Stay safe in 'Tornado Alley'
Kansas is often regarded as being in “Tornado Alley,” a section of the country where tornadoes are known to frequently appear. In 2011, 68 tornadoes were recorded – greater than the 1950-2010 average of 60.
Most tornadoes are actually much weaker and less violent than EF5, the most violent category of tornadoes. But any tornado warning should be taken seriously. The best way to survive a storm is to be prepared.
Prevention and practice before the storm
Whether at work or at home, know where you can take shelter in a matter of seconds. Most workplaces and schools will practice a tornado drill at least once a year. Do the same at your home. Have a tornado plan in place, based on the kind of dwelling you live in, and use the recommended safety tips below. Have a predetermined place for your family to meet after a disaster.
If a warning is issued or threatening weather approaches, always remember to DUCK, says the National Weather Service:
D own to the lowest level
U nder something sturdy
C over your head
K eep in the shelter until the storm has passed.
When a tornado watch – which means conditions are favorable for severe weather to form – is issued, check to make sure all your safety supplies are handy and that you know the drill for a warning. Turn on local TV, radio or NOAA Weather Radio and stay alert for warnings, which means there is immediate danger.
Know the signs of a tornado
Weather forecasting science is not perfect and some tornadoes do occur without a tornado warning. There is no substitute for staying alert to the sky. Besides an obviously visible tornado, here are some things to look and listen for:
- Strong, persistent rotation in the cloud base
- Whirling dust or debris on the ground under a cloud base — tornadoes sometimes have no funnel!
- Hail or heavy rain followed by either dead calm or a fast, intense wind shift. Many tornadoes are wrapped in heavy precipitation and can't be seen.
- Day or night — Loud, continuous roar or rumble, which doesn't fade in a few seconds like thunder.
- Night — Small, bright, blue-green to white flashes at ground level near a thunderstorm (as opposed to silvery lightning up in the clouds). These mean power lines are being snapped by very strong wind, maybe a tornado.
- Night — Persistent lowering from the cloud base, illuminated or silhouetted by lightning — especially if it is on the ground or there is a blue-green-white power flash underneath
What to do in a storm
In general, seek shelter in a basement, interior room or interior hallway on the lowest floor, away from windows.
In a house with a basement: Get in the basement or an interior room — away from windows — on the lowest floor. If you don't have time to get to a lower floor, go to a closet or small room with strong walls or an inside hallway. Wrap or cover yourself in some kind of protective covering (overcoats, sleeping bags, mattresses etc.). Get under some kind of sturdy protection (heavy table or work bench). Know where very heavy objects rest on the floor above (pianos, refrigerators, waterbeds, etc.) and avoid being beneath those areas.
In a house with no basement, a dorm, or an apartment: Avoid windows. Go to the lowest floor, small center room (such as a bathroom or closet), under a stairwell, or in an interior hallway with no windows. Crouch as low as possible to the floor, facing down, and cover your head with your hands of other protective coverings (such as overcoats in a closet). A bath tub may offer a shell of partial protection. Even in an interior room, you should cover yourself with some sort of thick padding (mattress, blankets, etc.), to protect against falling debris in case the roof and ceiling fall.
In an office building, hospital, or nursing home: Go directly to an enclosed, windowless area in the center of the building — away from glass — and on the lowest floor possible. Don't take shelter in halls that open to the south or west. Crouch down and cover your head. Interior stairwells are usually good places to take shelter, and if not crowded, allow you to get to a lower level quickly. Stay out of elevators; you could be trapped in them if the power is lost.
In a mobile home: Get out! Even if your home is tied down, you are probably safer outside, even if the only alternative is to seek shelter out in the open. Some communities require tornado shelters in mobile home parks. If your community has a tornado shelter, go there fast. If there is a sturdy permanent building within easy running distance, seek shelter there. Otherwise, lie flat on low ground away from your home, protecting your head. If possible, use open ground away from trees and cars, which can be blown onto you.
At school: Follow the drill! Go to the interior hall or room in an orderly way as you are told. Crouch low, head down, and protect the back of your head with your arms. Stay away from windows and large open rooms like gyms and auditoriums.
In a car or truck: Vehicles are extremely dangerous in a tornado. If the tornado is visible, far away, and the traffic is light, you may be able to drive out of its path by moving at right angles to the tornado. Otherwise, park the car as quickly and safely as possible — out of the traffic lanes. (It is safer to get the car out of mud later if necessary than to cause a crash.)
Get out and seek shelter in a sturdy building. If in the open country, run to low ground away from any cars (which may roll over on you). As a last resort, find a below-grade culvert. Lie flat and face-down, protecting the back of your head with your arms.
Many people mistakenly think an overpass or bridge may provide safety, but those are among the worst places to seek shelter because they put you at greater risk of being killed or seriously injured by flying debris. Winds under an overpass can become channeled, blowing you or carrying you out from the underpass. If you do are unable to get out of your vehicle and must remain, put on your seat belt, lower yourself below window level, and cover your head with your hands or blanket.
In the open outdoors: If possible, seek shelter in a sturdy building. If not, lie flat and face-down on low ground, protecting the back of your head with your arms. Get as far away from trees and cars as you can. They may be blown onto you in a tornado.
Learn more at the NOAA Storm Prediction Center's Tornado Safety web pages