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  • Everything You Need to Know About Tornadoes

    No matter where you live in the United States, you’re not immune from tornadoes. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), every single state in the U.S. has experienced a tornado. That means no matter where you live, learning about and preparing for tornadoes is important.

    In order to prepare most effectively, learn about these twisting phenomena. Once you know more about tornadoes, you can use your knowledge to prepare as best as you can.

     

    What is a Tornado?

    Tornado 01Let’s start off with the basics. Chances are you’ve at least seen a picture of a tornado, which means you know what one looks like. But what exactly is a tornado?

    According to The National Severe Storms Laboratory, a tornado “is a narrow, violently rotating column of air that extends from the base of a thunderstorm to the ground.” That’s a pretty good description. Tornadoes, however, are naturally invisible, since they’re made up of air. The reason we are able to see a tornado is due to the fact that the vortex is made up of water droplets, dust, and debris.

    Tornadoes form when warm, moist air (usually from the Gulf of Mexico) collides with cool, dry air (from the North, usually from Canada). This collision of air pressures destabilizes the atmosphere, causing changes in wind direction. When this change occurs, wind speed also increases, which causes the spinning effect we attribute to tornadoes. As mentioned above, the reason we can see this spinning air is because of all the extras the vortex picks up with it.

     

    Tornadoes on Radar

    The United States is the most tornado prone country in the world. NOAA reports an average of over 1,000 tornadoes in the U.S. every year. The next country in line with the most yearly tornadoes is Canada with roughly 100 twisters annually. So congratulations, America, on having the most tornadoes.

    Tornado Alley Infographic - via LiveScience Tornado Alley via LIveScience (click to enlarge)

    Although the United States wins when it comes to tornado count (if you can call that “winning”), most of the states aren’t tornado prone. There are a few states, however, that make up what is known as Tornado Alley. These states are in the Midwest and start in Texas, then up through Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota. Don’t forget about Colorado and New Mexico which also see their fair share of twisters. Tornado Alley can also spill into Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, and parts of Ohio.

    Tornadoes struggle to form in the winter months, but they can start coming as early as March. Spring is the official start of tornado season. Tornadoes will begin to form more frequently in the Southern Plains, and from there work northward. Tornado season begins to wind down in the Northern states and the upper Midwest around June or July.

    But, just because there’s a season set for these twisters doesn’t mean they follow the rules exactly. Sure, spring sees the most tornadoes (all the way up through July), but they can still form before or after their expected dates. Likewise – as mentioned above – they can form in any state. For example, a tornado struck Salt Lake City, Utah back in 1999. To throw us off even more, the tornado occurred in August. If we’re following the rules of tornado season and where tornadoes generally form, both the location and the month should dictate that a tornado just shouldn’t have shown up in Salt Lake City in August. But, as is typical with natural disasters – especially tornadoes – we just can’t predict when or where they’ll spring up.

     

    Tornado Damage

    From thin to thick, tornadoes vary greatly in size and form. That doesn’t mean, however, that size determines strength. Some small tornadoes can be at the strongest measurement, whereas a wide tornado can be fairly weak. But no matter what size a tornado is, you should take cover anyway. Even a weak tornado can cause injury or death.

     

    Tornado Ratings

    16 June 1992 Chandler Tornado EF 5 Chandler, MN Tornado (EF 5), June 16, 1992

    Tornadoes are ranked based on the Enhanced Fujita scale (EF), which replaced the original F-scale in 2007. While similar, there are a few differences in how it’s measured (the image to the side shows how the EF scale gets its rankings). Once wind gusts reach 65 miles per hour, the lowest level of the EF scale is reached (EF0). After that, the rankings rise as the winds increase. An EF5 constitutes wind speeds over 200 mph.

    While EF5’s are obviously devastating, even the weakest EF0 can bring about lots of damage and injury. Just because a tornado isn’t an all-out howler doesn’t mean you aren’t at risk. After all, 65 mph is quite fast; it may just look slow when compared to the other speeds on the EF scale.

     

    Before a Tornado

    In order to be as safe as possible during a tornado, it is important to prepare in advance. Knowing exactly when and where a tornado will strike is quite nearly impossible. However, there are some things you can do to be better prepared.

     

    Be Prepared

    How does one prepare for a tornado? First off, make sure you have enough food, water, and other essential gear for at least 72 hours. The ideal place to keep this gear is in your basement or storm shelter, as the winds are less apt to reach down there and blow everything away.

    Empty Shelves - TornadoFollowing a tornado, power may be out for days, leaving you without a way to refrigerate your food, have light, air conditioning, and other comforts of life. Having food that won’t go bad if not refrigerated (freeze-dried food being a great option) gives you greater control over your diet. It is common for store shelves to be stripped bare before and immediately following disasters.

    If your power is out, having an alternate source of power can make a huge difference until your home’s power gets up and running. These smaller power sources can charge your cell phones, and depending on the size of the power supply, can charge laptops and even power your television. Having a bit of extra power on hand can make a huge difference following a disaster, especially once the sun sets and darkness falls.

    Shelter is something else that’s important to procure before a disaster. If your home becomes damaged so much that you can’t stay the night for fear of structural damage, having a tent or other form of shelter will keep you covered.

     

    Know the Signs

    You may not always be around a radio or television for tornado alerts, so knowing the visual signs of an imminent tornado is important in making it safely to a shelter in time. You’ll know there’s a tornado coming if you see the funnel cloud – that part is obvious – but there are some other, perhaps lesser known signs to look out for.

    green sky tornadoA dark, sometimes green sky can give good indication that a tornado is about to form. There is a lot of hail in thunderstorms associated with tornadoes, so as this hail begins to be whipped around, the light of the sun refracts off the hail, giving the sky a green tint. The sky won’t always be green before a tornado, however, so don’t be fooled if the sky just appears very, very dark.

    A loud roar – similar to a freight train – is another way a tornado may be heralded in. This is especially useful if you don’t live near a railroad, as the sound might be a bit out of place. The high velocity of the winds produce the howling, as well as all the debris the tornado is hurling around and smashing into.

    Another sign of a tornado is a strange calm after a thunderstorm. Tornadoes are not uncommon after a large storm, so don’t be surprised if you see a clear, calm sky followed by a tornado!

     

    Do Drills

    If you want to get better at a sport, you’ll most likely be doing drill after drill in order to get your skills up to – and way above – par. Likewise, if you want to be as safe and prepared as possible for a tornado, you’ll want to do tornado drills until you and your family know what to do without having to hardly think about it.

    Tornado drills will be pretty similar for each family, although there will be differences in your designated safe room in your home and other things depending on your location. Tornado drills should involve acting out what you should do during a tornado (see section During a Tornado below).

     

    Watch vs. Warning

    tornado watch

    Knowing the difference between a tornado watch and a tornado warning can help you better prepare. A tornado watch suggests that tornadoes are possible. This warning can cover entire cities, counties, and even multiple states. When a tornado watch occurs, that is the time to check and gather your supplies, review your emergency plan, and identify and locate your nearest safe room. A tornado watch may pass without incident, but it could very quickly turn into a more dangerous situation.

    A tornado warning means that there is a visual on a tornado, or has been indicated by weather radar. Once a tornado warning arrives, head directly to your safe room. Avoid window and open areas. Tornado warnings cover a much smaller area than tornado watches – perhaps a single city or county – but act as a warning to those in the area to take action immediately.

     

    During a Tornado

    The first step to take when you hear the tornado sirens going off (or receive the warning in some other way) is to take shelter. Where you find cover depends largely on where you are and what is available.

     

    Minimal/Inadequate Protection

    During a Tornado - Outside - via Ohio Weather Safety Outdoor Tornado Safety via Ohio Weather Safety (click to enlarge)

    Some locations just don’t provide adequate protection. Being outside is, of course, one of these places. Other shelters that provide inadequate cover are manufactured (i.e. mobile) homes and offices, malls, gymnasiums, and vehicles. The problem with manufactured buildings is they blow away far too easily. Malls, gymnasiums, and other open-plan buildings are too open.

    If you do find yourself outside when a tornado starts to form and there is no available shelter to run to, lay flat in a ditch or other low-lying area. Use your arms or another object to protect your head from flying debris. Avoid areas with trees, and do not take cover underneath an overpass. Doing so can put you at greater risk from the winds and debris.

     

    Moderate Protection

    While not always 100% effective, sturdy buildings – like modern houses – can provide adequate decent protection from tornadoes. Still, while inside a sturdy building, you’ll still want to exercise caution. Stay away from window, which can shatter and start flying through the air. In fact, it’s best to find yourself a central room on the lowest level of the building. A room such as that will provide you with the most protection.

    Even if you feel safe inside a sturdy building, still take cover. Use what you can find – blankets, sleeping bags, pillows, etc. – to cover up so if the howling winds do break through, your body will still be at least somewhat protected from flying objects.

     

    Best Protection

    If you live in an area that is constantly at threat from tornadoes, perhaps it’s time to look into a safe room or storm shelter. These safe havens will withstand nearly all strengths of tornadoes and greatly increase your chances for safely weathering the storm. FEMA has a guide on building a personal safe room, so be sure to check it out.

     

    Outdoor Safety

    Being outside during a tornado is one of the least safe places you can be. There is little to no protection, and between the buffeting winds and the flying debris, things could get unpleasant fast. One of the best things you can do during a tornado, no matter where you are, is to stay low to the ground, or even below it if possible. If available, lay flat in a ditch. This will help protect you from debris and other flying objects. Do not hide underneath an overpass. This could potentially channel the already high wind speeds, making them even faster. Besides stronger winds, there is usually nothing to hold on to, and dirt, debris, and other projectiles can be channeled through, making you a susceptible target.

    Should you be driving when a tornado comes, do not try and outrun it. Tornadoes can be dangerously fast, and can shift direction without warning. Pull over and park your car. If you see a noticeably lower area than the roadway you’re on, quickly make your way there and lie flat, covering your head with your hands. Otherwise, remain in your car with your seat belt on.

     

    The following video helps explain what you should do during a tornado.

     

     

    After a Tornado

    Once the winds have died down and the threat has passed, you can start surveying the damage and checking for injuries. But remember, just because the tornado has passed doesn’t mean the danger is over. A study done after an Illinois tornado showed that half of the injuries caused by that tornado came during rescues, cleanup, and other activities following the tornado. So while it is important to take care of yourself, others, and your home once the tornado leaves, it is important to do so with caution.

     

    Check for Injuries

    Tornadoes can be deadly. Caring for the injured should be the first thing you do after a tornado. Clean open wounds and cuts with soap and clean water. If you or someone near you is bleeding, apply pressure directly on the wound to help it stop. If you find somebody that is seriously injured, do not attempt to move them. Doing so could only injure them more. For more information on taking care of the injured, check out the CDCs post-tornado page.

     

    Damaged Structures

    Tornado damage

    Buildings can be badly damaged because of tornadoes, but you may not be able to see some of it. This includes some structural damage which can leave your home weakened. This is a potential hazard, so when the tornado passes and you start inspecting your home, be extra cautious.

    If you smell natural gas, or suspect there might be substantial damage to your home, you should turn off your gas valve. This will keep the gas from coming through into your home so you don’t have to worry about breathing it in. Likewise, if there is too much gas floating around inside your home, that has the potential for an explosion should some sort of open flame come too close. This is why using a flashlight is a better option than a candle or torch when checking out the damages.

    Similarly, shut off the main circuit breaker if you see any sparks, frayed wires, or other electrical damage. Sparks could jump up and catch your home on fire.

     

    Cleaning Up Safely

    Because there will probably be a lot of dangerous debris, be sure to wear the proper attire when cleaning up. Glass and other sharp objects can be anywhere, so wear sturdy boots, cloves, and long sleeves and pants. Pay attention to your surroundings, and don’t go into any building that has received extensive damage and may not be structurally sound. Remember, many injuries come after the tornado has passed.

     

    Disaster_Blog_Banner Tornado

  • Take Severe Thunderstorm Warnings Seriously

    Admit it: when the National Weather Service issues a severe thunderstorm warning, most of us respond with a yawn.

    Well, maybe we shouldn’t. So far this year, eight U.S. natural disasters have caused $1 billion or more in damage, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Six of those billion-dollar disasters were severe thunderstorms. (The tally doesn’t include the recent West Virginia flooding, because losses are still being calculated. Also, seven of the eight disasters were in Texas. Apparently, Mother Nature disagrees with the slogan “Don’t Mess With Texas.”)

    A thunderstorm is severe if it does one of three things: has winds of 58 miles per hour or higher, produces hail at least an inch or larger in diameter or creates a tornado. All of these components can be dangerous to both people and property.

     

    Wind

    Severe Thunderstorm

    Severe thunderstorms can bring gusts of more than 100 miles per hour, equivalent to an EF1 tornado. High wind can knock down power lines, lop off branches and topple trees on to homes and cars. It can knock vehicles off the road. According to weather.com, in 2014, high winds from thunderstorms killed 33 people and injured 240. This weekend, three people drowned in Lake Michigan when high wind whipped up the water.

    Prepare for high wind by removing dead and rotting trees and branches. Pay attention to weather reports and be willing to change plans. Hours before the Lake Michigan drownings, the National Weather Service issued a beach hazard statement that warned of dangerous swimming conditions. If weather reports say a severe thunderstorm is coming, bring in patio furniture and other things that can become projectiles.  Keep a cooler and ice around to store food in case of a power outage. After the storm passes, remain cautious. Assume downed power lines are still active.

     

    Lightning

    Lighning strikes severe thunderstorm

    Every year, lightning kills an average of 51 people and injures hundreds, according to ready.gov. A home in south Florida had its wall shredded by a lightning strike that also knocked out power. If outside, pay attention to weather reports and be ready to seek shelter if lightning is in the vicinity. If inside, stay away from windows, doors and plumbing – bathroom fixtures can conduct electricity. Unplug electrical devices to protect them from surges.

     

    Hail

    At least half of the cost of damage from severe thunderstorms is from hail, according to weather.com. Quarter-size hail can damage roof shingles. Golf ball-size hail can dent vehicles. Baseball-size hail can smash windshields and softball-size hail can poke holes in roofs. If a severe thunderstorm warning says large hail is possible, try to find a covered place for a vehicle, and find shelter.

     

    Flash flooding

    Flash flooding is the biggest killer from thunderstorms, taking more than 140 people every year, according to ready.gov. Prepare for floods by making an emergency plan with alternate travel routes to shelters. Six inches of fast-moving water can knock a person down and two feet can sweep a car away. Pay attention to flash flood warnings.

     

    Tornadoes

    Tornado with Damage severe thunderstormA severe thunderstorm warning can quickly become a tornado warning if the storm develops enough rotation. If a severe thunderstorm warning includes the following warning: "Severe thunderstorms can and sometimes do produce tornadoes with little or no advance warning," treat it like a tornado warning, suggests weather.com.

     

    Severe thunderstorms are frequent enough to be easy to ignore. Yet severe thunderstorms can cause severe damage. So far this year they’ve accounted for more than $10 billion in damage and 17 deaths. Next time the National Weather Service announces a severe thunderstorm warning, don’t shrug it off.

     

    Disaster_Blog_Banner - severe thunderstorm

  • When Hurricanes Go Inland

    Map Inland Hurricanes

    Take a look at this map from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. It shows how often U.S. counties have experienced a hurricane or tropical storm. Colored areas represent hurricane impacts. Notice how far inland the map goes: counties in Utah and Nebraska have experienced the remnants of tropical storms and hurricanes.

    Hurricane Sandy in 2012 was a great example of the broad reach of a hurricane. It affected 24 states – half the continental U.S. It was the second-most devastating hurricane in U.S. history, killing 157 people and causing $71.4 billion in damage.

    Even if you live inland, it’s useful to find out if you might be susceptible to a hurricane’s reach.

    Your risk from hurricanes is based on where you live, the structure of your home, and your personal circumstances,” said FEMA’s How to Prepare for a Hurricane.

    Flooding is the greatest problem when hurricanes head inland.

    To prepare, check your flood risk with FEMA’s flood mapping tool. Buy flood insurance in addition to regular insurance. Regular insurance will usually cover water damage from precipitation and wind. It won’t usually cover flooding. Buy it early. Flood insurance doesn’t take effect until 30 days after its purchase.

    If you live in an area that can be flooded, have an evacuation plan with a place to go and alternate routes to get there. Make sure animals are provided for. Many shelters won’t take pets. FEMA recommends you plan to evacuate the “5 P’s”: People (and pets), Prescriptions, Papers, Personal items and Priceless items.

    Hurricanes can create snowstorms. Hurricane Sandy combined with polar air to dump at least a foot of snow in more than half of West Virginia’s counties. The heavy snow collapsed buildings and toppled trees.

    tropical storm - Inland Hurricanes

    Hurricanes can create thunderstorms, hail and tornadoes thousands of miles from landfall. Hurricane Patricia, the largest tropical cyclone in the western hemisphere, hit western Mexico in October 2015. Although it dissipated quickly, storm remnants crossed Mexico and whacked Texas. Houston got 9.4 inches of rain in 24 hours, and a tornado touched down near the city.

    Hurricanes can bring wind far inland. Wind gusts from Hurricane Sandy measured 60-70 miles per hour around the Great Lakes. Flying debris hit killed a Toronto, Canada woman.

    It’s possible to prepare a home for all these weather events. Clean gutters and drains and waterproof a basement. Prepare for wind by removing diseased and damaged tree limbs.

    When hurricane remnants are in the forecast, store or tie down outdoor furniture, decorations, trash cans and anything else that wind can turn into a projectile. Also, close curtains or blinds. If windows do get broken, this will prevent shattered glass from scattering in the home.

    Finally, be prepared for power outages. Hurricane Sandy left more than 9 million utility customers without power. Two weeks later, more than 6 million in 15 states and the District of Columbia were still without electricity.

    “Depending on the strength of the hurricane and its impact on your community, you could be in your home with no power or other basic services for several weeks,” FEMA wrote.

    Ready.gov suggests ways to prepare for power outages.

    Have a fully stocked emergency kit including food and water, a flashlight, batteries, cash in small bills and first aid supplies. Keep a cell phone and other battery-powered devices charged and have an alternative charging method. Those who use a power-dependent or battery-operated medical device should have a backup power plan and tell their local utility so it can prioritize their home.

    Keep the car’s gas tank full and know how to manually release an electric garage door opener. A vehicle can be a power source, but not in an enclosed space.

    Before a major storm, buy dry ice. Fifty pounds will keep a fully stocked fridge cold for two days. Without it, an unopened fridge will keep food cold for only about four hours.

    Finally, prepare for price increases. Hurricane Ike, the third-most costly storm in U.S. history, brought an “Ike Spike” in gas prices all the way into Canada.

    In July 2015, former Hurricane Dolores caused record rainfall and flooding in southern California and Arizona. Yet the closest the center of the storm got to California was 300 miles west of Baja. At the time, it too weak to even be considered a tropical storm. What was left of Dolores caused flash flood watches in Nevada and farther inland.

    It just goes to show that coastal areas aren’t the only places that should prepare for hurricanes.

     

    Hurricane_prep_03 - Inland Hurricanes

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