Currently Explains: Tornado Safety

When I think of tornados, I immediately think of The Wizard of Oz.

I remember first watching this fantasy film and thinking—a tornado, what the heck is that? And shortly after: thank God, we don’t have those in Pennsylvania.

But, unlike Dorothy and her sparkly red heels, there is a way for us non-fantastical, common folk to avoid, or at least adequately prepare for, this common weather phenomenon.

According to the National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL), these swirling storms of warm air and debris make contact with land about 1,200 times a year in just the U.S. alone.

With tornado season upon us—lasting from roughly March to July each year depending on which part of the country you’re in—it’s important to prepare yourself, your home, and your community for any extreme weather events that might be headed your way.

What?

A tornado is commonly defined as a violently rotating column of air that can reach wind speeds as high as 300 miles per hour. Tornados can be particularly devastating, as they’re known to destroy entire homes and send heavy objects, like cars, flying through the air. And although they can happen at any time of day, they are most known to touch land in the afternoon, between 3 and 9 pm.

Where?

Although a tornado can occur anywhere in the world, they are most common in the United States. “Plains” states—like Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas—make up a span of Earth that is particularly susceptible to tornadoes, known as “tornado alley”.

There is evidence that “tornado alley” is shifting southeast towards Alabama and Mississippi due to climate change. We saw this play out this March, as the South was repeatedly hit by severe tornados and thunderstorms. These southern storms also tend to occur later at night which makes them more difficult to track and harder to send out alerts for.

But how, do you stay safe in a tornado?

First, meteorologists say it’s important to listen for and follow a tornado watch—a warning to pay attention to the weather in your area—and, later, a tornado warning—used to indicate that a tornado has been spotted and action should be taken to ensure safety soon.

Experts say, however, that you should begin preparing yourself, your home, and your loved ones for safety as soon as a tornado watch takes effect.

This looks like wearing clothing that covers any exposed skin—to prevent injury from debris like broken glass during and after the storm—and gathering any materials you may need, like a flashlight or cherished items.

It might also look like gathering whatever materials you may need, while you’re waiting for the storm to end. Some things you might want to have packed and ready are things like, water, a flashlight, and a weather radio—something Tim McGill, Currently’s Chicago-based meteorologist, says is almost essential. 

“Make sure you have more than one source to get your severe weather alerts from. It’s been proven that redundant sources for getting severe weather warnings are what’s best, so don’t rely on just one thing.”

Once you’ve secured yourself, your loved ones and, if applicable, your most prized possessions, it’s time to get yourself in position.

Basements, bathrooms, and interior walls—if you’re in a building or structure—are among some of the safest places to be in the event of a tornado, according to Currently’s Philadelphia meteorologist, Gary Szatkowski.

“Flying glass is just one of the bigger hazards, meaning you want to get away from windows,” said Szatkowski. “During the event, try to get to the safest spot that you can and have talked about in advance with loved ones, so everyone knows where you’re going.”

For folks who live, or are found in, their automobile in the event of a tornado, he suggests that they try and find community shelter or lay somewhere flat on the ground.

What about afterward?

For homeowners: “Take photos of your property for insurance purposes, but avoid lighting any open flames on or around the site of damage; there are risks—[like] broken gas lines—and you don’t want to have an open flame around that. So a flashlight or something else that’s generating light that’s not an open flame, is important during those events,” says Szatkowski.

For community members: “There are now other organizations—like universities, larger school complexes—that are sort of clearinghouse for the preparedness side of things. If there are resources that your town has to prepare for storms, or in the aftermath of a storm, I would say the first thing to do is check.”