Lightning cracked open the sky to the south and a strange series of dry winds tumbled in from the north. The sky turned green and wet, storms followed the wind, and rain began to pelt the ground. The clouds swirled and heaved, tossing tree branches, leaves and debris through the mostly deserted streets.
The old timers living in Tornado Alley—a narrow avenue cutting the country in half— seemed to know instinctively that something big was coming. Then someone spotted it and rumors spread fast. A funnel cloud disappeared as quickly as it formed. A spiraling dark shape formed north of town, stirring up the farmland. Then it hit, a tornado scraped the ground like the dragging finger of God. There was little warning, no time to prepare.
You just hope you’re near a cellar when it happens.
Like all of the deadly tools in Mother Nature’s arsenal of catastrophes, a tornado is an unstoppable force that can easily ravage anything and everything in its path, laying to waste an entire community in a single afternoon and causing billions of dollars worth of damage, most times without so much as a warning. It is important to know what to do.
The United States is inundated with tornadoes, as it experiences more annually than any other country on Earth (three out of four tornadoes happen in the U.S.) The most active area for tornadoes is known as “Tornado Alley,” where more than 500 twisters touch down every year. The area of Tornado Alley is roughly made up of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Iowa, Missouri, Arkansas and Louisiana.
Although Texas reports more tornadoes than any other state, Kansas and Oklahoma experience the most per square mile. A tornado can occur anytime of the year.
These deadly funnel storms develop when there is an abundance of warm, moist air to cause vertical movement, atmospheric instability (like from a rainstorm) and a “trigger,” which can be a cold front or converging winds that help lift the moist air.
One of the reasons Tornado Alley experiences so many tornadoes is its proximity to the Gulf of Mexico. The warm, moist air from the gulf collides with the cool, dry air from the Rocky Mountains and Canada, which forms a cumulonimbus supercell. These tumultuous clouds form many funnel clouds of swirling moisture and rain, but these clouds are not considered tornadoes until they touch the ground.
These twisters come in various forms, including a landspout, multiple vortex, and waterspout, although the most common type (and one most recognized as a typical tornado) is a visible condensation funnel.
Tornadoes possess immense power and can cause hundreds of deaths each year (in 2011, tornadoes caused 553 deaths in the U.S.; in 2015, tornadoes caused 36 deaths in the U.S.) Some are able to easily destroy an entire neighborhood, literally erasing the houses from the street. A town’s infrastructure can be severely destroyed, as gas and electricity lines become severed.
PREPARE TO SURVIVE
Once a tornado is barreling down on your home, time to prepare is gone. Most times, there is little to no warning as when a tornado will hit, so the best action you can take if you live in a tornado-prone area is to prepare for them the best you can. Board up windows, reinforce outside doors, park your cars in the garage as close to the garage door as possible (to help reinforce it), bring in outside furniture so they don’t become projectiles, and trim any dead branches from nearby trees.
Many times before a tornado hits, a “watch” will be issued. This informs residents that conditions are favorable for a tornado. Always keep the TV or radio on and listen for warnings. There are a variety of tornado warning apps for smart phones that can help in this capacity. Take a tornado watch as an opportunity to account for everyone and prepare for the worst. If a tornado is spotted, a “warning” will be issued.
Ideally, you will have assembled a tornado survival kit and it is kept in your basement or in a room that is the most central in your house, likely a bathroom or a closet that has no windows and is surrounded by other rooms. Because a tornado only lasts a few minutes (but the storm could last much longer), a combination tornado/severe rainstorm kit is best. It should include all of the necessities you would find in a kit designed to sustain you for up to a few days, with a few additional things specifically for a tornado.
Consider including in your kit rescue tools such as pry bars, hammers and a couple of small saws. Pack a small radio that has a weather band, and include a couple of flashlights that can be powered by alternate sources.
You may become trapped in debris, so have on your person (on a lanyard around your neck) a whistle, one for each person. Also to be kept in your shelter are work boots, heavy gloves and a helmet (bicycle helmets work great) for each member of your party. The most common injury during a tornado is to the head.
Preparing for the worst must be done ahead of time. After a warning or a watch has been issued, heading to the store to gather supplies is foolish and very dangerous.
- NOAA weather radio (with automatic alert, SAME capability, and battery backup)
- Flashlight or headlamp with spare batteries
- First aid kit
- Food for three days
- Water for three days
- Entertainment (books, crayons, cards, etc.)
- Post-disaster tools: shovel, pry bar, hammer, saw
Sometimes, when a tornado is headed your way, it is best to abandon everything and head to the shelter. Most houses built in the Midwest have basements, which is an adequate place to ride out the potential dangers of a tornado (the best place would be in a purpose-built tornado shelter).
Once in the basement, stay away from any windows, and avoid taking refuge directly under any known heavy items on the first floor (such as refrigerators and other heavy appliances). Barricade yourself under a mattress or heavy blankets to protect you from any flying debris.
If a basement isn’t available, the next best place to weather a tornado is to find the lowest point in your house and go there. It should be a bathroom, closet, stairwell, or even a small alcove, anywhere that is small, surrounded by internal walls, and has no windows. Cover yourself with thick blankets and stay together. If you are in a high-rise building, pick a place in a hallway in the center of the building. You may not have enough time to go to the lowest floor.
Center hallways and utility closets are often the most structurally reinforced part of a building. If you live in a mobile home, find a nearby building to take shelter in. Mobile homes have very little structural integrity and can be damaged by the most moderate of winds.
AFTER THE STORM
Even after a tornado has passed, there is still a good chance for severe injury. Tornadoes tend to leave a path of destruction wherever they go, which means that downed power lines, sharp debris, floods, fires and other hazardous situations are going to be everywhere. Depending on the severity of the twister, houses and buildings could have collapsed (or worse, be on the brink of collapsing) and roads might be blocked.
Leave the confines of your shelter carefully and move around with caution. Assess your house or building you were in to see if it has maintained is structural integrity. Pay close attention to fallen power lines and any wires in puddles. In addition, do not use a lighter or match indoors in case of fuel or natural gas leaks.
When travelling, be mindful of emergency personnel and don’t block access roads. People are susceptible to injury while they are working to rescue others, clean up the mess or even move around an affected area.
Each year, many people are killed or seriously injured by tornadoes despite the modern technologies that sometimes afford an advance warning. Many believe they were personally threatened. Household preparedness in cases of extreme weather—such as a tornado—could save your life. Once you receive a warning or you yourself observe the signs that are usually precursors to tornadoes, you must make the decision to take shelter before it strikes.
Quick action in the face of a tornado might be the difference between life and death.
• Immediately provide first aid and get help for injured or trapped persons.
• Keep listening to radio, watching television or a NOAA weather radio for updated information.
• Look for fire hazards. Clean up spilled medications, bleaches, gasoline or other flammable liquids immediately.
• Watch out for fallen power lines or broken gas lines and report them to the utility company.
• Turn off your utilities if there is a danger to your structure/house.
• Avoid damaged areas and stay out of damaged structures.
• Be mindful of emergency personnel and do as instructed.
• Wear appropriate clothing: long pants, a long-sleeved shirt and sturdy shoes.
• Use battery-powered lanterns or flashlights. Never use candles or matches.
• Examine your house and make sure it is not in danger of collapsing.
• Watch your pets and keep them well contained.
• Check for gas leaks. Turn off the gas using the outside main valve.
• Look for electrical system damage. If you see sparks or broken or frayed wires, or if you smell burning insulation, turn off the electricity at the main fuse box or circuit breaker.
• Take pictures of the damage, both of the building and its contents, for insurance claims.
• Use the telephone only for emergency calls. Telephone lines are frequently overwhelmed in disaster situations.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the Doomsday 2016 issue of American Survival Guide.