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Tornado Survival Tips

How to Survive a Tornado
Submitted to SecretsofSurvival by Tracy Shultz, Copyright ©
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The following advice was submitted by a reader. Though not an expert, this post offers additional thinking to our first article on tornado survival.

How to Survive a Tornado

Tracy Shultz of Seattle, WA writes...


I wandered on to your site "Secrets of Survival" while hunting around on the internet for tornado survivor stories and then read your article on surviving a tornado. It's a quite thorough and well-researched primer on tornadoes and I look forward to reading some of your other articles. However, I'd like to make a couple of suggestions that might be helpful to add to the article and perhaps suggest an alternative view regarding survival tips. Plus a correction or two (and opinions). I mean this only to add on to what you've already written.

I'm not a meteorologist or storm chaser but please allow me to establish some credibility on the subject as follows:

I was born in Oklahoma City (1967) and grew up in central Oklahoma. I lived there until I graduated from the University of Oklahoma and moved to Seattle, WA in 1991. On two occasions while still fairly young I was in houses that were directly struck by tornadoes and have been in countless situations where the area I was at was under at tornado warning. The city I lived in from about age 5 to 18 was Moore, OK, a suburb abutting Oklahoma City on its south side.

That's where I rode out the two tornadoes as a kid (weak ones back in the mid-late 1970's...F-1 at best) but the town is much better known in tornado lore when it was devastated by the infamous "Moore/Bridge Creek" F5 on May 3rd, 1999. While not the deadliest tornado on record it still maintains the dubious distinction of being the strongest ever recorded (301 mph, revised down from the initial reports of 318 mph) and the most costly in terms of damage at over $1 billion.

Then on May 8th, 2003 nature (or Fate, God or whatever) decided to revisit Moore with a smaller but still devastating F4 that tracked along a similar path but slightly to the south of the 1999 F5, and at one point actually wiped out part of a subdivision on the East side of town that had just been rebuilt from the '99 tornado. My former home (where my mom still lives) was mercifully spared the wrath of both tornadoes as both went north of the house although the '03 tornado touched down on the adjacent block from our house...a very close call. However, I knew many people who lost everything except their lives to one or the other of the two tornadoes and it leveled the grade school I attended for 6 years (which was something I actually wished for quite often when I attended the school while sitting in the stifling 100+ degree non-air conditioned classrooms on late summer afternoons. But I digress).

In addition to all that, practically anyone who ever grew up in Oklahoma had tornado safety drilled into their head. Also, since I moved to Seattle I've become something of a tornado "junkie," learning everything I possibly could about them. Due to my experiences with them I have something of a love/hate relationship with tornadoes and am fascinated with and terrified of them simultaneously.

So pardon that long explanation but it seemed necessary before I start spouting off advice. Most people in central Oklahoma, which has the highest concentration of F-4/F-5 tornadoes in the country, will already know all of the following simply from personal experience, but it might be helpful to those in areas where they don't occur as often.

First, in addition to your already good advice concerning tornado watches and warnings, there are often other telltale signs that one may be about to strike. These don't always happen and when they do it doesn't mean one's about to drop for certain, but just some things to keep an eye out for (and I'll limit the scientific reasons for them since I have limited knowledge of the "why"...there are plenty of resources on the web that can explain them far better than I can):

1. Mammatus clouds are often associated with severe weather and tornadoes and are considered something of a precursor or leading indicator that heavy weather is on the way. If you see them in the sky it's usually a good idea to heighten your sense of alertness. ( )

2. Hail, especially very large hail, is often a harbinger of bad things to come. I think this has to do with the fact that hail size has a correlation with the height of supercell t-storms...the higher the altitude of the top of the storm then the further it has to fall and thus gets larger along the way down until it wipes out the windows and paint on your car.

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Generally the tallest supercells generate the strongest tornadoes.

3. Another common characteristic is if the sky turns a sickly and otherworldly shade of green. (As in the movie "Twister" when Bill Paxton's character says "It's going green.") As I understand it, the green color is a result of daylight being filtered through the aforementioned hail core.

4. You're right about a sudden stillness and the reactions of animals just prior to a tornado striking. Again, I'm not sure why this is except that animals seem to have a better perception than humans do. Also, in a classic supercell formation there's a rain-free gap sometimes between the main part of the storm and the tornado which generally is at the tail end of it (more on that below)

Some other observations:

1. Most people outside of Tornado Alley are unaware of the structure of the typical supercell t-storm. Often they think that if they've survived the initial stormfront then the danger has passed. Not true as in that situation the tornado is actually at the tail end of the storm and it's easy to be lulled into a false sense of safety that the danger has passed them by. Mammatus cloudsHere's a radar image of the '99 Moore tornado that shows a textbook example of what I'm talking about. Also, it illustrates the "calm" gap between the bulk of the supercell and the tornado which is tagging along as indicated by the hook echo.

Not all tornados form from supercells but the ones that do tend to be the most devastating.

2. Tornadoes are often wrapped in rain and hidden from view so just because one isn't visible it doesn't mean that there's not one hidden inside an intense rain shaft. Don't take chances on it as many people have discovered over the years.

3. Many people assume that if they can visibly see a tornado and it appears to be moving away from them then they're out of immediate danger. Not true as a rotating mesocyclone can drop satellite tornadoes several miles from the main funnel (which happened on May 3rd.) Also, long-track tornadoes often lift and then reform and drop down at different locations within the mesocyclone. So it's a good idea to also keep an eye on what's going on directly overhead.

4. One other thing you might want to mention is a common misconception many people have that taking shelter under an overpass will protect you. It won't, and is more likely to get you killed. Many people still believe that tornadoes will vacuum them up into the vortex and that a solid overhead structure will protect them. But that's not the way they work. They lift things into the air by sweeping them up from the side and then tossing them outside the funnel. Overpasses actually make things worse due to the "wind tunnel" effect where the restricted space actually increases the wind speed. At least 3 people died in the '99 outbreak from being swept from beneath overpasses. You may recall the now-famous 1991 video taken by a pair of reporters on a Kansas turnpike in the '90s where they took shelter under an overpass and filmed the tornado going over them. YouTube video of tornado here (assuming it works since YouTube is acting goofy today).

Problem was that it was a weak tornado (F-1 or so), didn't pass directly over them and the overpass was built with steel beams that offered them some lateral protection from the winds. However, it just added to the myth that overpasses were a good source of shelter.

Here's another overpass video, but not of the same one. It was obviously after the '91 video as by then word had got out that seeking shelter beneath overpasses was a no-no. This is evidenced by the state trooper who drove by after the tornado passed and scolded the people there via loudspeaker:

And one other link from NOAA.

Ok, and now a few points I might dispute from the article or that you might wish to reconsider or add as an alternate suggestion (and again, I mean this only as constructive criticism). Your original text in italics:

1. If you've heard there's a tornado warning in your area, call your local emergency management office or American Red Cross chapter about it if you care to know more. Also ask about community warning signals.

If you are under a tornado warning the last thing you need to be doing is calling anyone about anything, especially local emergency management, unless it's to report a tornado you've spotted, and then only if you're sure you're completely out of danger. Instead you should be taking cover plus it ties up emergency resources. All of the information you need should be thought out well in advance and whatever shelter you've designated should already be stocked with a radio and sufficient emergency supplies since you won't have time to be racing around trying to collect them before the tornado hits. Also (and this is an often overlooked suggestion) is that wherever you decide to take shelter it'd be a good idea to have a really loud air-horn prepositioned and within reach. The reason for this is because even if you've managed to survive the storm, you may end up under piles of debris or can't get out of your basement or storm cellar because of debris piled on top. An air horn will let rescuers know where you're at.

Also, if you're in an area served by natural gas utilities: no smoking and no kerosene lamps. Quite often natural gas lines are broken during severe tornadoes and it can take a while before the utility companies to shut down the mains. Plus, despite what you wrote about learning how to shut down your utilities you may not have that option if the controls have been swept away with your house. In the '99 tornado numerous houses went up in flames after it passed and in a couple of instances some burned down days afterwards when electricity was finally restored and ignited gas lines that were broken but hadn't been shut off.

2. If there's one constant with a twister, it's the sound that accompanies the tornado: it has most often been described as a deep rumble that builds into a roar.

Actually, that's not the case. They can have many different sounds or in some cases none at all, especially if one drops down directly on you. In both cases where I was in the houses hit by tornadoes there was absolutely no sound until they actually hit. One made a big boom as it crushed a screened metal back porch like a beer can and the other mad some rattling noises as it chewed up trees in the back yard and flung them at the house. If you can hear a tornado and/or feel a pressure drop, you are in imminent danger.

3. If there is no basement, go to an inner hallway or a small inner room without windows, such as a bathroom or closet.

A bathroom is best, even if not in the center of the house or building. The reason is that the pipes in the walls tend to provide better reinforcement. Also, at least in a house, a bathtub provides an extra measure of protection. The downside though is that so many residential bathrooms these days involve glass shower doors and glass is something you want to avoid at all costs in this situation since half of it will have to be plucked out of you later at the ER, assuming you survive. So if lots of glass in the bathroom, go with the closet route. The key is to put as many walls between you and the outside as possible regardless.

4. Go directly to the center of the room. Stay away from corners because they tend to attract debris. Get under a piece of sturdy furniture such as a workbench or heavy table and hold on to it for all you're worth.

I have to disagree with this to a degree since I don't think the science is settled on the matter. This is for two reasons: 1) If you're in a corner then debris can only come at you from outside the corner. If in the center of the room you'll be hit from all sides and end up in the corner anyway, along with all the debris. Seems to me it's be best to huddle there and use a sofa cushion as a shield for all the debris swept your way. 2) The other problem with being in the center of the room is the danger of collapse from above of a floor or roof. The problem is far worse if you're in a large space with long-span structural support, such as a gym, as you noted elsewhere, but to a degree it's the same in a home. The ends of any structural member or more likely to remain somewhat intact even if the structure fails. A beam will usually collapse into a "U" shape and you can survive under the little triangular portion at the edge.

If it helps add to my credibility, I'm also an architect with more than 17 years experience and have an extensive background working with structural issues.

5. Never try to outrun a tornado in a vehicle. Heavy rain, hail, and traffic may impede your movement, and tornadoes can travel as quickly as 70mph over dry land. Tornadoes can quickly change directions, and can easily lift up a vehicle and toss it through the air.

In the past few years tornado experts have begun to rethink this advice, at least in terms of it being a cardinal rule. It's true that a car is about the last place you want to be in while facing a tornado, but in some cases it may be your best hope, depending upon the circumstances. The new thinking is that if you're in a city or town where there's other traffic, stoplights, visual obstructions etc., then follow the traditional advice and get out of the car and into a shelter or ditch. However, if you're out on a well-paved highway or interstate you stand an excellent chance of evading a tornado, as long as you can clearly see it and the direction it's moving, even if it's coming directly at you. The best advice is to try and drive at right angles of the apparent path, but even if you can't it's highly unlikely that a tornado that might be following you directly down an interstate would be able to catch up with you. I believe the top speed a tornado was ever clocked at was around 70 mph. and even the pokiest vehicle should be able to drive faster than that on a good highway.

The trick is knowing which way it's moving. If it's moving at a cross angle to you (left to right for example) then chances are you aren't in its path. However, if it appears stationary but appears to be getting bigger, then that's a good sign it might be time to be leaving.

Some additional misc. info about tornado myths...:

Tornado Myths

Additional Tips from Tracy

One would be to get a NOAA Weather Radio. You're probably aware of them, but if not they sit quietly for most of the time but are activated by a broadcast signal in case severe weather is happening or about to happen in your area. Very handy in the middle of the night if you're asleep or during the day if you don't have the TV or radio on.

Here's the Wiki link if you want to tack it on: NOAA Weather Radio

The other thing would be to keep a sturdy pair of boots or shoes in your shelter or area of refuge. Seems like a no-brainer, but it's an often overlooked item. Let's say you're asleep and all of a sudden you hear tornado sirens. You bolt out of bed in a still-groggy state and sprint for your shelter and the last thing you're thinking of doing at that moment is fishing around in the closet for boots (and as far as I know, most people don't sleep with their shoes on). This way, if your house does end up getting damaged or destroyed but you survive, you don't emerge from said shelter to find yourself walking across walking across a debris field of broken glass and boards with nails sticking out in your bare feet.

Probably seems like an odd priority and there are other things you want to keep in your shelter as well, but if you've seen "Die Hard" or "Cast Away," you'll note that the protagonists in each faced enormous challenges in their respective situations by not having anything to protect their feet (even though neither was in a tornado situation).

Keeping an air horn handy

One other thing I noticed in the coverage of the '99 Moore tornado was that in several instances people had been trapped in their underground shelters or basements by all sorts of debris. In some cases they were able to push the shelter doors open from below but in others had to wait for rescuers to move the debris to get to them. Since phone service may go out in a disaster (and not everyone even has one in their shelter with them) it occurred to me that it might be a good idea to have an air horn or some other loud signaling advice to let rescuers know where you are.

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