Tornado Preparedness Requires a Plan
Tornado country preparedness. The basics…the awareness…the warnings…the shelter…the recovery.
I grew up in north Texas, and spent my first 33 years there. We had our share of destructive and deadly twisters many times. In February 1969, after midnight, a deadly tornado hit a mobile home park to our northwest over two miles away, lifting as a funnel cloud, skipping over our neighborhood and home in the wee hours of the morning. This was my first memory of a tornado event, what it did, and how lucky we were to not be victims.
I slept through it…my parents were wide awake, and the next morning told me of the the rain, hail and small debris going sideways, parallel to the ground for a few moments, as the funnel cloud passed.
The next morning, we drove around the neighborhood and saw light damage (wood fences blown down, or fence panels literally thrown over homes from their backyard to their front yard). Many houses were missing shingles. What really stuck in my 9 year old mind at that time was the curbside mailboxes for blocks around in everybody’s front yards. Nearly all of them had popped open, with the doors stuck in the down/open position. Due to the high pressure in the mail boxes, while the low pressure of the passing funnel cloud sucked them open. Weird… which is probably why I remember it.
Several people died in the mobile home park, the surrounding area now a huge commercial/industrial neighborhood, backed up by endless high end and expensive suburban neighborhood homes.
No warnings were given that night….technology back then required someone to see it to report it. The rudimentary radar available to TV stations was not yet used in forecasting or tracking tornadoes. Today, we have high definition NEXRAD radar systems, portable radar mounted on trucks (watch any documentary on storm chasing and you’ll know what I mean), and even streaming video and high-res cameras mounted on top of huge radio towers, office buildings, and even water towers and mountains near metropolitan areas…constantly watching the sky. In the video below, you’ll see exactly how this technology was used to warn citizens in real time where and how to take cover during the approaching threat.
Fast forward to 1993. We moved from Dallas to north Central Alabama as I transferred my post office job to the new state, having promised my wife years before, if I could get a good job there, we’d move. I did, and we spent the next 9 years there. My wife’s mom and most of her extended family were in that area, and it was a good reason for the move, as she had grown up without her mom, thanks to a father with some very severe family issues.
Over those next 9 years, we experienced severe weather many times more often than in north Texas, culminating in the April 8th, 1998 Jefferson County, Alabama F-5 tornado that missed our home by a couple of miles. The twister rampaged through the county for over 3o miles, killing dozens, and nearly killing my wife’s aunt and uncle and their daughter, as their home was directly in the path of the start of that supercell. The tornado grew to F-5 intensity right before hitting the Oak Grove high school on Warrior River Road…a school which had dozens of students and staff in it at the time. Our family members survived, but lost everything. People living immediately around their small neighborhood died. It was a nightmare.
The above radar image shows the multiple locations of tornadic circulation in the storm system that came through on April 8th, 1998. The flashing circles represent zones of rotation, with the larger circle of yellow/red pinpointing the worst area…the beginnings of the F-5 that came through our area. Learn more at NOAA. Click this image to compare the increase of radar technology since 1998 in tornadic storm research and detail, which shows the April 27, 2011 F-5 entering northern Birmingham after crossing 70 miles of countryside.
This storm is one of the reasons we decided to move to Wyoming 2 years later, a much safer area with a completely different climate, and few to none killer tornadoes. We traded tornadoes, hurricanes, and regular severe thunderstorms, for killer cold, occasional wildfires in the mountains, and a few snowstorms. We saw flooding in Alabama from thunderstorms and flash floods, and we’ve seen flooding here from snowpack meltdowns in early spring and a few flash floods in normally dry stream beds, and a couple of very small rivers topping their banks rarely due to both.
Years later, with us safe and sound in rural central Wyoming, many more severe and devastating tornadoes passed over the same paths as the ones we had experienced, including one particular tornado on April 27th, 2011, that traveled on the ground over 80 miles, killing 65 people, striking the heart of Tuscaloosa and continuing all the way to northern Birmingham, crossing the path of the previous 1998 storm.
My wife’s aunt, and her daughter, both victims of that 1998 storm, were again right in the middle of the horrifying event, and right before the storm hit, were in a lower room of a regular home…not a modular. The twister hit the home directly, completely destroying their home, and pulling it off of its foundation, leaving them trapped under debris that fell into the home…but unharmed. That day in Alabama, 167 people died in several tornado strikes…the most ever in the state in single storm event.
Here’s video of that massive tornadic storm as it affected tens of thousands of people that disastrous day.
So, here we are, on this day, February 22, 2014, and we’ve already had several severe tornado outbreaks across the nation since the first of the year, including Indiana and Kentucky two days ago. Winter storms have pummeled the southeast, and the east coast all the way up into New England several times…in what could be considered one of the harshest winters in decades. The same fronts that originate in the Pacific northwest, pass right here over my head in Wyoming as arctic cold fronts, moving east, and continue to hit the gulf coast moisture and warm fronts just as hard as it has ever been, and I foresee some terrible tornadic events again this year…just like 2011 and 2012.
Bottom line…I want YOU to be prepared for the inevitable severe storms that may be coming your way in the next few months. Towards that goal, here are some tips I want you to read and learn…and remember…for when it’s most needed.
Above EVERYTHING else you might do…now or ever…get an emergency alert weather radio…the kind that turns itself on when a tornado or severe storm warning is issued for your area. You can get them for $20 to $100. Get extra batteries. Tune them to your local weather channel, and LISTEN to make sure the broadcast is clear and easily heard…before any storms are threatening your home.
You may have to find a good location in your home (near a window, for example) that gets you the best and clearest signal. Then set it up and keep it in mind. It would certainly be a good idea to get more than one, including desktop sets as well as pocket weather radio receivers.
Personally, I have 5, including one that is a multi-channel UHF scanner. For every one you have, have extra batteries. There are even hand crank powered radios that you can keep for those camping or traveling trips, or for when the storms have killed the power grid in your neighborhood.
Simply be prepared. Know the storm seasons where you live. Study to see if your town has been a victim of historical tornadoes or severe storms. Have a plan to get into an inner room to shelter, or actually invest in building, or buying, a storm shelter for your home or yard. The one time you need it, it will more than pay for itself. I’ve been fortunate to not suffer a direct tornado hit in any place I’ve lived. But, I know thousands of people that I’ve met because of this website that have been saved by storm shelters. There is no excuse for not having a shelter, if you choose to live where these disasters strike.
With all that in mind…here’s the info that today, is probably going to be the most important thing YOU will read today. Print it out, and go over the information with your family. Make sure they understand what is being said. Show them some YouTube videos of tornadoes, shelters, and the destruction that these storms can create.
Don’t scare them, by any means. Educate them on what tornadoes are, how they form, where they happen, and how to recognize them. Make it a very important teaching moment. Remind them that they may never need the information. Remind them that just in case they do, they can always look the information up and refresh their memories. Might be a good idea for you as well.
Tornadoes and Safety
Tornadoes are violent by nature and capable of completely destroying well made structures, uprooting trees and hurling objects like deadly missiles. A tornado appears as a rotating, funnel-shaped cloud that extends from a thunderstorm to the ground with whirling winds that can reach 300 miles per hour.
Prepare a Home Tornado Plan
- • Pick a place where family members could gather if a tornado is headed your way. It could be your basement or, if there is no basement, a center hallway, bathroom, or closet on the lowest floor. Keep this place uncluttered.
- • If you are in a high-rise building, you may not have enough time to go to the lowest floor. Pick a place in a hallway in the center of the building.
Watch vs. Warning: What’s the Difference?
- • Tornado Watch— Tornadoes are possible in and near the watch area. Review and discuss your emergency plans, and check supplies and your safe room. Be ready to act quickly if a warning is issued or you suspect a tornado is approaching. Acting early helps to save lives!
- • Tornado Warning— A tornado has been sighted or indicated by weather radar. Tornado warnings indicate imminent danger to life and property. Go immediately under ground to a basement, storm cellar or an interior room (closet, hallway or bathroom). 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. Flying debris is the greatest danger in tornadoes.
Signs of a Tornado:
- • 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.
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.
After a Tornado:
Keep your family together and wait for emergency personnel to arrive. Carefully render aid to those who are injured. Stay away from power lines and puddles with wires in them; they may still be carrying electricity! Watch your step to avoid broken glass, nails, and other sharp objects. Stay out of any heavily damaged houses or buildings; they could collapse at any time. Do not use matches or lighters, in case of leaking natural gas pipes or fuel tanks nearby. Remain calm and alert, and listen for information and instructions from emergency crews or local officials.
For additional information, safety tips and public outreach resources, visit the following website: www.spc.noaa.gov/faq/tornado/safety.html .