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5 Important Things to Know Before a Tornado Hits

 by Patricia Lynn Henley   Posted on November 19 2013

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This week the Midwest has been battered by tornados, which are one of the most violent and destructive type of storms nature has in its arsenal.

Created from a powerful thunderstorm, a tornado's whirling winds can reach 300 miles per hour, and the path of destruction can be more than a mile wide and 50 miles long.

There is no guaranteed way to survive a tornado, but there are steps you can take to minimize the danger and maximize your safety.

  1. Be prepared

    Gather emergency supplies, such as food, water, medications, batteries, flashlights and important documents (deed, insurance policies, birth certificates, etc.). Check that your vehicle has a full tank of gasoline. Have a plan (and practice) how each household member will communicate with the others if a storm hits unexpectedly. Know how the local community warns residents, whether it be a siren, or radio or TV announcements.
  2. Understand the different terms

    A "tornado watch" means tornadoes are possible in and near that area. Check the supplies in your safe room or area, determine where all your household members and loved one are, and be ready to act quickly. A "tornado warning" means a tornado has been sighted on the ground or by radar; take shelter immediately.
  3. Watch for the signs of a tornado

    Pay attention to changing weather conditions, and watch for approaching thunderstorms. Danger signs include a dark, often greenish sky; large hail or heavy rain followed by dead calm or a fast, intense shift in the wind; a large, dark-low-lying cloud -- especially if it starts rotating; a loud, continuous roar or rumble, which doesn't fade in a few seconds the way thunder does; small, bright, blue-green to white flashes at ground level near a thunderstorm; or whirling dust and debris on the ground under a cloud base (not all tornados have a funnel). If you see any of these signs, be ready to take shelter. The steps you take will depend on where you are when the tornado strikes.
  4. Know where to take shelter

    • The best possible choice is to have prepared a storm shelter in advance. An aboveground safe room typically costs $6,600-$8,700 for an 8'x8'x8' space in new construction or $6,500-$10,600 to add one as part of a remodeling project. Having an in-ground storm shelter installed typically costs $4,000-$22,000 or more, depending on what is included.
    • If a storm shelter isn't available, pick a place indoors, preferably in a basement or first-floor room or hallway. Avoid windows and put as many walls as possible between you and the outside. Put on sturdy shoes and a helmet, if one is available. Get under a sturdy table or other solid furniture, and use your arms to protect your head and neck.
    • In a high-rise building, go to a small interior hallway or room on the lowest floor possible -- and again, have as many walls as possible between you and the outside. Crouch down and cover your head.
    • If you're in a trailer or mobile home, get out immediately and go to the lowest floor of a sturdy nearby building or storm shelter. Even if tied down, mobile homes offer little or no protection against tornadoes.
    • Vehicles are extremely risky in a tornado. If the tornado is visible but far away and traffic is light, you might be able to get out of its path by driving at right angles (perpendicular) to the tornado. However, never try to outrun a tornado in a car or truck in an urban or congested area. If at any point your vehicle is hit by flying debris while you are driving, pull over, park and leave the vehicle immediately and find the safest possible shelter. If possible, find a flat area that is noticeably lower than the level of the roadway, such as a ditch or culvert. Do not get under an overpass or bridge and get as far away from trees and cars as you can, as they could be blown on top of you.
    • In a school, shopping mall, theater, church or other public location, move as quickly as possible to an interior bathroom, storage room or other small enclosed area, away from windows and on the lowest floor possible. Crouch face-down and protect your head with your arms. If there is no time to get to a safer area, get under seats, pews or any other sturdy or secured seating or furniture.
  5. Exercise caution after the tornado passes

    There are a number of potential hazards in the aftermath of a tornado, from broken glass, nails and other sharp objects, to power lines and puddles with wires in them. There might be leaking natural gas pipes or fuel tanks nearby, so do not use matches or lighters. Stay out of heavily damaged buildings, which could collapse without warning. If you are trapped under debris, try to attract attention to your location by yelling or banging on something.

Unfortunately, even with radar technology, tornados can occur without any warning. Planning ahead and knowing what to do when a whirling storm hits can increase your chances of surviving, preferably unhurt.
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