For an entire week leading up to the April 2011 storms and tornados that devastated parts of my town and Northern Alabama in general, the local weather forecasters gave us warnings. Suddenly, tornado survival became a hot topic in our household.
We were told to be ready for tornado survival because they saw the emerging weather pattern as it traveled across the country and how dangerous it would likely be. Fortunately, my family knew how to survive a tornado and had our own tornado survival kit handy, but all too often, most people are caught by surprise.
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In our case, we were fortunate that our weather forecaster was taking the incoming storm seriously and you should know that if your local weather experts start talking like this, you need to start planning ahead. Many storms won’t give that much warning, but staying weather aware will give you enough lead time (usually hours at least) to enact your pre-determined tornado plan.
If you live in an area that is vulnerable to tornadoes, such as the Joplin, Missouri area, you have undoubtedly heard the advice to head to your shelter or basement as a severe storm approaches. Tornadoes are such violent events that it’s surprising just how many people haven’t given much thought about tornado survival or where they might find shelter.
So what do you do if you don’t have a shelter or a basement?
1. Go to a friend’s house to survive an oncoming tornado
Consider leaving your home and staying with a friend who has a shelter or basement. Of course, you must ask first! Don’t just assume there will be space for you or that they will even be home. If you’re invited to stay with your friend, you don’t want to be a burden, so bring enough food and water to last your family a minimum of three days. Be sure to take your emergency kit and important papers with you in case your home is damaged or you are not able to return to your neighborhood for a period of time. Since you probably don’t use that emergency kit all that often, have a few rechargeable batteries like these that use a USB charger. They’ll come in handy for flashlights and emergency radios.
Make a list of the friends/family you have whose homes would be a safe refuge and list their names and phone numbers. Post this list inside a cupboard door or another common location, and make sure everyone in the family knows where it is, when to call, and how to get to each location.
DO THIS NOW: Print out my instructions for making a tornado survival kit and a Grab-n-Go binder with all your most important documents. Also put together your own Last Minute Checklist using these instructions for things like prescription medications that you can’t pack up until the very last minute.
2. Go to a community storm shelter
When you create your emergency binder, include a list of community storm shelters in your area. Know where they are and the quickest route to get to each one. List the rules of the shelter — most don’t allow pets, some don’t allow large bags or bins, and many request that you bring your own bottles of water and snacks. Know that shelters often fill up quickly so don’t wait until the last minute to arrive. Community shelters are often cramped, sweaty, and full of frightened and/or bored children, but the safety and peace of mind they provide will be worth it. To get an idea of what a Red Cross shelter is like, read this article for more details.
Some public spaces like churches, libraries, malls, large stores, and government buildings have storm shelters or “safe areas” built in for their employees and customers. Going to these locations and waiting out a storm is an option. Speak to a manager ahead of time and ask them what their policy is for allowing members of the public to use their location. Include this information in your emergency binder. If you choose this option, be sure to leave your home well ahead of the storm. Keep in mind that tornadoes can happen in the middle of the night and public buildings are unlikely to be open and available.
DO THIS NOW: If you live in tornado country, you probably drive by many of these public buildings that act as shelters. Begin to take notice of them and make a list of the building and its address for future reference. Someday, surviving a tornado might count on knowing where the nearest public shelter is.
4. Make the best of what you’ve got for tornado survival
Sometimes you may not have enough of a warning to be able to leave your home. Or you may choose to ride out a storm in your own home instead of at a public place with strangers. For whatever reason you decide to stay put, you need to make a plan to stay as safe as possible.
When looking for your home’s safest place when you don’t have a shelter or basement, keep these guidelines in mind:
- Be on the ground floor.
- Go to as close to the center of the structure as you can so you have as many walls between you and the outside as possible.
- Do not be in a location that has an exterior wall.
- Stay away from exterior doors and windows.
- Be in as small of a space as possible.
- All of these rules apply to apartment dwellers as well. If you don’t live on the first floor, you need to find out from your apartment manager what the tornado warning protocols are for your apartment complex.
- Common places in many homes that fit these criteria are bathrooms, closets, and under stair storage areas.
5. Prepare to enter your safe place
- Make sure everyone is wearing sturdy shoes. Closed-toe shoes that lace up are best because they’ll protect your feet and will stay on your feet should you need to run. Make it a habit for each family member to keep a pair of these shoes by the bedside in case that tornado alert sounds in the middle of the night.
- If you own motorcycle, bicycle or football helmets, get them and put them on to protect your head from flying debris. Keeping all these, one per person, in a large shopping bag stored near an exit door, ready to grab and run, would be a good plan.
- Stage the location with emergency supplies like bottled water, protein bars, a first aid kit, flashlights, battery or crank powered weather radio, a blanket to cover your body, and a hatchet to help remove debris if needed. If possible, keep these items stored in your safe place all the time.
- If you do not store your emergency kit and/or bug out bags in your safe place, bring them in.
- If your pets are small, put them in a crate with a towel or blanket covering them. Ideally, each pet should have a collar on as well, and take the time now to have each cat and/or dog microchipped. Dogs and cats should be chipped in case they lose their collars in the chaos of a tornado. Have leashes nearby. If you have larger pets, consider having both collars and leashes on them while you are waiting out the storm.
- Have on each person as available – photo ID, cell phone, and a whistle.
- For nighttime tornado survival advice, read this article.
When your area is put under a tornado watch, start preparing your safe place. If you are upgraded to a tornado warning, pay very close attention to the advice of the weather forecaster. He or she will tell you when you need to be hunkered down in your safe place. If in doubt, go into your safe place and wait. If you hear the words “Tornado Emergency” for your area, that means a tornado is actively on the ground. You should be bracing for the tornado in your safe place, NOT outside taking a tornado selfie!
The reality of tornadoes, especially the stronger EF-4 and EF-5 varieties, is that anything above ground that is not a specific tornado shelter is unlikely to survive a direct hit. That said, the statistical chance of getting a direct hit by an EF-4 or -5 is very low. You are more likely to encounter a survivable, less destructive tornado, and the difference between walking away from it and suffering an injury or death can be as simple as choosing the safest place in your home to weather the storm.
Author’s note: One specific caveat. Mobile homes do NOT have a “safe area.” NEVER “make the best of it” if you have a tornado warning in your area and you live in a mobile home. ALWAYS leave to stay with a friend or go to a community shelter.
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