Tornado Safety Tips – Before During and After the Storm

The Federal Alliance for Safe Homes (FLASH)®  offers the following tornado safety tips to help before, during, and after a tornado strikes.

Before

  • Have a family tornado plan and know where you can safely take shelter.
  • Closely monitor NOAA Weather Radio
  • Install a tornado safe room or storm shelter built to FEMA 320 guidelines or the ICC/NSSA 500 standard. Always use a licensed contractor to install a safe room within, adjacent to, or outside of your home.
  • View this video playlist to find out Which Tornado Safe Room is Right for You.

During

  • Take refuge in a tested and approved storm shelter, safe room, or a community shelter labeled as an official tornado shelter. Community shelters may include stores, malls, churches, even airports.
  • If no shelter is available:
    • Are you indoors? Go to the lowest floor, to a small, central, interior room, under a stairwell, or to an interior hallway with no windows. Crouch down as low as possible to the floor, face down, and cover your head with your arms. Cover yourself with a blanket, mattress, helmet, or other thick covering. Wear footwear with thick soles to your safe location.
    • Are you in a mobile home? Get out. Even if your home is tied down, it is not as safe as a sturdy building. Go to a nearby permanent structure. Do not seek shelter under an overpass, bridge, or in a drainage ditch. If you cannot safely exit your vehicle, park it out of traffic lanes. Stay in your vehicle with your seatbelt on. Put your head below the windows and protect it with your arms and a blanket, coat, or other cushion.
    • Are you outdoors? Shelter in a sturdy building. If no shelter is available, lie face down on low ground protecting the back of your head with your arms.

After

  • Keep your family together in a safe location and wait for emergency personnel to arrive.
  • Stay away from power lines, downed trees, and puddles that could hide live wires.
  • Watch your step to avoid sharp objects.
  • Stay out of heavily damaged structures, as they may collapse.
  • Do not use matches or lighters in case of leaking natural gas or fuel tanks.
  • Listen to your radio for information and instructions.

Safe Rooms Save Lives

By John Zarrella – Former CNN Correspondent

I had been in Oklahoma City (OKC) for just over a week. It was 1995. Spring, a time for rebirth, was put on hold and buried beneath crumbled concrete and shattered lives. Many of us had gone in to cover the aftermath of the bombing at the Murray Federal Building. Crews and reporters had been rotating in and out since the horrific April 19th attack.

By now, April had turned to May. The seventh was a quiet Sunday. We were staffing the CNN workspace in case there were any developments on the bombing. But the story that day centered more on the weather. The local stations were reporting that the atmosphere was ripe for supercells. They were right.

By midafternoon, bulletins were coming in of a half-mile-wide tornado on the ground west of Ardmore, a city one hundred miles to the south of OKC. This tornado dissipated after killing an elderly man and injuring several other people.  But this supercell wasn’t done. It recycled and a second tornado, just as big, dropped out of the sky crossing the Red River and heading toward Ardmore.

We were nearly two hours away, but there was no question we had to go. This could be really bad. I had chased plenty of hurricanes over the years but never a tornado. I kept scanning the landscape around us, half believing that I’d see one suddenly appear. I remember as we drove south thinking just how strange the clouds looked and that the colors were an eerie cotton candy—unlike any I’d seen in Florida.  A Michelin tire factory had reportedly been hit hard, and we headed there first. Of course, by the time we arrived, the tornado was gone. The tornado also damaged some nearby buildings on the outskirts of Ardmore but lifted up just before it reached the heart of the city. They were fortunate that day. Combined the two tornadoes were on the ground for about a combined sixty miles.

Fast forward twenty years, and I’m suddenly connected back to that Spring in OKC. Pataya Scott, a PHD candidate at Texas Tech University told me growing up in Oklahoma City she had spent, “lots of time in a closet under the stairs.” Pataya was one of several brilliant University students at the FLASH Annual Conference giving presentations on their work in various fields of disaster mitigation.

These students were studying roofing systems, human behavior and response before and after disasters, communications, and hurricane winds. Pataya is studying the devastating 2011 Joplin, Missouri tornado. She explained, “I’ll be looking at remote sensing data on damage from the Joplin tornado so things like aerial photos, drive by photos, and Google street views seeing the level of damage for each building. So, it’s going to take a lot of time analyzing all those six thousand documented damaged buildings.”

On the ground for twenty-two miles and thirty-eight minutes, the 2011 Joplin, Missouri tornado killed nearly 160 people. Pataya is focusing on construction, wind direction, materials, and architecture; and is determining what kind of buildings hold up better, for instance homes with attached garages and those without.

“Two story buildings area usually more robust so they’re going to do a little better than one story, but how much better is what I’m going to see,” she says. Pataya is just now finishing up the database. Time to start answering the questions!

In listening to Pataya’s work, I was immediately struck by how far the disaster mitigation movement has come in twenty years. Sure, there was talk about it back in 1995, three years after Hurricane Andrew. That storm was the wake-up call. But today, mitigation addresses all perils.

Dr. Ernst Kiesling has spent a lifetime studying tornado mitigation. Shelters are his expertise. “I would have thought in terms of storm shelters we’d be a little further along,” he says, “But overall, I’m grateful for the progress.  We’ve taken a lot of steps, lots of small steps.  We’re getting there.”

As we ramp up toward the height of tornado season, Kiesling says it’s a double edged sword. “We worry about the vulnerability of communities, but also take heart that there is an increase in interest in tornado shelters and improved construction. So, there’s good news and bad news with that because we certainly see with every major tornado an uptick in public consciousness of safety and increased sales in storm shelters and better readiness for the future.”

However, he warns that not all that glitters is gold. Consumers need to carefully consider what they are getting when purchasing a shelter. “There are excellent products available, but there’s also a lot of stuff that’s not good on the market. We have a real problem in quality control and requiring standard compliance, and it’s not a regulated industry.”

Back in 1995, the people of Ardmore were very fortunate. They got lucky. But today, science, engineering, and public awareness is finally beginning to remove luck from the equation. As Dr. Kiesling says, “we’re doing pretty darn well.”

Related Links 

Community Tornado Shelter “Absolutely Saved Lives” in Alabama 

Tale of Two Homes – Tornado 

Keep Calm, Be Prepared, and El Niño On

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By John Zarrella – Former CNN Correspondent

El Niño – it means the child or the Christ Child in Spanish. However, the name is a terrible contradiction. El Niño conjures the image of a beautiful, cherubic baby. It is certainly not that. One climatologist describes this weather phenomenon as, “mudslides in Los Angeles and golfing in Minneapolis. And there can be a lot of chaos in between.”

Well, what is an El Niño? An El Niño is a warming of the Equatorial Pacific waters. Fishermen in South America gave it the name El Niño because the waters would get warm around Christmas time and the fish would disappear. These days, everybody seems to be talking about it. You can’t pick up a paper or turn on the news without seeing a story. In fact, as I was writing this, an old friend at CBS was doing a piece on it for Sunday Morning. Clearly, El Niño is already a headline maker, and it hasn’t yet kicked into full throttle.

NASA climatologist Bill Patzert at the Jet Propulsion Lab in California has likened this one to one of the all-time greatest monsters, “It’s truly the Godzilla El Niño,” Patzert told me. If it is not the most powerful yet, he believes it soon will be based on the satellite images and data he’s analyzing. And, this El Niño may have played a role in the recent deadly tornadoes in the South and the short sleeve and shorts winter weather in the Northeast.

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So why so much interest now? In a word: worry. Really intense El Niño events seem to take place about every 15 years give or take: 1982-83, 1997-98, which is the strongest to date. They have profound impacts on the weather, flooding and mudslides in California; wet, turbulent weather in Texas and along the Gulf Coast; and warm conditions in the Northeast. “So all the pieces on the weather board are rearranged and there’s a lot of volatility not just in the U.S. but across the planet,” according to Patzert.

That volatility left 42 people dead and 260 injured in Central Florida in February 1998. Seven tornadoes touched down overnight during the worst outbreak ever in the state.

Is that or something similar going to happen again? No one knows because as Mike Halpert says, “No two El Niño’s are alike.”

Halpert is Deputy Director of NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center.  The scientists there measure El Niño’s strength not only by the ocean’s heat but how the atmosphere is reacting to it.  Halpert said, “What we think is really more important isn’t what the ocean does, it’s what the atmosphere overlying the ocean does because, that’s what kicks off the rest of the impacts globally.”

So far, Harpert says, this El Niño is weaker in the atmosphere than the two previous big El Niño events.  Does that mean the impacts will be less severe? Possibly but, there’s no way to know. Why?  Halpert says there just isn’t enough of an El Niño sample size.  He added, “We don’t have good data that goes back thousands of years. I mean we haven’t seen that many of these kinds of things.”

Frankly, it really does not matter where this occurrence of El Niño lands in the power rankings. It’s all about when the dust settles, how bad was it? We’ve already seen the first glimpses. And even though the sample size is small, there’s enough historical data, scientists say, to tell us we need to be prepared.

There’s still time to get prepared, but don’t put it off any longer. Start by making sure you have a NOAA weather radio, plus a smartphone app like FLASH Weather Alerts that includes “follow me” technology and text-to-speech alerting. You can select alerts for all the different weather hazards, including flood, freeze, and tornadoes.

If you know your area is prone to flooding or mudslides, remember “Turn Around, Don’t Drown”, and never cross a flooded roadway. Keep sandbags on hand, and make sure you have up-to-date flood insurance. Do you have emergency supplies on hand including bottled water? You need to! Have you taken a recent inventory of everything you own? If not, do it now. If you are in a tornado threat area, consider installing a tornado safe room or shelter, but make sure it is either built using FEMA 320 or the ICC 500 standard.

For the U.S., the big “worry” months have just arrived. “Beginning in January and February”, Patzert told me, “we should see a convoy of storms coming straight out of the Western Pacific slamming into California and Southwest Texas and these storms actually get pumped up as they go over the Northern Gulf of Mexico and some of the worst damage may be in Florida.”

For all the misery El Niño can dish out, there are a couple plusses. Scientists say it won’t end the drought in California but it should make a dent, and a warm winter saves the U.S. billions in heating costs.

The experts believe this El Niño will likely last into the late spring and could linger into early summer. What comes next? Halpert says, “It’s a good bet that when this El Niño ends the next thing we have will be a La Niña.” During a La Niña, the waters in the Pacific cool off, and the weather patterns change. Where El Niño events put a lid on Atlantic Hurricanes, La Niña’s are like muscle milk to Atlantic storms! Hurricane Season could become interesting.

Related Links

Flash Weather Alerts App – Mobilize Your Weather Radio

How to Protect Your Home from Flood Damage

Jet Propulsion Lab

“Turn Around, Don’t Drown

Which Tornado Safe Room is Right for You?

Disaster Savings Accounts Would Help Shore Up Homes and Finances

By Terry Sheridan, FLASH Consumer Blogger

Residents of Oso, Washington were traumatized on March 22 when a massive mudslide swept through the area engulfing homes and claiming lives.  Months later, residents are still handling the aftermath of this tragedy as best as possible, but the financial burdens of rebuilding often become as traumatic as the disaster itself.

Help could be on the way in the form of proposed federal legislation allowing homeowners and renters to set aside up to $5,000 every year in a disaster savings account – tax-free if the money is used for post-disaster repairs or pre-disaster mitigation.  The money rolls over every year and there’s no limit to how much can be accumulated.

If the Disaster Savings Accounts Act which is still wending its way through Congressional committees passes, homeowners and renters alike could establish accounts to use for future natural disasters.

“Disaster Savings Accounts would provide people the opportunity to protect their belongings and families,” says U.S. Rep. Dennis Ross (R-Fla.), co-sponsor of the bill with U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.).

While the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and other government agencies provide limited relief to disaster victims, “… recovery assistance is after the fact,” Ross says. “We want to equip homeowners so that they can protect themselves before a disaster strikes and not when they’re forced to rummage through the remains of their homes after a flood, hurricane or earthquake.”

Ahead of a disaster, the pre-tax savings can be used to pay for home fortifications such as a safe room, wind resistant windows and doors, or elevating structures in flood zones.  After a disaster, savings can be used to help close the gap between insurance deductibles and other recovery funds.  In that case, the event must be a state or federally declared disaster and the homeowner or renter must have uninsured losses totaling at least $3,000.

“Insurance doesn’t cover all losses or cleanup expenses, particularly personal losses,” says former FEMA director James Lee Witt, Democratic candidate for the 4th Congressional District in Arkansas.  For example, if the bill was in effect at the time of the mudslide, Oso residents with accounts could have used them to cover uninsured personal casualty losses above $3,000 because they are in a formal disaster area.

Supporters for the bill come from all sectors, e.g. FLASH, The Home Depot, National Association of Home Builders, National Association of Insurance Commissioners, The Nature Conservancy and leaders like Moore, Oklahoma Mayor Glenn Lewis and former FEMA director James Lee Witt.

Editor’s Note: Terry Sheridan is an award-winning journalist who has more than 30 years of experience in reporting and editing for newspapers in the Chicago and Miami areas. She covered the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew’s devastation in 1992 in South Florida, and has experienced damage to her own homes from two hurricanes. She now lives in New Hampshire.

 

10 Tornado Safety Tips to Keep You Safe Before, During and After a Storm

The Federal Alliance for Safe Homes (FLASH)®  offers the following tornado safety tips to help before, during, and after a tornado strikes.

Before

  • Have a family tornado plan and know where you can safely take shelter.
  • Closely monitor NOAA Weather Radio
  • Install a tornado safe room or storm shelter built to FEMA 320 guidelines or the ICC/NSSA 500 standard. Always use a licensed contractor to install a safe room within, adjacent to, or outside of your home.
  • View this video playlist to find out Which Tornado Safe Room is Right for You.

During

  • Take refuge in a tested and approved storm shelter, safe room, or a community shelter labeled as an official tornado shelter. Community shelters may include stores, malls, churches, even airports.
  • If no shelter is available:
    • Are you indoors? Go to the lowest floor, to a small, central, interior room, under a stairwell, or to an interior hallway with no windows. Crouch down as low as possible to the floor, face down, and cover your head with your arms. Cover yourself with a blanket, mattress, helmet, or other thick covering. Wear footwear with thick soles to your safe location.
    • Are you in a mobile home? Get out. Even if your home is tied down, it is not as safe as a sturdy building. Go to a nearby permanent structure. Do not seek shelter under an overpass, bridge, or in a drainage ditch. If you cannot safely exit your vehicle, park it out of traffic lanes. Stay in your vehicle with your seatbelt on. Put your head below the windows and protect it with your arms and a blanket, coat, or other cushion.
    • Are you outdoors? Shelter in a sturdy building. If no shelter is available, lie face down on low ground protecting the back of your head with your arms.

After

  • Keep your family together in a safe location and wait for emergency personnel to arrive.
  • Stay away from power lines, downed trees, and puddles that could hide live wires.
  • Watch your step to avoid sharp objects.
  • Stay out of heavily damaged structures, as they may collapse.
  • Do not use matches or lighters in case of leaking natural gas or fuel tanks.
  • Listen to your radio for information and instructions.

When the twister comes, where will you be that’s safe?

By: Terry Sheridan, FLASH Consumer Blogger

Ricky Knox knew the EF-5 tornado was coming even before he saw it. Five minutes later, it hit his community near Huntsville, Ala.

“My son and I were talking and looking out the back door. I asked him to be quiet a minute and I could hear that thing – just like a train – coming,” he says.

Knox, his wife, son and mother climbed down into the tornado shelter that had been installed below the garage floor just three weeks before. Huddled down, knees bumped up to the next person’s feet, they waited.

“I knew we were in for it when my ears popped,” Knox says. “Not like when you’re on a plane but like snapping your fingers or breaking sticks next to your ears.” The family could hear the garage and house coming apart above them.

When they emerged 30 minutes later, their home was demolished and someone’s four-ton air-conditioner had blown into what had been the kitchen.

But the Knox family was unhurt and safe.

Knox offers these suggestions in considering a shelter:

  • Certified shelters and safe rooms can be built above- or below ground so if you have elderly family members or friends who may have difficulty entering a below-ground shelter, convert a bigger closet into a “safe room.”
  • Be sure you have rain ponchos because tornadoes often bring torrential downpours and you very likely won’t have a roof over your head when you leave the shelter.
  • Register with local emergency officials and alert neighbors so they know you’ll be in the shelter.
  • Take a cell phone with you but make sure you’ve got reception. Knox climbed down into his shelter, shut the overhead door and tested his phone. And it did work.
  • Have battery-powered lights and water in the shelter.
  • Do a practice run with your family.

Dr. Ernst Kiesling, an engineer and executive director of the National Storm Shelter Association (NSSA), cautions that many people don’t understand that storm shelters must meet more rigorous building standards than a home because of wind pressures and debris impact.

Shelters designed to NSSA standards can endure wind pressures six or seven times greater than a typical building, Kiesling says. Building codes generally require that a non-shelter building withstand 90 to 100 mph winds. Shelters are designed to take 250 mph winds – the worst-case scenario.

Above- and below-ground shelters vary in size, can be steel or concrete, and costs range from about $3,000 to $8,000. (Knox’s shelter cost $6,500.) Your contractor may need to obtain a building permit prior to installing the shelter.

Sound complicated? It is. That’s why you should consult with an engineer who understands shelter requirements, and a contractor who builds to NSSA standards.

Find more shelter information at www.nssa.cc and http://www.flash.org/peril_tornadoes.php.

Editor’s Note:  FLASH President & CEO Leslie Chapman-Henderson is speaking at the National Tornado Summit on Monday, February 10.  To learn more, visit tornaodsummit.org. Terry Sheridan is an award-winning journalist who has more than 30 years of experience in reporting and editing for newspapers in the Chicago and Miami areas. She covered the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew’s devastation in 1992 in South Florida, and has experienced damage to her own homes from two hurricanes. She now lives in New Hampshire.

Top 5 Tornado Myths

Myth #1:  Attempting to drive away from a tornado is a better survival plan than sheltering in place.

Fact: Tornadoes do not follow a specific path or route and can change direction at any time, so attempting to drive away is an extremely risky choice.  Tornadoes can turn a car into a 4,000-pound flying missile and occupants can become trapped and exposed to debris, rain, hail and/or dust.  Parking on traffic lanes is dangerous and illegal, and stalled or stopped cars can block emergency vehicles.

“A car is a more dangerous place to be than a well-constructed home in a tornado,” said Greg Carbin, Meteorologist for the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center.

The best place to shelter in a tornado is indoors.  However, if you are already in your car and a tornado is approaching, know that there is no safe option, just slightly less-dangerous ones.  If the tornado is visible, far away, and the traffic is light, you may be able to drive out of its path by moving at right angles to the tornado.  If you are caught by extreme winds or flying debris, park the car as quickly and safely as possible — out of the traffic lanes.  Stay in the car with the seat belt on.  Put your head down below the windows; cover your head with your hands and a blanket, coat or other cushion if possible.  If you can safely get noticeably lower than the level of the roadway, leave your car and lie in that area, covering your head with your hands.  Avoid seeking shelter under bridges, which can create deadly traffic hazards while offering little protection against flying debris.

Bottom Line:  Develop a personal plan for safety well ahead of tornadoes and identify your safe place options at home, school and work.  Start with certified shelters and safe rooms, safe spaces above or below ground, or community shelters in public spaces that are labeled as official tornado shelters like stores, malls, churches or even airports.

Myth #2:  Not everyone can receive tornado watches and warnings.

Fact:  Using a combination of NOAA weather radio and new smartphone weather alerting apps all but assures that you will receive lifesaving severe weather alert information and other emergency messages on a timely basis.  NOAA Weather Radio has delivered reliable watches and warning for more than 50 years and the advent of new, smartphone GPS, precision weather notifications have added enhanced mobility, speed and accuracy for families in harm’s way.

Bottom Line:  A Tornado Warning is issued when a tornado is imminent and the average lead time for tornado warnings is 13 minutes, so swift and accurate alerting is necessary. “Approximately 97 percent of Americans are within range of a NOAA weather radio broadcast,” said Walt Zaleski, Warning and Coordination Meteorologist, Southern Region, National Weather Service.  FLASH President and CEO Leslie Chapman-Henderson added, “Fifty-six percent of American adults now have smartphones. NOAA Weather Radio and smartphone apps like FLASH Weather Alerts provide the maximum, available time to seek safe shelter from a storm.”

Myth #3:  Nothing above ground can withstand an EF-4 or EF-5 tornado.

Fact:  It is entirely possible to harden and stiffen a room to withstand extreme winds, i.e. a small room, steel or concrete, or timber box equipped with a door that has been tested for pressure resistance and debris impact resistance.  The National Storm Shelter Association/ICC 500 standard and FEMA guidelines provide details on how to fabricate shelters or construct safe rooms that provide near absolute life protection, even in an EF-4 or EF-5.

Bottom line:  Expert forensic engineering examination of above-ground shelter and safe room performance during the 2011 Tuscaloosa and Joplin outbreaks as well as the May 20, 2013 Moore, Oklahoma tornadoes documented that properly constructed shelters and safe rooms consistently survive super tornadoes.  “In my 15 years of doing storm damage research and storm shelter research, we have never documented any deaths or injuries in above ground tested safe-rooms or failures of tested safe-rooms.  This includes the storms of Joplin 2011 and Moore 2013,” Larry Tanner, Texas Tech University Department of Construction Engineering and Engineering Technology.

Myth #4:  Building codes cannot make a difference in tornado outbreaks.

Fact:  Even if the tornado is EF-4 or EF-5, 95 percent of the damage occurs at EF-3 and below.  What this means is that the minimal construction standards required by building codes can make a meaningful difference if they are adopted and enforced.  Moreover, since 90 percent of all tornadoes never exceed EF-2, wind resistant building practices like those included in the 2012 International Residential Code can dramatically improve building performance in tornado outbreaks.

Bottom Line: Homes built to modern, model codes will have the advantage of better wall bracing, improved roof tie-downs and overall stronger connections.  “If we can put a man on the moon, we can keep a roof on a house,” said Dr. David Prevatt, Assistant Professor University of Florida Wind Department of Civil and Coastal Engineering.

Myth #5:   We cannot affordably build to withstand tornadoes.

Fact:  The National Climatic Data Center estimates that 77 percent of U.S. tornadoes are in the EF-0 to EF-1 range and 95 percent have wind speeds less than EF-3 intensity.   A recent cost study revealed that using an average of $0.50 per square foot or $1,000 in metal connectors installed from a home’s roof to its foundation could upgrade a home’s ability to withstand wind uplift from an EF-0 to an EF-2 tornado.

Bottom Line:  Approximately 90 percent of tornadoes are at the EF-2 level or lower. “An increase in baseline construction costs of just $.50 per square foot can boost a structure’s wind resistance from EF-0 to EF-2 levels,” said Randy Shackelford Research Engineer/Code Specialist Simpson Strong-Tie.  A minimal investment of $.50 per square foot or $1,000 for a 2,000 square foot home will help save lives and minimize property damage.

To learn more, visit www.flash.org.