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Tornado survival tips: Weather the storm safely

600 384 Survival Common Sense Blog | Emergency Preparedness

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

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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 harrowing stories of storms.

One year, our neighbors lost their house to a funnel cloud. Across the road from them, a barn was blown away. But, the grandaddy of all Iowa tornadoes 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 survival emergency, about 80 percent of the people have to be told what to do)

Solar Crank NOAA Weather Radio

One choice might be to start with “STOP”, (Stop, Think, Observe and Plan), the survival mindset exercise. You can’t think if you panic and you have to force yourself to calm down. Then, make a plan.

Instead of drawing a blank about what to do, remember this advice from the FEMA. These suggestions are part of your survival mindset and help you feel confident on 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 in a car: When the tornado is at a distance and you can drive away in light traffic, that may be an option. It’s best to get out and shelter in a nearby building. If you’re caught in high winds and extreme debris flying, get down on the car floor and cover your head with coats and cushions if possible. You can also seek cover in a depression or ditch and cover your head, avoiding any flooding potential.

Have Your Light Ready: It could be dark, so hopefully you have your key ring survival flashlight in your pocket. The electricity can go out and you’ll be inside a dark building. The person with the flashlight who acts like they know what they are doing automatically becomes the leader. But, know where you’re going when others are following you.

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. So, they are the ones that get completely demolished.

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 away 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 the tornado event can travel as fast as 70 mph, and it 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 anyone who actually did that, but it seems like a good idea. If nothing else, the culvert would offer some protection from flying debris.

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.  I recommend a key ring survival “kit” that’s part of your daily wardrobe or key ring. The whistle could save your life when alerting rescuers. (Remember the Titanic and the scene from the chilly waters).

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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