How to Prepare for a Tornado: The Definitive Safety Guide
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Most thunderstorms are no big deal, right? Wrong. Every thunderstorm, no matter how big or how small, carries with it some danger.
From lightning strikes to high winds and even tornadoes, thunderstorms across the country cause property damage, cost Americans billions of dollars annually, and even take lives.
What’s more – they’re plentiful. About 16 million thunderstorms happen each year, with around 1,800 going on at any given time. That’s why it’s necessary to be prepared, and this guide will help you do that.
Why Prepare for Thunderstorms?
Though thunderstorms are dangerous, their power is often underestimated because they’re so common. Everyone experiences thunderstorms regularly, and that makes it easy to forget their unpredictability. Violent storms can cause a variety of other dangerous events, here are a few:
- Strong winds
- Flash floods
- Wildfires due to lightning strikes
The number-one thing you can do to protect you, your family, and your belongings from the dangers of thunderstorms – or any natural disaster for that reason – is to be prepared. But what, exactly, does that mean?
Being prepared means having the knowledge and supplies necessary to stay safe and handle emergency situations to the best of your ability. It doesn’t always mean you’re going to be safe, but it does improve your chances.
Tornado Emergency Kit
The first thing you need to do to be prepared is have an emergency preparedness kit. This kit contains everything you and your family will need in an emergency, as well as enough supplies to survive for three to five days.
Here’s a list of items that every emergency preparedness kit should contain:
- One gallon of water per person, per day
- Around 2,000 calories of non-perishable food per person, per day
- A mechanical can opener
- First-aid supplies to handle minor injuries, including splints, suture kit, antibacterial creams, bandages, and antihistamine
- Hand-crank or battery-operated radio, preferably a NOAA weather radio
- A week’s worth of all prescription medications
- Hygiene items such as toothpaste, shampoo, and feminine products
- Copies of important documents in a waterproof container; be sure to include driver’s licenses, birth certificates, social security cards, and insurance cards
- Flashlights and extra batteries
- A minimal amount of money in small bills
- An extra credit card
- Emergency contact list, including names, telephone numbers, and addresses
- If you have children, include items to entertain them, such as coloring books, cards, or board games
- If you have an infant, be sure to include diapers, formula, and anything else you’ll need
- If you have pets, have enough food and other supplies for them
For the elderly or anyone with a disability, make sure to include items to meet their specific needs.
Severe Weather Preparedness
Preparation for severe weather, including thunderstorms and tornadoes, happens well before a storm is spotted. To be ready and stay safe, here are things you should do on a regular basis, before a storm hits:
Keeping your yard clean of dead trees and rotting limbs protects both you and your property. It reduces the risk of limbs falling onto a person, vehicle, or even your home. If a tree is starting to die, removing it from the property guarantees it won’t uproot or snap and fall during high winds.
Secure Outdoor Objects
When there’s a chance of severe weather, secure your outdoor items to the ground. From picnic tables to fuel tanks, high winds can topple and blow huge items around, causing damage and making cleanup more difficult. Take small, easy-to-move items indoors.
Watch vs. Warning
If your area is at risk of severe weather, know what to be prepared for. NOAA weather radios keep you informed of National Weather Service weather alerts. A severe weather watch means that conditions are right for severe weather to occur. A severe weather warning means that a thunderstorm has been reported or indicated by radar.
Just to clarify:
- Watch = Possibility
- Warning = Occurring
Keep Activities Inside
If there’s a thunderstorm risk, postpone any outdoor activities or make alternate plans. You don’t need 15 kids outside during a thunderstorm for a birthday party. Either have it another day or have a plan B just in case.
Protect Pets and Livestock
While it may seem that pets and livestock should be able to withstand a thunderstorm, animals should be put indoors and out of harm’s way. They are susceptible to being struck by lightning, especially those who reside in open fields. Hail can also be dangerous to livestock without cover, and can cause injuries or even be fatal.
To keep them safe, secure livestock in a sturdy building, with plenty of food and water.
What to Do During a Thunderstorm
The most severe storms occur when one storm lingers for an extended time over a specific area. Only 10 percent of all storms are considered severe, which indicates one of the following:
- Hail with a diameter of at least one inch
- 58-mph winds or greater
- Produces a tornado
Because of their unpredictability, once a thunderstorm is in the area, there’s not much that can be done to prepare for the damage that may occur. Even so, there are things you can do to increase your chance of safety.
If you can hear thunder, you’re within reach of lightning – which can travel up to 10 miles outside of the storm. Hence, the lack of rain or thunder is in the distance is not a sign of safety. As soon as a storm is in your area, it’s time to head inside. And inside means completely indoors, not on the back porch and not in the front door. While thunderstorms can be beautiful to watch, they’re dangerous. Even standing in front of a window can lead to unnecessary injuries.
Regardless of what urban myth you’ve heard, rubber soles and tires do not protect you from lightning, so don’t think wearing sneakers means it’s okay to continue your golf game. It’s not – ever.
Shutter your windows when the storm starts in order to protect them from high winds, hail, and debris. If you don’t have shutters, close the drapes or blinds for added protection. Be sure to stand away from other glass structures, including glass doors and skylights.
Unplug electronic devices – including computers, television sets, and other items – that may be damaged if there’s a power surge or lightning strike. Avoid using items that plug in, as current can travel through them and shock you.
Avoid Corded Phones
If you need to make a phone call during a thunderstorm, do NOT use a corded phone or a cell phone that is plugged in. Electricity easily travels through phone lines and can actually electrocute you through the phone.
A thunderstorm is not the time to take a shower or do the dishes. The shock from lightning can travel through the water and pipes, making faucets and fixtures dangerous.
When it’s storming, be sure to avoid laying on concrete floors or leaning on concrete walls. While concrete itself does not conduct electricity, it’s often reinforced with steel, which does.
Be Aware of Natural Lightning Rods
Lightning often strikes the highest thing available, so be aware of solitary trees, TV antennas, power lines, or other high structures. If outside, try to make yourself smaller than surrounding objects to avoid being struck by lightning.
If in a Vehicle
If you’re in a vehicle when a storm hits, turn on your flashers and pull over until you can safely see to drive. While the rubber tires of the vehicle do not protect you from lightning, the hard metal top does and makes your vehicle the second safest place to be during a thunderstorm. Just be sure you’re not touching any metal in the vehicle, and if you’re in a soft-top vehicle, seek shelter as soon as possible.
If in the Woods
If you’re in the woods when severe weather hits and are too far away to get to a building or vehicle, seek shelter in a low area, preferably under a thick cover of small trees. Try to avoid dead trees or hanging limbs.
If in the Open
If you’re in the open with no shelters or vehicles nearby, get as low as you can in a ravine or valley. Crouch down, staying on the balls of your feet, and cover your head, making yourself the smallest target possible. While this protects you from lightning and winds, be cautious of flash floods, which cause the most storm-related deaths in the U.S.
If in Open Water
Being in open water during a thunderstorm is perhaps one of the most dangerous places to be. Head toward land as soon as signs of a storm appear. Stay away from metal on the boat and phone in for assistance if necessary.
Lightning Facts & Risks
Lightning is one of the main reasons that thunderstorms are so dangerous, and is one of the top three causes for storm-related fatalities in the U.S., with an average of 51 deaths per year and hundreds of injuries.
Here are some lightning facts that are important to know:
- Lightning occurs when there is a buildup and discharge of electrical energy.
- While anyone can get struck by lightning, over 80 percent of fatalities are men, aged 15 to 40.
- The chance of getting struck by lightning is one in 600,000.
- Most lightning deaths and injuries occur in the summer when someone is stuck outside during a storm in the afternoon or evening.
- Lightning heats the air around it to 50,000 degrees Fahrenheit, which is hotter than the surface of the sun.
- Because this air is so hot, it produces a shockwave, which we hear as thunder.
- There is no such thing as heat lightning; it’s actually regular lightning from a thunderstorm that’s too far away to be seen.
- It doesn’t need to be raining for there to be lightning; dry lightning is particularly common in the Southwest, where the rain evaporates before hitting the ground.
- To figure out how far lightning is, count the time between seeing the strike and hearing the thunder; every five seconds is about one mile.
There is a risk of being struck by lightning when any of the following occur:
- You see lightning
- You hear thunder
- There’s a loud static on AM radio
- There’s a buzz sound on the radio antenna
- When the masthead on a ship begins to glow, which is also called St. Elmo’s Fire
What to Do if Struck by Lightning
If you’re with someone who’s been struck by lightning, here’s what you need to do to keep them safe:
- A person struck by lightning does not hold an electric charge, so don’t be afraid to touch them.
- Call 911 immediately.
- Look to see if the individual is breathing; if not, perform mouth to mouth.
- Check for a heartbeat; if you can’t find it, start CPR.
- Look for burns where the lightning entered and exited the body
- There may also be nervous system damage, broken bones, or trouble with hearing and eyesight.
Tornado Preparedness Checklist
One of the most dangerous aspects of thunderstorms is their ability to spawn tornadoes. A rotating column of air extending from a cumuliform cloud, tornadoes are destructive forces that can be over a mile wide and extend for over 50 miles with winds in excess of 200 mph. While tornadoes can happen anywhere in the world, they most often occur in the U.S., with an average of about 1,200 per year.
Tornadoes typically occur when it’s warm, humid, and windy, and can also be formed from hurricanes and tropical storms. While the tornado itself is extremely dangerous, most damage occurs from the strong winds and flying debris carried by the tornado.
Since tornadoes form from severe thunderstorms, the precautions associated with storms should also be followed for tornadoes. Tornado safety plans should always include the following:
Anytime there’s a chance of a tornado, you want to do more than just head indoors – you want to get to the lowest floor possible, preferably underground. Once there, get under a workbench to protect yourself from falling debris. If that’s not available, cover yourself with a mattress.
If your home does not have a basement, move to a small, interior room with no windows. Do not worry about opening up windows or leaving doors open. Most buildings have enough leaks that the air does not pressurize to the point of breaking glass.
If you don’t have an appropriate interior room, hallways, under stairwells, and even bathtubs offer some protection during a tornado.
Often used in mobile home parks and community buildings, safe rooms are specifically designed to provide more safety during severe weather and tornadoes. These rooms are reinforced and designed to withstand high winds. If you do build a safe room, be sure to register it with your local fire department. That way if an emergency occurs and you get trapped in the room, the authorities will know where to look.
Assume the Position
Whether you’re in a basement or school hallway, get into a crouched position against a wall or solid structure. Cover your head and neck with your arms, and if it’s available, cover yourself with a mattress, blanket, or even towels.
Be sure to position yourself in a place that isn’t below heavy objects on the above floors. Things like pianos and waterbeds have been known to fall through floors during tornadoes, and can cause significant and even fatal damage.
Mobile homes and travel trailers are NEVER safe places to be during a tornado. Even if the building is strapped to the ground, these structures are often lifted and thrown. If you live in a mobile home, be sure to have an outdoor safe room or a place to go underground in the chance of a tornado.
If you find yourself in a vehicle and a tornado is approaching, seek shelter in a sturdy building immediately. If that’s not possible, you have a few different options depending on your situation:
- Outdrive it: If the tornado is far enough away and you think you can outrun it in your vehicle, do so. Move away from the tornado at 90 degree angles. Remember, tornadoes change directions frequently and without warning. It is NEVER safe to move toward a tornado for any reason.
- Secure yourself inside: If there’s no building nearby and the tornado is too close to drive away, secure yourself inside the vehicle. Put your seatbelt on, and lower yourself so your head and body are below the windshield. Protect your head and neck by covering them with your arms, and cover yourself with a blanket or jacket if possible. Vehicles often get lifted and tossed by tornadoes, but securing yourself inside lowers your risk of injury or death.
- Get lower: The only time you should leave your vehicle during a tornado is if you can get lower than the roadway. If there’s a ditch or ravine, get in it, and cover your head. If there’s something secured to the ground that you can get near or hold on to, do so. Be sure to avoid areas where things could topple on top of you. Bridges and underpasses are NOT safe and too often collapse to offer any safety.
If you’re stuck outside during a tornado and there’s no building or vehicle to get to, get in the lowest place you can find. A ditch, valley, or ravine offer some protection against the elements. Try to avoid places with debris that can be picked up by the tornado.
Pets and Livestock
During severe weather, animal behaviors change. They become nervous, agitated, and may be impossible to keep calm. Animals often sense tornadoes well before people do, so be prepared that it may be more difficult than normal to handle them.
If a tornado is in the immediate vicinity, do not worry about your livestock. Animals are not worth risking your own or your family’s safety. That being said, if time allows, here are some things you can do to increase safety for your livestock during a tornado:
- Never leave animals tied up or restrained outside.
- If time is limited, open up escape routes, allowing your animals to get to safety on their own.
- If you have a barn or building that is secure, bring animals into the shelter and provide food and water before the storm hits.
What to Do After a Tornado
After a tornado passes, it’s time to evaluate the damage and offer assistance to those who need it. First and foremost, seek medical attention for those who are injured. Emergency personnel may have trouble reaching people, so keep your emergency preparedness kit with you.
If your home is still standing, don’t assume everything is okay. Buildings get hit with projectiles and often suffer structural weaknesses during tornadoes. Just because it’s still standing does not mean that it’s safe. Proceed with caution.
Tornadoes can also expose homes, water supplies, and communities to hazardous materials. Be sure to talk to local authorities about proceeding when this occurs.
Protect Yourself with Preparedness
While there’s nothing that can guarantee your safety when an emergency hits, being prepared is your best bet. And when it comes to thunderstorms and tornadoes, being prepared can mean the difference between survival and death. That’s why it’s so important to protect yourself and those you love by staying prepared for the elements.
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