Staying safe during a Texas-sized tornado

June 6, 2019   By Arthur Murray

Staying safe during a Texas-sized tornado

More tornadoes have found Texas in 2019 than any other state. As of late May, more than 140 of the swirling storms have delivered heavy rain, hail, and powerful winds to the state. The next closest states were Missouri and Kansas, each with 87.

Traditionally, tornado season in Texas ends in mid-June. But the strong storms can strike nearly anytime. And in some areas of the country, tornado season is just getting cranked up. The National Severe Storms Laboratory says about 1,200 tornadoes strike annually in the U.S. They span great distances from the clouds to the ground, characterized by a twisting funnel made up of dust, debris, and water.

Scientists haven’t reached a consensus on how and why tornadoes form, the NSSL says. What is agreed upon is that they generally start with rotating thunderstorms known as mesocyclones or supercells. They escalate, some researchers believe, because of temperature variations that are carried in downdrafts to the supercells.

The flaw in the theory: Those temperature variations don’t always occur.

The worst Texas tornadoes

For a bit of perspective on what could happen, two Texas tornadoes rank among the 10 worst in U.S. history, though they’re tied for the last spot:

  • Waco, in 1953: 114 people died, making it the deadliest in the state. The tornado hit the day after Mother’s Day and caused a swath of destruction up to 0.3 of a mile wide in some parts of Waco’s downtown. More than 850 homes, 2,000 cars, and 600 businesses were damaged or destroyed.
  • Wichita Falls, in 1979: At the time, it was the costliest tornado in U.S. history, causing $400 million in damage – that would equate to nearly $1.5 billion today. The storm was one of 13 that damaged parts of north Texas and Oklahoma that day. Nearly 3,100 homes were destroyed by the monster storm, which measured more than a mile in places. More than 40 died.

While history suggests that the worst of the 2019 season is behind us, we repeat again: Tornadoes can strike at any time. That said, we’ve put together tips, courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and others, on how to survive before, during, and after a tornado, in Texas or elsewhere.

What to do before the storm hits

The CDC preaches preparation – and rightfully so. Tornadoes strike quickly, with only the briefest of warnings. So it’s important to prepare well before the TV weathermen start to break in on programming.

Here’s what you can do now:

  • Make a storm plan for home. Flying debris causes most tornado-related deaths. So you have decide where you’ll be safest at home. The best place is the basement. If you don’t have one, scope out an interior room or hallway with no windows. The bathroom or even a closet can qualify. Regardless, cover yourself with a sleeping bag, blanket, or mattress.
  • Stay home unless … you live in a mobile home. There’s nothing wrong with mobile homes, until a tornado strikes. Then they can be quite dangerous. Make arrangements now with friends or family members to ride out a storm.
  • Prepare or buy an emergency kit. The kit should contain batteries, a battery-operated lamp and TV or radio, a charger for your phone – something to keep you posted on the latest conditions. Keep a supply of water, nonperishable food, and any necessary medications on hand.
  • Keep emergency phone numbers in a safe place. You don’t want to have to look up numbers for emergency services, relatives, friends, a pharmacy, etc.

What to do when the tornado hits or is imminent

First off, stay put. The absolute worst place to be during a tornado is in a car. Winds of more than 200 mph can accompany tornadoes, and they can easily lift and toss cars. And about that 200 mph – it also means you’re not going to outrun a tornado, so don’t try. Find shelter immediately.

That means don’t get caught unaware that a storm could happen. Some advice:

  • Know the conditions around you. If meteorologists forecast a thunderstorm, then stay tuned to local radio and TV in case things deteriorate. Know the following terms:
  • Tornado watch. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Storm Prediction Center issues these when conditions are right for tornadoes to form.
  • Tornado warning. Local NOAA National Weather Service Office meteorologists issue these when radar pinpoints a tornado or human spotters report one. Again, find immediate shelter.
  • Signs you can monitor. This isn’t as scientific, but keep your eyes and ears open for the following: dark-colored or green skies; low-lying, dark, large clouds, unusually large hail; or a roar that sounds like a train.
  • Practice patients. Tornadoes don’t normally stay in one area long. But don’t give up your shelter the second things calm down. Wait for an all-clear.

The danger isn’t over when the storm is

According to the CDC, up to half of tornado-related injuries are inflicted after the storm, as part of rescue efforts and cleanup. With that in mind, some more tips:

  • Look before you walk. Nearly a third of tornado injuries come from stepping on nails.
  • Rain, then fire. The danger of fire is heightened when heavy wind and rain downed power lines or rupture gas lines. Bonus tip: Don’t use candles for light during power outages.
  • Keep people posted. Let your friends and family know you’re safe – worst case, they could be hurt if they go out searching for you.
  • Don’t be in a hurry. If your home suffers damage or even if you just suspect it has, stay out until a professional gives the go-ahead that it’s safe.

The worst of tornado season may be over in Texas. But, for one last time, remember that tornadoes can happen at nearly any time. Don’t get overconfident. Keep these tips, and follow them, to stay out of harm’s way as best you can.