the Wicked Witch of the West and: “Surrender Dorothy!” If you live in an area with the potential for tornadoes or cyclones, you owe it to yourself and your family to be prepared!

by Leon Pantenburg

Anybody who grew up or lived near Gilbert, in Central Iowa, is familiar with the destructive, whirling wind patterns. The movie “Twister” was filmed about 40 miles away from our family farm, and all the locals can tell storm stories.

One year, our neighbors lost their house to a funnel cloud. Across the road from them, a barn was blown away. But the grand-daddy of all Iowa tornadoes, though, happened on June 13, 1976, when a tornado rated F-5 by the National Weather Service hit nearby Jordon.

Jordon, Iowa Tornado, emergency shelter from tornadoes ISU photo

My Dad saw this funnel cloud headed in his direction when he was cultivating corn. He abandoned the tractor and ran for shelter. (Iowa State University photo)

My siblings were home on the family farm, and noticed the weather was hot and humid and everything was getting really still. Dad was cultivating in the cornfield and saw the funnel cloud. He abandoned the tractor and headed for the house.

“It was the first time I ever saw Dad run,” my brother Mike recalls. “As soon as he was in earshot he started yelling for us to get to the basement.”

The NWS indicated that the damage path of the Jordon tornado was roughly 880 yards wide and 21 miles long. The twister destroyed virtually every house and business building in Jordon, but all residents survived. The tornado was accompanied by an F-3 anticyclonic tornado a few miles away.

Shortly after the Jordon tornado, Dad built a concrete re-enforced storm shelter under the front porch. The neighbors were told where the shelter was, and were invited to take refuge there if need be. And, if the house was blown away, they would know where to look for survivors!

I’m still afraid of tornadoes, and if you live in an area where tornadoes are possible, you should be too! You owe it to yourself and your loved ones to be prepared, so you will know what to do.

So what is the first step?

Tornado approaching National Weather Service

An approaching tornado is terrifying: Know what to do before hand, so you don’t panic and make fatal mistakes. (National Weather Service photo)

Start by learning about tornadoes and what you can do to survive them. Here’s some suggestions from the FEMA:

Before the potential tornado, be alert to changing weather conditions.

  • Listen to the national weather channel or to commercial radio or television newscasts for the latest information. You could also buy a Weather Radio
    that plays weather news all the time.
  • Look for approaching storms
  • Look for the following danger signs:
    • Dark, often greenish sky
    • Large hail
    • A large, dark, low-lying cloud (particularly if rotating)
    • Loud roar, similar to a freight train.

If you see approaching storms or any of the danger signs, be prepared to take shelter immediately.

Here’s a survival scenario learning exercise. You’re aware there is a storm watch with potential twisters, and you’re keeping a lookout.

Then someone spots a funnel cloud headed in your direction – what’s the first thing you need to do? (And don’t depend on others – in any crowd, in any urban or wilderness survivalemergency, about 80 percent of the people there will have to be told what to do)

Tornado awareness

One choice might be (Please bear with me if I’m starting to sound like a broken record!) to start with STOP (Stop, Think, Observe and Plan), the survival mindset exercise.

You can’t think if you have panicked, and you must force yourself to calm down. Then, make a plan.

That’s where the knowledge part of your wilderness survival gear comes in. Instead of drawing a blank about what to do next, remember this advice from the FEMA. These suggestions are part of your survival kit, and will give you an idea of how to respond.

Tornado weather: When a weather advisory is broadcast, keep an eye out for trouble!

When a weather advisory is broadcast, keep an eye out for trouble!

  • If you are in a building: Go to a pre-designated shelter area such as a safe room, basement, storm cellar, or the lowest building level. If there is no basement, go to the center of an interior room on the lowest level (closet, interior hallway) away from corners, windows, doors, and outside walls. Put as many walls as possible between you and the outside. Get under a sturdy table and use your arms to protect your head and neck. Do not open windows.
  • If you’re in a mobile home: Get out immediately and go to the lowest floor of a sturdy, nearby building or a storm shelter. Mobile homes, even if tied down, offer little protection from tornadoes.
  • If you’re outside with no shelter: Lie flat in a nearby ditch or depression and cover your head with your hands. Be aware of the potential for flooding. Don’t get under an overpass or bridge. You are safer in a low, flat location.

If you’re caught in a public building or school, FEMA suggests you get to an interior room or hall or the ground floor.

(It could be dark, so hopefully, you’ll have your keyring survival flashlight in your pockets.  The person with the flashlight, who acts like he/she knows what he is doing automatically, becomes the leader. Know where you’re going!)

Avoid halls that open to the outside, or any places with free-span ceiling that could collapse such as an auditorium or gym.

It’s not true that mobile home parks attract tornadoes. But, it is virtually impossible to secure a trailer to a foundation well enough for it to withstand tornado-speed winds.

And above all, don’t do stupid things. Don’t stand in the yard videoing the approaching cloud – the flying debris can kill you before you realize you’re in danger.

I’ve seen oat straw driven into a tractor tire, and a 78 phonograph stuck in a telephone pole by the force of tornado winds. Don’t waste time taking things out of your home if you have to evacuate.

In Iowa, with its precise road system laid out in square mile grids, many people would park during storms at a crossroads, with their vehicle engines idling. If they spotted a tornado, they would drive off at a 90 degree angle from the funnel cloud.

Exercising the wisdom of teenagers everywhere, some of my friends would gather at popular crossroads, just to have a chance at outrunning a storm. According to the NWS, the average speed of a tornado is about 30 mph, but they travel as fast as 70 mph, and they can change directions without warning.

The experts recommend that you never try to outrun a tornado in urban or congested areas. Instead, leave the vehicle immediately for safe shelter.

Farm kids were taught early to seek refuge in a culvert under the road if  they get caught in the open during a twister. I don’t know anybody who ever actually did that, but it seems like a good idea. If nothing else, the culvert would offer some protection from flying debris.

Basically, if you found a safe spot and hunkered down until the wind quit blowing, you should be OK. If you were in a building that blew down, emergency personnel will probably be on the scene shortly after the all clear sirens go off.

Recovering from a disaster is usually a gradual process, according to FEMA. Safety is a primary issue, as are mental and physical well-being. Stay away from the rubble and don’t touch any fallen electrical wires.

Then, be thankful – you’ve experienced one of nature’s most dramatic and deadly displays. And you’re alive to tell the tale!



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Survival Skills

Leon Pantenburg is a wilderness enthusiast, and doesn't claim to be a survival expert or expertise as a survivalist. As a newspaperman and journalist for three decades, covering search and rescue, sheriff's departments, floods, forest fires and other natural disasters and outdoor emergencies, Leon learned many people died unnecessarily or escaped miraculously from outdoor emergency situations when simple, common sense might have changed the outcome. Leon now teaches common sense techniques to the average person in order to avert potential disasters. His emphasis is on tried and tested, simple techniques of wilderness survival. Every technique, piece of equipment or skill recommended on this website has been thoroughly tested and researched. After graduating from Iowa State University, Leon completed a six-month, 2,552-mile solo Mississippi River canoe trip from the headwaters at Lake Itasca, Minn., to the Gulf of Mexico. His wilderness backpacking experience includes extended solos through Yellowstone’s backcountry; hiking the John Muir Trail in California, and numerous shorter trips along the Pacific Crest Trail. Other mountain backpacking trips include hikes through the Uintas in Utah; the Beartooths in Montana; the Sawtooths in Idaho; the Pryors, the Wind River Range, Tetons and Bighorns in Wyoming; Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, the Catskills in New York and Death Valley National Monument in southern California. Some of Leon's canoe trips include sojourns through the Okefenokee Swamp and National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia, the Big Black River swamp in Mississippi and the Boundary Waters canoe area in northern Minnesota and numerous small river trips in the Midwest and Pacific Northwest. Leon is also an avid fisherman and an elk, deer, upland game and waterfowl hunter. Since 1991, Leon has been an assistant scoutmaster with Boy Scout Troop 18 in Bend, and is a scoutmaster wilderness skills trainer for the Boy Scouts’ Fremont District. Leon earned a second degree black belt in Taekwondo, and competed in his last tournament (sparring and form) at age 49. He is an enthusiastic Bluegrass mandolin picker and fiddler and two-time finalist in the International Dutch Oven Society’s World Championships.

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