I guess you don’t need reminding, but every year, from about early spring to mid summer – say mid February to mid June – tornadoes become part of the US scene.
Of course tornadoes can occur anywhere and any time if the conditions are right, but during that second quarter of the year, over the midwest and bordering states, the chances of tornadoes are greatest.
And on average, 60 people will lose their lives each year.
So what can you do to make sure you and your family aren’t listed among the casualties next time there are tornadoes around?
Quite a lot, actually, but first let’s just review what tornadoes are and how they form.
Tornado Formation and Forecasting
Tornadoes are rapidly rotating winds that are always associated with thunderstorms. They form tight spirals of extremely strong winds, capable in their most severe form of destroying almost everything in their path.
By no means all thunderstorms produce tornadoes, and while big thunderstorms tend to breed big tornadoes, there is no hard and fast rule. Most tornadoes are short lived, and most occur away from populated areas.
Although there are very few rules which apply to all tornadoes, all of the time, we do know that when large thunderstorms, or super cells form, tornadoes are most likely to develop.
Thunderstorms like these generally build when warm moist air is forced to rise over cooler or drier air. Other conditions have to be right, but for the most part thunderstorm formation is fairly easy for meteorologists to forecast, although estimating storm severity is not as easy, and the likelihood of a tornado is even more difficult to predict.
And here the forecasters have a dilemma. For reasons of public safety, they must warn people if tornadoes and other forms of severe storm weather are possible. Possible is not certain, so some forecasts turn out to be false alarms.
But consider the alternative – no warnings are given until too late, and people die simply because they have been given too little time to prepare.
Preparing For Tornadoes
The First thing to do when faced with any emergency is to be prepared in advance to take the most sensible action.
And Rule 2 is to treat all tornado watches and warnings seriously.
So what’s a tornado watch, and how is it different from a warning?
A tornado watch defines an area where tornadoes and other kinds of severe weather are possible in the next few hours. It does not mean tornadoes will form – just that you need to be alert, and to be prepared to find safe shelter if they do.
A tornado warning, issued by the local National Weather Service office, means that a tornado has been spotted, or that Doppler radar indicates a thunderstorm acting in a way which can spawn a tornado. When a tornado warning is issued for your town or county, take immediate safety precautions.
This brings us to Rule 3.
Invest in a Weather Radio, make sure its batteries are fresh, and that it is on standby whenever thunderstorms look likely.
A good weather radio will activate itself whenever a tornado watch or warning is issued, (and will do the same for any other weather threat or civil emergency). If there are tornadoes forming in your area, your best defence is having the time to get to safe shelter, and Weather Radio will give you this.
And so to Rule 4.
Make sure you know where safe shelter is, and make sure you know how to get there in a hurry.
Finding shelter may be easy or difficult, depending where you are, and the action you take may depend on how prepared you are.
Most workplaces and schools in a tornado prone area will have a tornado plan.
If you are at home you should move to a safe location, either one you have prepared in your home, or at a public shelter.
The safety of a home shelter will depend on the construction of your house, and whether you have modified it to provide a safe room. Brick and concrete are stronger than timber, and basements are safer than ground floors or upper storeys.
A safe room is any room on the ground floor or basement that has been reinforced with steel or concrete to make it safe during strong winds, collapsing roofs and walls, and from wind blown debris.
Expensive? Undoubtedly, but aren’t you worth it?
If you are in your vehicle when a tornado arrives you have two choices. If traffic and roads allow, you can drive away from it – if possible take a few moments to assess the risks.
If you can see the tornado, line it up with a fixed point such as a building or a tree. If it moves to the left or right the tornado is not heading towards you, but to be on the safe side, drive off in the opposite direction.
If it doesn’t appear to move, but does appear to be growing larger, it is probably coming your way. Drive off to the side if possible.
If you can’t drive away from it or find secure shelter, abandon your car, and lie flat on the lowest ground you can find – a roadside ditch would be a good option. Cars can be death traps, and sheltering under bridges or overpasses is very risky.
The same strategy applies if you are on foot – look for strong safe enclosed shelter first, or a low point on the ground if that is not available.
Keep all these in mind and your chances of survival are good. Deaths in tornadoes are mostly caused by building collapse, vehicles overturning or becoming airborne, and flying debris.
So have a plan, and keep your weather radio handy and charged up, and there’s every reason to believe you’ll make it through to the next tornado season.