As someone who has lived in Alabama all her life, I am no stranger to the threat of tornadoes. My first tornado experience was when I was four and my non-English speaking grandmother was staying with us. My dad trying to explain a tornado in Italian was more memorable than the actual tornado, but I do remember my neighbors having a tree through their living room. My family has always been weather aware, but not necessarily compliant. I remember sitting in the dark (the power had gone out) in my parents living room (where the entire back wall is glass) watching the wind swirl and throw branches around. It turns out that a tornado had touched down less than a mile from us. So yeah, we did not heed the suggestion to go to our safe place.
Because of the current warning system, most people don’t take tornado sirens seriously. The sirens start wailing as soon a warning is issued anywhere in the county. I hear the siren, turn on the tv, see that the storm is on the other side of the county, and go back to whatever I was doing.
That all changed on April 27.
I had been aware that we were at a VERY high risk for severe weather and that our local (and semi-famous) weatherman was practically foaming at the mouth in both panic and excitement. I paid attention, headed the warnings, went home early, and prepared my safe place.
(Of course, this was after my mother woke me up with a panicked phone call at 5 am because there was a confirmed tornado in my area. Where was I? Asleep. I made it to the bathroom with the cat just as the house started to shake.)
But not everyone was paying as close attention as I was. Not everyone was aware that the threat was as high as it was, that EF5 tornadoes had already ripped through Mississippi and was coming our way. They, like most people, ignored the sirens. Some may have turned on the tv and were able to get to someplace safe just in time. Two friends of mine who didn’t have cable didn’t realize that the massive Tuscaloosa tornado was bearing down on them until they heard the tell-tell train sound and ran for the closet. They were lucky. Others were not.
Which is why you cannot depend on outdoor sirens for your warnings. They are not always accurate, they don’t always go off in time, and they may not even pertain to you.
If you live in an area where you have a chance of tornadoes (which let’s face it, is the entire US), then you need a plan of action. You need to be aware of the weather at all times and have a safety plan. Here is what I suggest:*
- Find the best way to get the warnings. The National Weather Service suggests a NOAA Weather Radio. You program it to your area/county so you get warnings for your area. These are not the old school weather radios that go off every 25 seconds. These are accurate and very reliable. Make sure you have fresh batteries. Another option for people with iPhones is the iMap Weather Radio. Yes, it’s $10, which is a lot for an app, but it’s incredibly robust. You can set it to receive the kinds of warnings you want to get (everything from tornadoes to wildfires to hurricanes) and it uses your GPS chip to send you warnings for the area you are currently in. I have this app and I absolutely love it. The alert is very loud and strong so you are sure to hear it, even at night.
- Understand what the warnings mean. A tornado watch means conditions are ripe for a tornado to form. A severe thunderstorm warning is issued when the radar shows a strong thunderstorm that is capable of producing large hail and straight line winds. This should not be taken lightly as straight line winds are just as dangerous as tornadoes. A tornado warning means that the severe thunderstorm is capable of or already has formed a tornado. If a tornado warning is issued for your immediate area, you should be in your safe place. A tornado emergency is exactly what it sounds like. It is when a tornado is on the ground, in your area. You should seek safety IMMEDIATELY .
- Have a safe place. Your safe place should be where you go when a tornado warning is issued for your immediate area. A safe place is always on the ground floor or a basement if you have one. If you live in a mobile home, you should locate the nearest underground storm shelter or someplace else safe. You should not be in a mobile home during a tornado. If you don’t have a basement, your safe place should be the most interior room of your home. It should have no windows and if possible, not touch any outside walls. A bathroom or closet is an ideal safe place. If you live on the second story or above in an apartment complex or condo, make friends with a neighbor downstairs. Manners or awkwardness should not get in the way in the face of severe weather. Being safe should be your top priority.
- Make a readiness kit. It can be as robust (with documents, food, water, etc) or it can be simple. Mine simply has two flashlights, lots of batteries, and a small first aid kit. If you have children, yours should include helmets. The majority of people who die during severe weather are killed from falling debris. So protect your heads.
- Stay alert. Know when severe weather is headed your way by following your local news and/or metorologist on facebook and twitter. During and after the April 27th tornadoes, social networking was how everyone communicated and spread the news about the damage and where to send help. Read local weather blogs, watch the local news, and pay attention.
*I am not a safety expert nor a meteorologist. I am just a girl who is determined to never be caught unaware of the weather. Take my advice as you wish.