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I was 10 when it happened, and I’ll tell you one thing, I learned what to do in a tornado — and what not to do as well. We called it the vacation from hell, even when I was young. My mom, dad, two brothers, and I lived in Southern California, and road tripped to Arkansas every summer to visit dad’s family.
But this summer vacation …
turned out to stand out in my mind more than most. It was full of weather; the kind of weather I had never experienced.
At first, it was fun —
We traveled through the painted desert of New Mexico, stopping to admire the alien landscape and to buy turquoise from the Native Americans who sold their art on the side of the highway.
It was magical —
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When we drove through Texas, it rained frogs! My brothers and were lying in the top bunk of the camper as we barreled down the highway watching their tiny green bodies bounce off the window.
I thought I must be dreaming.
Upon our arrival in Arkansas, the weather seemed normal — hot and humid like I remembered it from the year before. But something was different: It was so quiet.
Tornadoes Happen Fast
All of us kids were asleep when the tornado hit town. The good thing was: Our parents must have been awake because they moved fast. What I recall is the sound more than anything. When the first twister approached our neighborhood like the roar of a giant train about to crash through the house.
And all I wanted right then was to be back home in my bed.
Instead of where I was: Lying under a king sized mattress with four adults and as many kids stuffed in between the walls of the hallway. I didn’t see the tornados — only their aftermath. There were three that came through early that morning, and the whole thing lasted for a good two to three hours. You heard right: All of us lie under the mattress for hours. No wonder I had tornado nightmares for years.
At 12:30 a.m. on May 27, 1973, a series of three massive twisters — the largest with a funnel cloud almost a mile wide — swept completely across the southern portion of Jonesboro Arkansas.
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We’re going to go over a few things you NEED to know before we talk about what to do in a tornado.
Image of Nina Simone commanding attention.
Supercells, Funnel Clouds, and Tornados — Oh My
Can you imagine a tornado that’s almost a mile wide? Terrifying. But that’s not all: A mile-wide tornado is nothing by today’s standards.
The massive El Reno, Oklahoma Supercell on May 31, 2013, reached a maximum width of 2.6 miles and traveled a distance of 16.2 miles — with wind speeds close to the surface of 295 mph.
How tornados form
Tornadoes are born from a thunderstorm, with warm moist air moving up from the Gulf of Mexico and cool dry air flowing down from Canada. When these opposite air systems collide: They make the atmosphere unstable.
Hot air moves up and crashes into cold air that is moving horizontally. They create a horizontal wind tunnel that shifts to vertical with a massive push of warm air.
The cold air forces a rapid drop in temperature and the winds kick up. And inside all this action a funnel cloud forms, dropping from the sky. But the crazy part is: This churning wind tunnel doesn’t become a tornado until it hits the ground. Sometimes they appear as a long thin column.
Other times you feel the wind shift and a change in the air pressure that makes your ears pop before you realize it’s a tornado.
Types of Tornados
There isn’t just one kind of tornado. Oh no. Mother nature is much more creative.
As the name implies, this funnel looks like a long thin rope dropping from the sky. Rope tornados usually disappear quickly, but they can hang out and cause damage. Although rope tornadoes may look weaker than much larger ones, some get more intense as they narrow and tighten — NOAA’s Storm Prediction Center.
You guessed it: This one looks like a cone. It’s wider at the top where it’s forming in the thunderclouds. Cone tornadoes tend to cause more damage than their kin, the rope tornado.
This formation, similar to the cone tornado, occurs sometimes. The difference is: A stovepipe tornado is the same width from top to bottom. It looks more like a wall.
When the sky looks like its dropping, and the tornado appears to be wider than it is tall, be prepared because this is a wedge tornado. The bad news is: It’s typically the kind that does the most damage. Remember El Reno, Oklahoma? That was a wedge tornado and the widest ever recorded at 2.6 miles.
At times the massive spinning force inside a supercell thunderstorm gives birth to more than one spinning demon. Multi-vortex storms usually let a few rope tornados drop down to earth. Here’s the thing: Every once in awhile the storm will manufacture two independently spinning clouds that cause wide-spread damage. The second tornado is called a “satellite tornado,” and these are rare.
Waterspouts and landspouts develop without the need for a thunderstorm. Even though a water spout is technically a tornado, it doesn’t count until it hits land. Best of all: Spouts are generally short-lived.
How Tornados Are Rated
There are so many varieties of tornados, we needed a way to measure their intensity.
Originally, a research scientist from the University of Chicago, by the name of Dr. Ted Fujita, developed a scale to measure a storms’ intensity. Dr. Fujita’s scale ranged from F0 to F5 and was based on the type of tornado plus the amount of damage it caused.
But then: The National Weather Service developed more technology, and the original Fujita scale was “enhanced” to reflect more of what we’ve discovered since the good doctor’s findings. Today we measure tornados by their Enhanced Fujita rating.
Windspeeds: 65 to 85 mph.
What happens: Some damage with pieces of rooves torn off and branches getting broken off of trees — shallow-rooted trees get pushed over.
Windspeeds: 86 to 110 mph.
What happens: Moderate damage. Roofs get completely ripped off of houses, and motorhomes get turned over. There’s lots of broken glass with doors and windows breaking, and getting thrown into the air like so much debris.
Windspeeds: 111 to 135 mph.
What happens: Considerable damage. Even the best-constructed homes will get their roof ripped off — the houses’ foundations of framed homes get shifted — the destruction of mobile homes. Large trees are snapped or uprooted. Light objects become missiles and cars lift off the ground with the wind’s force.
Windspeeds: 136 to 165 mph.
What happens: Serious damage. Whole houses get destroyed. There’s damage to large buildings such as shopping malls and schools. Trains may flip over, and trees get stripped of their bark. Even heavy cars are lifted and thrown. The force is enough to destroy structures that aren’t storm-proofed.
Windspeeds: 166 to 200 mph.
What happens: Devastation happens, leveling houses to their foundations and cars become bombs shooting through the air.
Windspeeds: Over 200 mph.
What happens: Shock and awe. The kind of incredible damage that destroys everything. Phenomena will occur such as a water hose impaling a tree trunk.
There are two sections in the United States which have an unusually high frequency of tornadoes. Florida is one and “Tornado Alley” in the south-central United States is the other.
From central Texas to northern Iowa, and Kansas to Nebraska on the east and western Ohio, tornado alley is situated in a perfect spot to form the supercell thunderstorms that spawn tornadoes with an EF2 rating and above. The reason is: The weather conditions are usually ripe for tornadoes from spring to early fall.
Severe Weather Warning
“Outside the rain began to pour in sheets, and the wind howled. Giant pieces of hail began to pelt the building, banging off the skylights so hard that Simpson worried the glass might shatter. Then, as it had earlier in the day, the wind briefly let up. It was then Simpson heard a sound she had dreaded, a sound she couldn’t believe she was actually hearing. It was 2: 40 p.m. and the tornado sirens in Moore started to wail.”
― Holly Bailey, The Mercy of the Sky: The Story of a Tornado
Warning Signs that a Tornado May Develop
- A dark, greenish colored sky
- The wind may die down — the air is still
- Everything is quiet — even the crickets stop chirping
- Next comes large hail
- Then, a loud roar similar to a freight train
- Finally, there may be wall clouds or an approaching cloud of debris
Thankfully, tornado warning systems are way more advanced than they were in the 1970s. And you won’t believe this: Still, the average time between a tornado warning and it touching down is estimated at 13 minutes! You can see why advanced preparation and having a plan will save your life.
So, here we go.
The National Weather Service is your friend
The National Weather Service tracks storms that they fear will turn into tornados. Here’s what you need to know:
Tornado weather is unpredictable. So these severe storm warnings don’t always turn into the worst case scenario.
A tornado watch issued by the National Weather Service may cover parts of a state or have a further reach over several states, depending on the size of the storm system. If a watch is issued, it means it’s time to prepare for severe weather and stay tuned.
On the other hand: A tornado warning means there’s a serious threat and it’s time to take shelter and implement your plan. No debate, witnesses have spotted a tornado, or they’ve seen it on the weather radar. Not only that: A warning will go out to all the areas that are in the storm’s path. If you hear a tornado siren, take cover immediately. You don’t have much time for debate.
The safest place to be in a tornado is underground in the basement, a root cellar, or tornado shelter.
Unfortunately, not all of us have a place we can quickly get to, underground. Not to mention: We may not be home. So we need a plan regarding what to do in a tornado.
What to do in a tornado
Like my quick thinking parents, who knew exactly what to do in a tornado, you can make a plan ahead of time that will keep you and your family safe. First of all: It’s wise to listen to NOAA Weather Radio or tune in to local weather on your phone, television, or another device to keep updated.
Emergency Preparedness List
Know where to tune in to local broadcasting for emergency broadcast information. Think about it: You can also download several emergency preparedness APPs ahead of time, such as the Family Locator. Here’s what you want to do: Prepare a master list with all of the information you need and share it with your family, so everyone knows what to do if you lose track of each other during the event.
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Everyone can use this list to load the information into their cell phones.
What to Do in a Tornado If You’re in a Car or Outside
Here’s what to do in a tornado if you’re outside:
Find a ditch.
If you’re outside and there’s no cover:
- Find a ditch or a place that’s lower than the rest of the ground
- Lie face down and cover your head
- Pay attention for flooding
If you’re in a mobile home: Get out, even if it’s tied down Even if that means seeking refuge outside.
If you’re home and it’s not a mobile home:
- Go to a pre-designated area such as the hallway, basement, storm cellar, or the lowest level of the building
- Stay away from windows and glass
- Get down on the floor, face down, and cover your head
- Cover the back of your head with your hands
Listen to an NOAA Weather Radio, regular radio, or television for tornado updates.
- Battery-powered devices are the best, in case the electricity goes out
- Keep a cell phone charging station handy
Use a flashlight if it’s dark
- Don’t panic. A clear head can save your life
- Don’t open the windows in your home
- Do not use elevators
- Don’t go to the southwest corner of your shelter. Most tornadoes approach from the southwest
- Do not light candles, even after the storm has passed. There may be a ruptured gas line
- Don’t use your car as a shelter
- Don’t park under an overpass
It’s more dangerous under the overpass than on open ground because of the wind-tunnel effect which causes the wind to move even faster.
Did I mention: NEVER park beneath a bridge or underpass.
What to Do After a Tornado
You’ve been through a tornado and if that’s not enough: Remain cautious because there is still danger everywhere. The water may be contaminated. Power lines are down, and you want to make sure that the storm has indeed passed.
Case in point: My aunt popped out from beneath our mattress shelter too soon because she needed a smoke and we all thought the storm had passed. She watched the roof get torn off the house as the third tornado hit, and was nearly struck in the head as a kitchen bowl flew by.
But she lucked out:
Not everyone will be so fortunate if they don’t proceed with caution.
Know where to seek help
You’ve prepared ahead of time, so you know where to seek help because you have all of the emergency numbers. But that’s not enough: Once the tornados are gone, there’s a lot of clean up, and likely, injuries.
Be Safe — Be Prepared
Nearly three-quarters of all the tornadoes in the world occur in the United States.
There are certainly areas of the country more susceptible to tornados than others, but they can happen anywhere.
At the end of 2018, in winter no less, a rare tornado touched down and did considerable damage to property in Washington state.
The folks were unprepared
Fortunately, there were only minor injuries.
They were lucky.
In the long run:
Regardless of their might, if you prepare for a tornado and know what to do if you’re not at home, you increase your chances for survival 100% percent.
Stock Up, Make a Plan and Share It with Your Family
When the tornado is no longer something in your imagination and the time comes, be fearless and ready. Keep a well-stocked pantry with lots of can goods and non-perishable items.
Another thing to remember is: Make sure to store at least one gallon of water per person per day for three days, for drinking and personal use. Don’t forget your pets. That’s simple family preparedness, my friend.
Tornado or no tornado, a girl from Kansas doesn’t let much get to her.
Dorothy Must Die
Neither does a girl from California, for that matter.
Have you ever experienced a tornado? Do you live in tornado alley? Leave any tips you have in the comments!