UPDATED: Mar 19, 2020
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In the U.S. a tornado can strike any location in the country, however they occur most often in Florida and in an area that is known as Tornado Alley. Tornado Alley is called this due to the frequency of tornadoes that occur there on a yearly basis. It is located in the central U.S. in the region of the Great Plains. This type of extreme weather event is highly destructive, causing not only a loss of property but also claiming lives. Yearly tornadoes leave approximately 1500 injured and 70 deaths in their wake. For people living in areas that are prone to tornadoes, recognizing them and understanding what to do can save lives.
What is a Tornado
When a violent and rotating column of wind extends from the base of large clouds, such as cumulonimbus clouds, and reaches down to touch the surface of the ground, it is called a tornado. The twirling gust of wind that extends from the tornado is called a condensation funnel. These funnels are a collection of water droplets that are visible due to a collection of dirt and debris. Tornadoes are classified by their intensity using the Fujita rating system, with F0 being the least intense and F5 being the most powerful and destructive.
Signs of a Tornado
For safety purposes, it isn’t enough to know what a tornado is. People living in locations where tornadoes are a common occurrence will need to know how to recognize the signs that indicate an impending storm. It is true that weather warnings, watches, and alerts will keep people abreast of storm conditions. However, there may be times when a person does not have access to a radio or television. The appearance of a threatening cloud will give away an impending tornado. Looking beneath the cloud for fast twirling dust which could be a sign of a funnel within the cloud. Fast moving clouds or rotation in the cloud base itself should also be heeded. When living in a tornado zone, people should learn to recognize tell-tale signs revealed by the appearance of the sky. One sign will be bright flashes of blue-green or white that appear closer to the ground than lightning during a thunderstorm. These small pops of color may be power lines snapping due to tornado winds. Another peculiar appearance would be the sky taking on a greenish black coloring. People should be wary of heavy rainfall or large hail that suddenly transitions into a dead calm, or if winds do a sudden shift. Sound is another indicator of an impending tornado. People should seek shelter if there is a loud and abnormally persistent sound of trains, thunder, or jets in the air.
When and Where to Seek Shelter
When the threat of a tornado is imminent it is important to know when and where to seek shelter. Tornadoes will often hit with minimal warning. For that reason, if at any point a person feels that he or she is in danger, shelter should be sought at once. Listen to local radio stations for guidance. They will provide people in the area with instructions regarding what to do and when. Another time to seek shelter is if a funnel cloud is seen nearby.
Where a person seeks out safety will depend on where he or she is at the time of the threat. According to FEMA’s Ready website, when outdoors in an urban environment, attempt to find safe shelter. If possible seek shelter on the bottom floor of a building or nearby home. When inside of a vehicle, a person should fasten the seatbelt and attempt to cover his or her head with a jacket or blanket if possible, and drive to shelter if it is safe to do so. A person should never drive toward a tornado or park near overpasses or bridges. If there is a low, flat area it is best to leave the vehicle and lie flat with a coat or blanket covering the head and body until the tornado has passed. If a person lives in a mobile home or trailer, he or she must evacuate everyone as these types of homes offer minimal protection against tornadoes.
If inside of a building during a tornado, go to the lowest level if possible. People are safest in the center of the building in a closet or bathroom away from windows and outer walls. A sturdy desk or table can be used as a shield to protect oneself and the back of the head and neck should be shielded by one’s hands and arms. If there is a basement or a safe room in the home building then people should seek shelter there. These are the best locations for protection while waiting out the tornado.
After a Tornado
Following a tornado, a person’s primary safety goal should be to avoid injury and seek help for any injuries that may have been sustained. Immediately after the tornado, a person should first check his or herself for injuries and then check others for the same. In the event that someone has been hurt, medical attention will need to be sought. A battery powered radio should be kept on at all times for news reports and other valuable emergency updates. Before attempting to enter a building or any damaged area, a person should protect his or her body by wearing long sleeved shirts and pants that cover the legs fully, boots or sturdy shoes, and gloves. Buildings and homes should be inspected for gas leaks and electrical damage, which will need to be reported and electrical systems shut off immediately. People returning home should also be aware of the signs of carbon monoxide poisoning. When inspecting the home and if there is suspicion of gas leaks, only battery powered flashlights should be used. Never flip on a light switch or use candles as a spark could result in a fire or explosion. Because the gas has no taste or odor, a person will need to know what to leave the home or building and seek medical attention if there is dizziness, nausea or feelings of being light-headed.
Building a Safe Room
A safe room, which may also be referred to as an in-residence shelter, is a room set up in-house that is built to withstand the intense winds and resulting damage caused by tornadoes and other intense and potentially deadly storms. The most secure safe room is one that is built below ground in the basement; however, safe rooms that are built on the first floor of a home offers valuable protection when built in an interior room. In addition to withstanding extreme wind forces of up to 250 miles per hour, safe rooms must be built so that they are accessible from all areas of the home and they must have the ability to resist puncture from projectiles. They must be properly ventilated and anchored so that it is not easily toppled or overturned. In order to enable homeowners to build these rooms within their homes, there are various funding options available. In some states homeowners may be eligible for partial reimbursement, in other states people may be able to apply for a loan specifically for their safe room installation. Certain homeowners may also be eligible to apply for a grant from FEMA. Homeowners should also check for local incentives such as reduced property taxes for building a safe room.