Tornado Safety -- Funnel Facts
Tornadoes are frightening realities. We can't prevent them or even predict where or when they will strike. Many of us aren't sure what we should do during a tornado. Some people aren't even clear about the difference between a tornado "watch" and a tornado "warning." But there are some precautions we can take to minimize danger - to people and property. When tornado season approaches, the watchwords are: Be informed and be prepared. Knowing the difference between a watch and a warning is a good first step:
- A TORNADO WATCH simply means that conditions are favorable for tornadoes to develop. In this case you should take precautions to protect you and your property, and listen to the radio to keep informed. Tornadoes are most likely to occur in the late afternoon on a hot spring day. However, tornadoes have occurred in every month at all times of the day or night. When a tornado "watch" is issued, be alert for changes in the weather. Be prepared to act quickly.
- A TORNADO WARNING means that a tornado has actually been sighted. If one is issued for your area, you should seek shelter immediately! There is little time for closing windows or hunting for a flashlight. It's a good idea to know where things are, and to have an emergency storm kit already prepared.
Separating fact from myth can mean the difference between injury and safety in the case of a tornado. The boxes below present the truth about four of the most common and dangerous "Tornado myths."
Before the storm hits...
A little planning can prevent unnecessary panic and confusion if a tornado does strike.
- Learn the warning signals used in your community. If a siren sounds, that means STAY INSIDE and take cover.
- Consider setting up a neighborhood information program through a club, church group or community group. Hold briefings on safety procedures as tornado season approaches. Set up a system to make sure senior citizens and shut-ins are alerted if there is a tornado warning.
- Put together an emergency storm kit including a transistor radio, flashlight, batteries and simple first aid items in a waterproof container.
- Make a complete inventory of your possessions for insurance purposes. Keep that list in a bank safe deposit box or other safe place away from home.
- Conduct drills with your family in the home; make sure each member knows the correct procedures if they are at work or school when a tornado hits.
When a tornado watch is in effect...
You can take certain precautions to lessen the danger.
- Move cars inside a garage or carport, if possible, to avoid damage from hail that often accompanies severe storms. Keep your car keys and house keys with you.
- Move lawn furniture and yard equipment such as lawnmowers inside (if time permits). Otherwise they could become damaged or act as dangerous projectiles causing serious injury or damage.
- Account for family members at home. Have your emergency kit ready.
When a tornado warning has been issued on the radio or by siren...
- Seek shelter immediately.
- AT HOME: In the basement under something sturdy, like a bench. If there is no basement, a small room in the middle of the house (a closet or bathroom is the best). Always stay away from outside walls and windows.
- AT WORK OR SCHOOL: Designated shelter areas are best. (See University Safety and Assurances webpage on tornadoes) for a listing of the shelter area for your building. Stay away from large open rooms like auditoriums and gymnasiums, and rooms with windows. Lie low with your hands covering the back of your head to reduce neck injury.
- IN SHOPPING MALLS: Go to a designated shelter area or to the center of the building on a low level. Stay away from large, open rooms and windows. Never seek shelter in cars in the parking lot.
- IN MOBILE HOMES OR CARS: Leave the vehicle. Seek a safe structure or lie down in a low area with your hands covering the back of your head and neck. Keep alert for flash floods that often accompany such storms.
After a Tornado...
- Keep calm. Stay in your shelter until after the storm is over.
- Check people around you for injuries. Begin First Aid or seek help if necessary. Always cooperate with local officials.
- Check utility lines and appliances for damage. If you smell gas, open the windows and turn off the main valve. Don't turn on lights or appliances until the gas has dissipated. If electric wires are shorting out, turn off the power.
- When you go outside, watch out for downed power lines.
- Notify your insurance agent and provide as much detail as possible about damage to your property. Follow the agent's directions on filing your claim.
- Take steps to protect your home and furniture from further damage.
- Clean and dry your furniture, bedding, rugs and carpeting as soon as possible.
- Board up windows and holes in the walls or roof.
- Don't be rushed into signing repair contracts. Deal with reputable contractors. If you're unsure about contractor's credentials perhaps your agent, claim adjuster, Better Business Bureau or Chamber of Commerce can help. Make sure the contractor you hire is experienced in repair work - not just new construction. Be sure of payment terms and consult your agent or adjuster before you sign any contracts.
- Keep receipts for living expenses beyond your normal ones (such as temporary quarters) and for temporary repair costs so you can seek insurance reimbursement.
Myths and Facts...
- MYTH: The best place to be during a tornado is in the southwest corner of a building.
FACT: Not necessarily. The SW corner is no safer than any other part of the basement, because walls, floors and furniture can collapse (or be blown) into any corner. The "safe southwest corner" is an old myth based on the belief that, since tornadoes usually come from the SW, debris will preferentially fall into the NE side of the basement. There are several problems with this concept, including:
- Tornadoes are not straight-line winds, even on the scale of a house, so the strongest wind may be blowing from any direction; and
- Tornadoes themselves may arrive from any direction.
In a basement, the safest place is under a sturdy workbench, mattress or other such protection -- and out from under heavy furniture or appliances resting on top of the floor above.
- MYTH: Tornadoes generally move from west to east.
FACT: Tornadoes can appear from any direction. Most move from southwest to northeast, or west to east. Some tornadoes have changed direction amid path, or even backtracked. [A tornado can double back suddenly, for example, when its bottom is hit by outflow winds from a thunderstorm's core.] Some areas of the US tend to have more paths from a specific direction, such as northwest in Minnesota or southeast in coastal south Texas. This is because of an increased frequency of certain tornado-producing weather patterns (say, hurricanes in south Texas, or northwest-flow weather systems in the upper Midwest).
- MYTH: UWM is protected by its proximity to Lake Michigan.
FACT: False! A waterspout is a type of tornado that actually forms on water, and tornadoes that form on land can cross bodies of water such as rivers and lakes. Thunderstorms do tend to weaken as they cross large lakes, but may form tornadoes when they reach the opposite shore. Tornadoes, especially the more violent ones, can also travel up and down hillsides. Therefore, a belief that your location is protected by a river, lake or ridge could prove to be a dangerously invalid one.
- MYTH: Big fat tornadoes are the strongest ones.
FACT: Not necessarily. There is a statistical trend (as documented by NSSL's Harold Brooks) toward wide tornadoes having higher F-scale damage. This can be out of more strength or out of greater opportunity for targets to damage -- or some blend of both. However, the size or shape of any particular tornado does not say anything conclusive about its strength. Some small "rope" tornadoes can still do violent damage of F4 or F5; and some very large tornadoes over a quarter-mile wide have produced only weak damage of F0 to F1.
- MYTH: Windows should always be opened to equalize pressure.
FACT: Opening windows to equalize pressure during a tornado is ineffective in reducing damage. Don't worry about the windows; worry about protecting yourself. Also, flying glass is a real hazard.
- MYTH: You can outrun a tornado in a car.
FACT: Don't bet your life on it. A tornado is unpredictable; you can't know which way it's going to go, or how fast. If you're in a car and a tornado is near, get away from the car and lie in a ditch or low area, protecting your head with your hands.
- MYTH: Mobile homes are safe if they are tied down.
FACT: A mobile home is NEVER safe in a violent windstorm such as a tornado. If you're in a mobile home when a tornado watch is announced, leave and go immediately to a safe structure. Or be prepared to take cover in a low area, covering your head and the back of your neck. Remember: If you're in a ditch or ravine, be alert for flash floods that often accompany tornadoes.
Sources: Information provided by Milwaukee County Emergency Government, State Farm Fire and Casualty Company, the National Coordinating Council on Emergency Management and NOAA.