Lonely Planet Writer

How to stay safe in tornado country

The sky turns an odd shade of gray and green. Then the wind picks up. What do you do?

Tornado by T LindenbaumTornado by T Lindenbaum

Last spring, multiple tornadoes tore through the United States, scattering belongings and lives. The massive columns of wind and dirt swirled through several cities, leaving hundreds dead and towns devastated.

As with any natural disaster, knowing what to do when the worst happens will help you stay safe and be in a position to help others.

Know where you are

When conditions get serious, sirens might blare and a tone will sound on television and radio stations followed by instructions. The National Weather Service issues these by county, so knowing where you are is vital, says Patti Thompson, Illinois Emergency Management Agency communications manager.

Keep a map handy and know your location, even including the mile markers. Being able to pinpoint your location will be imperative when announcements are made about a tornado’s predicted path.

Use technology to your advantage

But what if the radio’s off and no siren wails?

While there is no automatic government mobile service, those with cell phones can sign up for text messages or push notifications from the Weather Channel.

Know the lingo

Understanding the terminology used in such alerts lets you know when the weather has transitioned from stormy to a potential disaster. Being familiar with these terms will help:

Funnel cloud - the start of a tornado, a spiral wind pattern that descends from the clouds.

Tornado - a fully formed funnel cloud that touches ground.

Tornado watch - a state of alert indicating that weather conditions could cause a funnel cloud to form. A time when the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) suggests you 'remain alert for approaching storms. Watch the sky and stay tuned to NOAA Weather Radio, commercial radio, or television for information.'

Tornado warning - advice that a funnel cloud has been spotted; the highest level of alert. FEMA says: take shelter immediately.

Tornado Siren, Illinois
Sirens placed across the USA are used for tornadoes as well nuclear disasters, tsunami warnings and earthquakes.

Protect yourself

When tornadoes strike, be ready to get yourself to a safe place without instruction. If you're in a building, avoiding windows and outer walls remains the most crucial step, Thompson says. 'The wind can make projectiles out of just about anything it picks up,' she advises. 'It can throw wood beams and pieces of siding through the walls of a house.'

Sound scary? It's important not to panic and follow the following steps:

  • Indoors: make for the lowest level possible and find an inside hallway, closet or room. Under stairs or in a basement are the safest options - especially beneath something sturdy that can protect you from falling debris.
  • Outdoors: if the weather looks like turning, get inside. Look for the sturdiest building you see and head to an inner room. If you are stranded outside, move away from anything that can topple, such as rides at an amusement park.
  • On the road: know where you are - what state you’re in, what road you’re on. Again, try to find some sort of building. Roadside restaurants will have restrooms and buttressed freezer space. Do not try to outrun the tornado. If you’re out of options, find a ditch and get out of your car. Get to the lowest spot possible and lie flat. Cover your face and do not look around (debris could hit your eyes). Underpasses are not considered safe, and nor is the interior of your car. 'The wind can pick up cars and toss them around,' advises Thompson.

As with any natural disaster, keeping your wits about you is essential. Staying calm and knowing what to do next will help ensure your safety and that of your companions.

For more information visit Fema.gov

Tornado-alley native Sonja Bjelland has travelled the world writing about adventures and yoga. When she’s not behind a camera lens or laptop she can be found on a sailboat or her yoga mat, thinking up new posts for www.BlissPassport.com. She has previously been published in Sailing magazine and the Los Angeles Times.