What should I do in case of a tornado? That depends on where you are.
There is no such thing as guaranteed safety inside a tornado. Freak accidents happen; and the most violent tornadoes can level and blow away almost any house and its occupants. Extremely violent EF5 tornadoes are very rare, though. Most tornadoes are actually much weaker and can be survived using these safety ideas...
Prevention and practice before the storm: At home, have a family tornado plan in place, based on the kind of dwelling you live in and the safety tips below. Know where you can take shelter in a matter of seconds, and practice a family tornado drill at least once a year. Have a pre-determined place to meet after a disaster. Flying debris is the greatest danger in tornadoes; so store protective coverings (e.g., mattress, sleeping bags, thick blankets, etc) in or next to your shelter space, ready to use on a few seconds' notice. When a tornado watch is issued, think about the drill and check to make sure all your safety supplies are handy. Turn on local TV, radio or NOAA Weather Radio and stay alert for warnings. Forget about the old notion of opening windows to equalize pressure; the tornado will blast open the windows for you! If you shop frequently at certain stores, learn where there are bathrooms, storage rooms or other interior shelter areas away from windows, and the shortest ways to get there. All administrators of schools, shopping centers, nursing homes, hospitals, sports arenas, stadiums, mobile home communities and offices should have a tornado safety plan in place, with easy-to-read signs posted to direct everyone to a safe, closeby shelter area. Schools and office building managers should regularly run well-coordinated drills. If you are planning to build a house, especially east of the Rockies, consider an underground tornado shelter or an interior "safe room".
Know the signs of a tornado: Weather forecasting science is not perfect and some tornadoes do occur without a tornado warning. There is no substitute for staying alert to the sky. Besides an obviously visible tornado, here are some things to look and listen for:
- Strong, persistent rotation in the cloud base.
- Whirling dust or debris on the ground under a cloud base -- tornadoes sometimes have no funnel!
- Hail or heavy rain followed by either dead calm or a fast, intense wind shift. Many tornadoes are wrapped in heavy precipitation and can't be seen.
- Day or night - Loud, continuous roar or rumble, which doesn't fade in a few seconds like thunder.
- Night - Small, bright, blue-green to white flashes at ground level near a thunderstorm (as opposed to silvery lightning up in the clouds). These mean power lines are being snapped by very strong wind, maybe a tornado.
- Night - Persistent lowering from the cloud base, illuminated or silhouetted by lightning -- especially if it is on the ground or there is a blue-green-white power flash underneath.
WHAT TO DO...
In a house with a basement: Avoid windows. Get in the basement and under some kind of sturdy protection (heavy table or work bench), or cover yourself with a mattress or sleeping bag. Know where very heavy objects rest on the floor above (pianos, refrigerators, waterbeds, etc.) and do not go under them. They may fall down through a weakened floor and crush you. Head protection, such as a helmet, can offer some protection also.
In a house with no basement, a dorm, or an apartment: Avoid windows. Go to the lowest floor, small center room (like a bathroom or closet), under a stairwell, or in an interior hallway with no windows. Crouch as low as possible to the floor, facing down; and cover your head with your hands. A bath tubmay offer a shell of partial protection. Even in an interior room, you should cover yourself with some sort of thick padding (mattress, blankets, etc.), to protect against falling debris in case the roof and ceiling fail. A helmet can offer some protection against head injury.
In an office building, hospital, nursing home or skyscraper:Go directly to an enclosed, windowless area in the center of the building -- away from glass and on the lowest floor possible. Then, crouch down and cover your head. Interior stairwells are usually good places to take shelter, and if not crowded, allow you to get to a lower level quickly. Stay off the elevators; you could be trapped in them if the power is lost.
In a mobile home:Get out! Even if your home is tied down, it is not as safe as an underground shelter or permanent, sturdy building. Go to one of those shelters, or to a nearby permanent structure, using your tornado evacuation plan. Most tornadoes can destroy even tied-down mobile homes; and it is best not to play the low odds that yours will make it. This mobile-home safety video from the State of Missouri may be useful in developing your plan.
At school:Follow the drill! Go to the interior hall or room in an orderly way as you are told. Crouch low, head down, and protect the back of your head with your arms. Stay away from windows and large open rooms like gyms and auditoriums.
In a car or truck: Vehicles are extremely risky in a tornado. There is no safe option when caught in a tornado in a car, just slightly less-dangerous ones. If the tornado is visible, far away, and the traffic is light, you may be able to drive out of its path by moving at right angles to the tornado. Seek shelter in a sturdy building, or underground if possible. If you are caught by extreme winds or flying debris, park the car as quickly and safely as possible -- out of the traffic lanes. Stay in the car with the seat belt on. Put your head down below the windows; cover your head with your hands and a blanket, coat, or other cushion if possible. If you can safely get noticeably lower than the level of the roadway,leave your car and lie in that area, covering your head with your hands. Avoid seeking shelter under bridges, which can create deadly traffic hazards while offering little protection against flying debris.
In the open outdoors: If possible, seek shelter in a sturdy building. If not, lie flat and face-down on low ground, protecting the back of your head with your arms. Get as far away from trees and cars as you can; they may be blown onto you in a tornado.
In a shopping mall or large store: Do not panic. Watch for others. Move as quickly as possible to an interior bathroom, storage room or other small enclosed area, away from windows.
In a church or theater: Do not panic. If possible, move quickly but orderly to an interior bathroom or hallway, away from windows. Crouch face-down and protect your head with your arms. If there is no time to do that, get under the seats or pews, protecting your head with your arms or hands.
TORNADO WATCH VS. TORNADO WARNING... A LOT OF CONFUSION REMAINS... READ AND LEARN! YOU MUST KNOW THE DIFFERENCE!
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; here is an example. For more information on tornado watches and other SPC bulletins, go here.
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 NWS offices issue tornado warnings.
Do mobile homes attract tornadoes? Of 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.
I've seen a video of people running under a bridge to ride out a tornado. Is that safe? 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.
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? Vehicles 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! If the tornado starts to hit your car, get as low as you can while staying in your seatbelt, leaning down and away from the windows and windshield as far as possible.
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.
What is a safe room? So-called "safe rooms" are reinforced small rooms built in the interior of a home, 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. Those who have safe rooms, or any other kind of tornado shelter, should register them with the local fire department to help with rescue in case the entrance(s) are blocked by debris.
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 and event planners. 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. 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 disorder could result in casualties even if the tornado doesn't hit. Stadium, race track 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