April, May and June are the most dangerous months for killer tornadoes. Even though there are “tornado alleys”, where more tornadoes occur, a tornado can strike any time, anywhere in the United States.
Being in Oklahoma, I have experienced my share of scary weather. I made it through the largest and most destructive tornado in history, the F5 plus on May 3, 1999 Moore, Oklahoma tornado. I was in a cubbyhole under the staircase and heard, but didn’t see that one. The monster stayed on the ground for hours, killing 36 people in the Oklahoma City metro area. Moore, a suburb, was the hardest hit. Recorded wind speed was 318 miles per hour, and when the tornado hit Moore it was a mile wide and cut a path seven miles long through Moore. It turned north a block before reaching my house.
Four years later another F5 took the same path through Moore. By then I had a storm shelter in my garage, and watched the tornado from the top step as it came right at me. When I closed the shelter door, I was convinced that I would lose my home this time. It turned north at the same place again and I made it through another one.
I have learned my share while dodging these things. Most important – be prepared. The following are some tips on how to survive if a monster rips through your town…
Watch your local channels….If skies are threatening, don’t choose this time to watch a rented movie or a cable channel. Tune to a local channel and pay close attention. If the situation is dangerous, the meteorologists will likely break into programming to warn citizens.
Know what a wall cloud looks like and watch for a strong, steady rotation within the clouds….In Oklahoma there is plenty of information on what a tornado looks like when it’s in the clouds, but if you don’t know, go to the Internet for information. Be informed and knowledgeable. Sometimes a cloud is just a cloud and sometimes it’s not. You should know the difference.
Know what a tornado looks like….Yes, we have all seen (or seen pictures of) the classic funnel twisting its way across a town or prairie. But not all tornadoes look like funnels – some just look like clouds. However, a tornado on the ground will almost always have a debris cloud that may look like a dust cloud swirling under it. Watch for that.
At night it is very difficult to determine whether a tornado is approaching. Lightning will help you see what is coming. Also look for telltale flashes in the distance – these are electrical poles being hit by the tornado. A persistent roar usually means a tornado is approaching.
Have a plan….Everything goes better with advance planning. Know what you will do if a tornado approaches, and ensure that your family knows as well. It may come in the afternoon when one or both parents are at work. Your children need to know what to do in this situation, particularly where to go in case of emergency. If there is no tornado shelter or basement, covering yourself with pillows in the bathtub is usually a good plan. During the 1999 tornado, I put on a heavily-padded winter coat for protection and grabbed an OU football helmet from the closet. I’m more prepared now – we have hard hats and a shelter that is fully stocked with lights and batteries.
Talk to your neighbors. One or more may have a shelter and they may agree to allow you and/or your children to use it in case of a tornado. Most shelters will accommodate at least eight grown people. Be aware, however, that some people and most public shelters will not allow dogs or other pets in their shelters. You may have to make a tough decision in a crisis. Think about this in advance when you are not terrified.
If you live in a mobile home, your plans must include where to go when you evacuate. Yes, you have to get out of a mobile home if a tornado is approaching – there is no safe place to hide.
If you are in a public building such as a business or mall, stay there. You will be instructed on where to go within the building to stay safe.
If you are in an office building, get to the lowest portion. Use the stairs, not the elevator. In fact, the bottom of the stairwell is usually a good spot to wait out the storm. Never be around windows – you could get badly hurt by the breaking glass.
If you are in a church or similar building, go to the bathroom or interior hallway. Again, make sure there are no windows.
If you are in a car or truck, it is usually safer to abandon it and run to the nearest building. People who are experienced with tornadoes and know the direction that they normally travel may be able to drive at right angles to the tornado and get away from it, but for most people it is better to find a shelter.
If you are in a car or truck and there is no building, find a low area such as a ditch and lie face down in it, covering your head with your arms. Never take shelter under a bridge or overpass – a strong tornado will likely suck you right out of it. This was a hard lesson learned during the May 3, 1999 tornado – it cost some people their lives.
After the tornado, steer clear of downed power lines and puddles. Stay at or near your home and keep your family together. After the 1999 tornado, my lawn was full of broken glass, insulation, boards and other dangerous debris. Be very careful and know where you are stepping.
Just remember, that knowledge is power in an emergency. Prepare in advance and you will be fine during tornado season.