In lieu of Wednesday’s super outbreak in which the death toll may end up as the 3rd highest of ALL-TIME, I feel the need to address tornado safety. There is also a lot of incorrect information out there about where to take cover.
First off, I must say that Wednesday was a very rare situation. Only about 1% of all tornadoes are violent EF4 or EF5 strength. That still amounts to an average of about 10 per year in the United States, but for them to go through populated areas like they did Wednesday is also rare. With that in mind, you must realize that most of the time a tornado warning is not going to result in a destructive tornado. However, for the average person, and sometimes even for meteorologists, there is no way to tell the strength of a tornado until AFTER it has hit a structure and done damage. Therefore it is always best to prepare for the worst.
First off, I want to address the issue of tornado warnings. I hear a lot of people complain that there are too many, and that sirens go off too often. Well, in my opinion I think that’s a ridiculous statement to begin with, considering I can only think of 4 tornado warnings in the last 2 years at my residence. But, a lot of people still feel this way, and as a result refrain from taking action when they hear the sirens. This could be a deadly mistake one day if you don’t educate yourself!
Let’s realize that 70% of all tornado warnings turn out to be false alarms. Why is that? There is still a lot that we don’t know about tornadoes, which is what makes them one of nature’s most phenomenal scientific wonders. It also makes them very difficult to predict. What we do have is advanced doppler radar that can detect rotation in a thunderstorm, which could mean that a tornado is developing. The majority of tornado warnings are issued when an area of rotation is spotted on the doppler radar image. Most of the time, the rotation never reaches the ground, and therefore a tornado never forms. However, since we can’t tell whether that will or will not happen, the warning must be issued just in case. The minute the NWS fails to issue a warning because they don’t believe the storm will produce a tornado, and it does and kills many people, the public would be outraged that there was no warning issued. So please stop complaining about the number of warnings issued! It is for your safety!
Now with that being said, there ARE times when you will hear the sirens go off, and you will not be in any sort of danger. This is because the alarms are on an old system where warnings were issued for entire counties. They now have polygonal warning areas, but due to the complexity and cost of computing the sirens to only go off in those polygons, they still sound for the entire county. At the very least, when the sirens go off, you should be tuning in to the local weather channel to get an update on where the storm is located, and where it is headed. If you are unsure, take cover!
Before The Storm
Your personal safety liability really begins well before any warnings are issued. The Storm Prediction Center (SPC) issues severe weather outlooks up to eight days in advance. These are usually repeated by the local weather forecasters, so if you watch the news daily, you will know when your area is at risk for severe weather. The risks are categorized by slight risk, moderate risk, and high risk. I must emphasize that a slight risk does not necessarily mean you have no need to worry. These outlooks are based on probabilities of severe weather within so many miles of one point. Often on slight risk days, there may only be 1 or 2 supercell thunderstorms that develop, but those could be very strong. Usually a high risk involves widespread severe weather, meaning the chance that a particular point will experience severe weather is greatly enhanced.
Bottom line, when you see any kind of risk in your area, you should be prepared to take action on that day. Just in case you were wondering, the areas affected on Wednesday were under a high risk. If you know this in advance, there will be no surprise when severe weather is imminent.
Where To Take Cover
At Home or Work
If you are at home, and the tornado is heading your way, the safest place to be is in the basement, underneath a sturdy piece of furniture, or underneath a stairway. Violent tornadoes can cause the house to collapse into the basement, so don’t get a false sense of security by simply being in the basement. Protect yourself further in case of a collapse.
If you don’t have a basement, the best place to be is in an interior bathroom, in the bath tub, with a mattress on top of you. If there is no bathroom in the interior part of the house, a hallway or closet would be the next best place. You want to have interior walls around you, as close together as possible. A strong tornado will demolish exterior walls, and often one interior bathroom or closet is all that remains. However, if you take a direct hit from an EF4 or EF5, the entire house can be swept clean off the foundation. If you can afford it, have a tornado safe room or bunker built in your house is your safest bet.
Personally, I would be out chasing the storms, and would not want to be stuck in a house or place of business with no basement on a day where the environment is favorable for violent tornadoes. However, for the general public that does not have a thorough knowledge of storms, not to mention radar, gps, and other storm tracking technology in their cars, I wouldn’t recommend this. Try to find a neighbor or friend with a basement, or a public shelter you can go to (well before any warnings are issued).
This is where I really get irritated with the advice given, even by the NWS. Yes, being in your vehicle in the direct path of a tornado is not safe. However, a vehicle has the ability to move, so I don’t know why you’d ever get out of the vehicle and be stationary. If you can see the tornado, you need to figure out which direction the tornado is heading, and drive away from it at a 90 degree angle. So if it is heading east, you should drive south. Sure you could drive north, but then you’ll be going straight into the core of the storm, and will be in the middle of heavy rain and hail, and won’t be able to see anything. In most cases, driving south or southwest (if storms are moving southeast) will be your best bet.
There may be times where you can’t see where the tornado is. This is where knowledge of storms could really help you. If the tornado is wrapped in rain, you won’t be able to see it until it is right on top of you. However, you can tell it is approaching by watching the direction of the wind. Unfortunately, by the time you see the wind direction shift, you are probably too close. This is simply a bad spot to be in if you don’t have any information on the exact location of the tornado.
If you can get to a sturdy structure, that would be your best bet. In the warning text, they will tell you to get into a ditch. My biggest issue with this is that now you are right out in the open, where flying debris can land on top of you. All it takes is one piece of debris to kill you. So only use a ditch as a last ditch (no pun intended) effort, and be sure that is a low-lying ditch. Lay flat and cover your head.
Do not, I repeat DO NOT take shelter underneath an overpass…. EVER! Let me say that again so you read it loud and clear… DO NOT TAKE SHELTER UNDER AN OVERPASS!!! This is quite possibly the WORST location for you to be. Winds around a tornado cover every direction, so if the tornado goes directly over that bridge, at one point the wind will be coming straight in your face! That means flying debris will also be coming right at you. In addition, the underpass acts as a wind tunnel, speeding up the winds of the tornado! Several people lost their lives while taking shelter under and overpass in the Moore, OK tornado May 3, 1999. See more on that here: http://www.srh.noaa.gov/oun/?n=safety-overpass-slide01
Really, if you know ahead of time that the threat for severe weather is present, and you plan your day accordingly and pay attention to the situation, you should never be in the position of driving in the path of a tornado, and should never have to worry about this!
In summary: Avoid driving while dangerous storms are present, but if you are caught in one, drive away from the tornado at a 90-degree angle, and if you can’t get away, as a last chance hope for survival, take shelter in a low-lying ditch by laying flat and covering your head.
This is where a lot of tornado fatalities occur, because people don’t even wake up until it is too late. This can be prevented by simply buying a NOAA weather radio (available at Radio Shack), and keeping it on while you sleep. There are several models where you can set them to only sound an alarm for tornado warnings in your county, so you won’t be bothered if there is a tornado warning 2 counties over. Keep fresh batteries in it, and you will be assured that the alarm will still go off if you lose power.
I think the biggest factor in surviving the storm is preparedness. If you keep up with the weather situation in advance, and during the event, you will be ready to take action when necessary. Having a plan in place beforehand can save your life, so get your plan together. Go buy a NOAA weather radio if you don’t have one. They aren’t expensive, and can save your life.
Extenuating Circumstances of April 27, 2011
There were some extenuating circumstances on Wednesday that may have lead to an increased number of fatalities in these storms. There were several different rounds of storms, and from what I’ve gathered at least one county had 4 separate tornado warnings throughout the course of the day. The early storms knocked out power in several locations, so people could not get information through their TV or radios. In fact, I’ve read that at least one NOAA weather radio tower was damaged, so there may have been a case where even weather radios were not operational. That is when you MUST find some way to get information about the storms. Sit in your car to listen to the radio if you have to, or go to a friend or relative’s house that does have power. In this day and age with all of our technology, a lack of power is still no excuse to be careless when your life is at stake.
Common Tornado Myths vs. Facts
Myth: Tornadoes don’t hit cities because of the tall buildings.
Fact: A tornado can hit anywhere, and will nto be affected by buildings in its path. The smaller number of tornadoes hitting cities vs. the country is simply due to the fact that cities consist of a small percentage of the geographical area in our country (not to mention the fact that many of the biggest cities are in locations that don’t get tornadoes very often).
Myth: Tornadoes won’t affect hilly areas.
Fact: Look at the damage path, and even some videos from Wednesday as the Tuscaloosa/Birmingham tornado tears through hilly terrain, knocking down giant trees as if they were twigs. Tornadoes won’t skip over hills, so just because you live in a valley does not mean you are safe!