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2021 Severe Weather Awareness: Week 1 - Day 4: Tornado and Severe Thunderstorm Safety

Okay, you understand the difference between watches and warnings, and now you have reliable ways of getting the alerts. What do you do when a warning is issued?

Unfortunately, tornadoes and severe thunderstorms are a way of life in the Tennessee Valley. You must have a safety plan in place BEFORE severe weather threatens, so that you can keep you and your loved ones safe when the weather becomes dangerous.

The safest place you can be during a tornado warning is a below-ground tornado shelter or a FEMA certified above ground tornado safe room. Both of these are specifically designed and rated to protect the occupants inside from the direct strike of a violent, high-end tornado. However, we know that simply isn't an option for everyone. Based on what type of home you live in, where you work, etc., your family's specific tornado safety plan will differ from someone else's. However, there are basic guidelines that you can use as a starting point to formulate your family's safety plan.

If your home has a basement, that is the best place to shelter if a tornado warning is issued. However, it's not as simple as just heading to the basement. You want to pick an area of your basement where you are able to get under something sturdy that can help protect you from falling debris or if the house collapses. This can be the basement stairs if you have access, or it can be a sturdy table or workbench. If your basement is partially underground, you want to choose the underground portion of your basement if at all possible, and do what you can to distance yourself from above ground exterior walls, doors, and windows.

Many people do not have access to a basement, though. If that is the case and you are in a site-built home, get to the lowest floor possible. If you're on the second floor, you head down to the first floor. Go to a small, interior room on the lowest floor. That can be something like a closet, a bathroom, a hallway, etc. Make sure that the room does not have exterior walls or windows. Avoid windows and sliding glass doors overall. These can shatter and then the wind carries that broken glass through the air as shrapnel.

If you live in an apartment complex or a dorm, you want to go to the lowest floor possible and into an interior room or hallway. If you have a friend or relative downstairs, make plans ahead of time to see if they will let you come down and shelter. Crouching under an indoor stairwell or in an interior windowless hallway is another option.

An idea we have mentioned for years is that if you live in an upstairs apartment of a complex, bake a cake or cookies and introduce yourself to an approachable neighbor on the lowest floor. Explain that you live upstairs and you don't have a safe place to shelter in the event of a tornado and ask if they would mind if you shelter with them in the event of severe weather. It's not the case for everyone, but most people are internally good by nature and would allow you to shelter with them so that you have the chance of being safe in a tornado situation.

If you live in a mobile home or some other type of manufactured housing, your guidelines are simple but complicated at the same time. Let me say up front, mobile homes offer wonderful affordable housing for a lot of people that otherwise wouldn't be able to afford a home. This is not a knock at mobile homes. I lived in a mobile home for the first 33 years of my life. However, mobile homes and even anchored manufactured housing... any type of home that is built off-site and then moved to its destination... is not built to withstand a tornado, not even a lower-end tornado. An unsettling number of our tornado death's in the viewing area over the past five years have been during what would very well be a survivable tornado in the vast majority of cases, an EF2 tornado or lower intensity, but those tornadoes struck mobile homes with residents still inside. Even a "weak" tornado can completely shred and toss a mobile home.

If you live in a mobile home or some type of manufactured housing, your plan is that you MUST LEAVE and head to another form of SITE-BUILT SHELTER. It is CRITICAL that you have this plan in place BEFORE a tornado threatens. Make this plan ahead of time on a calm weather day. Many communities have public shelters, although some do not. A friend or relative that lives in a site-built home or has a specifically-designed tornado shelter is another good option. A nearby restaurant or gas station is an option if you have nowhere else to go. The vast majority of folks in those places won't leave you out in danger. They will let you in so that you can protect yourself. Whatever you do, you cannot CANNOT stay in a mobile home during a tornado warning. You are putting your life in danger by doing so!

Being on the road in your vehicle during a tornado is just as dangerous as being in a mobile home. The best thing to do if you're on a the road and a tornado warning is issued is to head immediately but safely to the nearest site-built structure and follow the above outlined guidelines for seeking shelter. If you're on the freeway and you're near an exit, stop at that next exit and head to a gas station, fast food place, hotel, etc., and seek shelter. If you are too far away from site-built shelter or the tornado is directly approaching you, you are better off stopping and getting out of your vehicle and sheltering down low in a ditch or ravine than you are sheltering in your car. Even "weak" tornadoes can flip or loft a vehicle. DO NOT seek shelter under a bridge or overpass. Firstly, you are stopping traffic and causing a hazard there, including potentially blocking others from being able to get through and get to safety. In addition, the place under a bridge or overpass that people think is "safe" is up under the girders. This started because of infamous tornado videos from the 80s and 90s were people were LUCKY because a tornado moved NEAR where they were sheltering under an overpass and they were okay. However, putting yourself up under the girders like that actually puts you at a higher elevation, and wind speeds actually INCREASE as you go up in a tornado. The narrowing of the open space under a bridge or overpass also increases the wind speeds because of the wind tunnel effect. And just as dangerous, you are leaving yourself exposed in the open to all sorts of lethal flying debris!

Regardless of your plan, it needs to include provisions for your pets. Your pets are a part of your family and have to be protected from severe weather as well. Not all public tornado shelters allow pets, and you need to check in advance to see if your chosen shelter allows pets. Regardless of where you shelter, it is important that you cover your head and neck to try your best to protect your head and neck from injury. Blunt-force trauma to the head and neck region is one of the leading causes of death in tornado situations. As part of our severe weather awareness campaign, we will be detailing ways that you can protect your head in the event of a tornado strike.

As a critical part of your tornado safety plan, you MUST have a readiness kit in your shelter location or available to immediately grab and take with you to your shelter location. On Thursday of this first week of our campaign, we will be going into detail about readiness kits, good things to have in there, and how you can put together a severe weather readiness kit for your family.

After the severe weather has moved through your area, check the latest weather information to make sure the threat has really ended. Not all severe weather events are one single storm, and then it's over. Especially on tornado outbreak days, there may be multiple storms that threaten your area. As soon as it's safe to do so, contact loved ones by text or social media. Try to reserve calls for emergencies, especially if you are in a damaged area, because phone signals will be jammed with callers because of the emergency situation. BEFORE A STORM, designate an out of town relative or friend that as a point of contact that you inform of your condition and well-being after the storm is over. Make sure that you listen to the directions and instructions from local first responders, law enforcement, emergency managers, and other local area officials. Use flashlights instead of candles as damage from a tornado or other severe weather can cause gas leaks. If your home or neighborhood is damaged in a storm and you have to leave your location, be sure to watch for debris and downed power lines. If you come across a downed power line, ALWAYS assume that it is "live" with an electric current. As you are getting your shelter and readiness kit ready on the day of a severe weather threat, make sure that you have immediate access to closed-toe, hard-sole shoes. In the event you have to leave your location and walk across a tornado debris field, there may be broken boards, nails, glass, and other sharp objects that you may have to walk across. Those hard-soled, closed-toe shoes will help to protect your feet in such a situation.

In the coming couple of days, we will go into detail about having your readiness kit and putting it together, how to program a NOAA Weather Radio, and why having a bike helmet or some other kind of sturdy protection for your head may safe your life during a tornado!

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