Having lived all my life in Tornado Alley, I’m as accustomed to tornado watches and warnings as people in Minnesota are to snowstorms. I can remember many sleepless nights through the years, when we were either up watching the weather or lying in bed listening to weather updates on the radio.
Over a period of time, one learns to cope with such things, unnerving as they may be. That’s not so hard when safe at home, but traveling brings another set of problems.
Tornadoes have hit all around us in recent years and a number of people lost their lives in these tornadoes. One actually struck a glancing blow on our small town a few years ago. There was a good bit of damage, and a woman trying to get from her car to a storm shelter was killed by a falling limb. Downed trees were blocking all the exits from town.
So we feel it only wise to take all the precautions we can. One should prepare for such natural disasters any time it is possible to do so. Once a storm is upon you, it’s too late to get prepared.
Currently we have a small storm cellar a few steps from our garage door. When tornado season is approaching, I always try to get the cellar cleaned out, which involves checking for snakes and spiders, removing spider webs and dead bugs, and sweeping and mopping out any accumulated dust and dirt, followed by spraying with insect killer.
We make sure we have several stacking plastic chairs, a working flashlight, candles, and a lighter of some kind in the cellar. We also keep drinking water and a porta potty, water for it, and bathroom paper, just in case of emergency. Since neighbors often use our cellar, we keep the porta in a box, out of sight. We also have a plastic tablecloth that could be strung up for privacy, should the need present itself. But so far that hasn’t happened.
We keep blankets in the cellar for days when a tornado watch is in effect. A concrete cellar can get really cold inside, especially with a cold rain falling on it. A few light blankets zipped up in the bag a heavy blanket came in serves well, and the bag protects the blankets from dust and bugs while the cellar is waiting for occupants to arrive.
We used to be concerned about a tree being blown down on the cellar door, blocking our exit, but have since removed the trees that could have been a danger. We still try to be prepared in case something else should be blown onto the cellar door. We usually take two cell phones into the cellar with us, to be used to help rescuers find us should the worst happen.
I also plan to take food, such as a metal box of crackers and peanut butter into the cellar before we put it to use this year, just in case we should be forced to spend more time down there than planned.
Anyone who has medications that are essential to life and well being should take them to their storm shelter any time they go, since they might be trapped in the cellar for a while or their meds might be lost should their house be destroyed by a tornado.
Those with small children and especially babies, should prepare according to need. For babies, extra diapers, bottles, formula, and clothing should be ready to go in case the need arises for the family to take shelter in a storm cellar or other shelter. Also food for older children should be packed in an emergency kit in case the family should find themselves stranded or trapped inside a shelter. And, as stated before, plan to take coats and/or blankets to avoid becoming chilled.
In our storm cellar at our former house, we built bunk beds so we could get some sleep on stormy nights. But our kids grew up and left home, my husband gets claustrophobic in a cellar, and I’m now more afraid of losing sleep than I am of tornadoes. So we have only chairs in our cellar now, since we tend to spend as little time as possible in it.
Even since we built the cellar, there have been a few times that we were caught off guard by a storm, with tornado sirens blaring, fierce winds, and hail. Sometimes it’s safer to stay in the house than to run out into a storm to get in a cellar. The young woman across the street from us once tried to get to her cellar with her two small children. When they started to leave the house, she decided to go back and get a light. By the time she found it and got back to the door, the storm had blown down two trees between the house and cellar. If she had gone ahead the first time, the trees would probably have fallen on them. So she opted to get them into a closet instead, and they were safe.
Safe rooms are a more recent invention to protect the occupants of a house from a tornado. These are usually built of steel and secured to a concrete floor or footing. It’s best to have them installed when a house is built, but one can be added later. My cousin’s house was destroyed by a tornado recently, but she and her sons were in a safe room one of the sons had built in the garage. I don’t know what he used for materials, but it apparently worked well, since none of them were injured in spite of the loss of their house, barn, and vehicles.
When caught in a house with no cellar or safe room, one should always try to get in a place where there are as many walls as possible between them and the outside wall on the side from which a tornado is approaching. A closet or bathroom is usually the safest place, as small rooms are less likely to have the ceiling fall in. In many of the local tornadoes, people have survived in a closet, unscathed, in spite of the house being destroyed.
Others get in the bathtub and cover themselves with pillows, blankets, or even mattresses for protection against flying or falling debris.
Before we built our current cellar, we once had a granddaughter visiting when a storm came up. It was literally hailing sideways, and needless to say, we were terrified. My main concern was where to put Ashley for protection in case the house was hit by a tornado. So I took my clothes hampers out of the cabinet in our bathroom, had her get in the cabinet, covered her with blankets, closed the doors, and leaned against them. Fortunately the storm passed on by and we were safe, but one never can know what to expect.
When selecting a place to ride out a storm, many things should be taken into consideration, like the location of chimneys and hot water heaters. In a tornado, chimneys often collapse and damaged water heaters can start a fire, especially gas ones. So it’s best to stay away from them if possible. And of course stay far away from all windows in any storm. Shattered glass can be carried a long distance and do unbelievable harm to anyone struck by it.
People who live in mobile homes are always advised to leave them and find a safer place, in a storm shelter or at least a more stable structure. In Oklahoma and Arkansas, we have people killed every year because they failed to get out of their mobile homes in time.
When traveling during tornado season, we try to be on the watch for possible places to go should a tornado catch us off guard. Experts advise driving at right angles to the approaching tornado, should you actually see one coming and you have time to avoid it. One McDonald’s on the Will Rogers Turnpike now has a safe room, since a tornado hit a town in the area a few years back. Almost any such building would be a safer place to take shelter than a vehicle, especially if the place has enough space in the restrooms for all the occupants to take shelter.
We are also told to leave a car and lie down in a ditch or depression if a tornado is almost upon us, but that is not a pleasant option if it can be avoided.
People often stop under an overpass and hope for shelter, but the experts say that is a bad idea, as a tornado passing over will create a suction under the overpass. If one should ever do that, they need to climb right up under the bridge and into the steel under-structure of it. When one Oklahoma storm hit, a family had done that, and the mother was clinging to the hand of her son, who was using his other hand to hold onto the structure. The suction of the tornado was pulling the mother away, so she released her son’s hand rather than take him with her. Her body was found some distance away after the storm had passed, but the son was safe.
Perhaps the most important point in preventing injuries and death from tornadoes is to be alert and always aware of the forecast and weather advisories. I’m always amazed at the accuracy of the weathermen in our area. When tornado watches are in effect, we keep the TV on constantly, unless the power goes off, in which case we use a battery operated radio. It’s most impressive to hear the weatherman warning people on certain streets and rural roads that a tornado is on the ground and should reach them at a certain time and telling them to take shelter immediately. Many lives have been saved by being forewarned and prepared for the eventuality of being hit by a tornado.
This is true of other natural disasters, and emergency preparedness can make all the difference in the number of casualties.