As we end January and begin February, spring fever hits many of us. Days grow longer, average temperatures rise and thunderstorms become more active. By March, we begin our traditional tornado season in the Southeast which lasts through May. With this in mind, February is an excellent time to make your safety plan and prepare for the severe weather season before the storms of spring fire up.
Surviving a direct hit by tornado is a numbers game. You want to put the odds in your favor by doing what you can to maximize your chances of survival. It's true that every year, some people beat the odds by doing the wrong things and surviving a (like standing outside as the tornado passes by and amazingly not getting killed by debris) and doing the right thing and not (sometimes the tornadoes are just too big if your not underground). However, based on what's happened in the past, here are five big mistakes that put people at increased risk for death and injury…
1. Not taking tornado warnings seriously. Admittedly, there are tornado warning false alarms. We've all been under warnings when nothing happened. Current technology and the warning process itself leads to this. However, research is ongoing at the National Weather Service office in Birmingham which is leading to a reduction in the false alarm rate – from around 80% down to 40% there. If this research continues to show success, other Weather Service offices will adapt the new warning procedures. What does this mean? It means that the next time you go under a tornado warning, there's a better likelihood of one actually occurring. Take tornado warnings seriously. If you don't, you're rolling the dice.
2. Not seeking shelter immediately. In the early spring, tornadoes can be very fast movers and can approach at speeds of more than 60 mph. If you don't see the storm and wait to take action, it can be upon you very, very quickly – so fast you lose the time you need to get to your safe place. When a tornado warning is issued, don't wait – get into the your safe place immediately.
3. Looking out the window. While most of us know that windows are dangerous during tornadoes, what do most people do when they hear a tornado warning??? They run to the window to see if they can see it. That's a huge mistake. Windows are easily broken in tornadoes which sends glass and other debris from outside flying toward you. Being hit by debris is the number one way people are injured or killed in tornadoes. Also, in the Southeast, there is a significant risk for nighttime tornadoes. If you waste time going to the window, you won't see anything anyway. Stay away from windows. Also, do not open or crack windows to equalize pressure as many people have heard in the past. That's also a waste of time.
4. Not having a way to hear the warnings. There are more tornadoes in the U.S. than anywhere else in the world - by far. If you live east of the Rockies especially, you should make sure you never miss another warning. There are a variety of ways to hear warnings now from receiving them through services that will call you or text you on your phone to apps on smart phones to weather radios. Do not rely on outdoor sirens as they were designed to warn people outdoors who are near them and not inside buildings. Also, be aware that as heavy rains approach your home, satellite t.v. service is likely to be interrupted so you have to an alternate way of receiving the warnings. Weather radios are a reliable way to hear warnings in the middle of the night as well. You don't want to go to bed and then wake up with a tornado bearing down on you because you missed the warning. You MUST have reliable access to warnings to increase your chances of surviving a direct hit. Read this POST on how to never missing another warning.
5. Taking Shelter in the wrong place. I'll be doing a post in detail on how to identify the best place in your home to seek shelter based on research and recommendations from the National Weather Service and other safety sources but here's an overview: The majority of tornadoes that touch down in the U.S. don't completely flatten homes. Obviously, tornadoes CAN level homes if they are strong enough or hit a poorly-constructed building – but most don't. This is because the majority of tornadoes are EF-2 or weaker and leave at least part of the house standing. If you can identify which part is most likely to remain standing after a tornado, you increase your chances of survival. In general, find a small room, such as a closet or a bathroom, near the center of the home, and seek shelter there. A bathroom or closet under a set of centrally-located stairs is good because of the extra structure in the staircase. If you have a basement, go there but stay away from garage doors and windows in walk-out basements and get in a closet or bathroom (if you have one) or under something sturdy such as a workbench or heavy table. This can protect you from falling debris above. If you don't have a basement, DO NOT go into crawl space if your home is built on a concrete block foundation with typical construction. These blocks are held together only by a thin layer of mortar which can fail during a tornado. This can cause the whole house to either pancake on the ground or move as a single unit off the foundation. This happens so much, the National Weather Service terms these cases "sliders"; the house stays intact but is moved off the foundation. If this happens while you're seeking shelter underneath the house, you can be crushed. Also, stay away from the garage end of the home – especially if your garage faces south or west. Research shows garage doors fail easily in the winds of a tornado and damage can be enhanced in that area. If you live in a mobile home, you cannot stay there. You need to have a plan where you go to a sturdy building or into a shelter when tornadoes threaten. No matter where you live, to ensure your safety in ALL tornadoes, consider investing in a storm shelter.