Monday, July 16, 2012

10 Things About Tornadoes I Wish I'd Known

10 Things About Tornadoes

This fall will mark two years since our house was hit by a tornado, something I never thought would happen to me or my family.  It was something I was definitely not prepared for and since then has been a learning experience.  I thought that I would share a few tips and bits of information I have learned from my own experience, things about tornadoes I wished I had known before.

1.) A tornado can happen anywhere.

I grew up in the mountains of the Northwest where we more worried about earthquakes and fires then other natural disasters.  After all we lived along a major fault line.  All through my childhood we had earthquake drills and talked about what we should if one were to hit when we were at home, school, and elsewhere.  Tornadoes were never once brought up.  I have since learned that no place is exempt from tornadoes.  They may not be as common but there is always the possibility even if you live in the mountains or near a river. 

2.) Have a plan.

While we don't want to live our life in fear it is still good to have a plan.  We had minutes notice before the tornado hit.  Enough to go find my husband upstairs and discuss what we should do.  It happened early in the morning so we decided to get dressed and then meet in a certain place of our house.  Looking back we should have just gone to our meeting place.  Our bedroom was upstairs which is not the safest place to be.  Clothes can wait.  You don't know how much time you have and it’s better to be safe than sorry.  

3.)  Know where the safest places in your home are.  

We knew that the tornado would be coming from a southerly direction.  My earthquake training and my racing thoughts had led me to the conclusion that our bottom floor would be safest and away from our south facing windows and doors.  I was thinking that I didn't want anything above my head so we went to the north part of house, by the front door where we had a vaulted ceiling.  I was partly right.  While it was a good thing we were as far away from our south facing windows and glass door we still had a window above us.  Since we don't have a basement, the safest place for us would have been in our downstairs bathroom or coat closet which is located in the central part of our house and has no windows.  Even better would have been if we had covered ourselves in blankets.     

4.)  Stay away from the windows and glass doors.

Again my adrenaline wasn't enough to keep me from making stupid mistakes.  You have to remember that I have never given an ounce of thought of a tornado hitting our home in the mountains.  After I had gotten dressed I went downstairs and looked out our back arcadia door to see if I could see anything. BIG MISTAKE.  All I could see was a huge black mass.  Everything from that moment on was slow motion.  I screamed and started running for our meeting place placing my arms above my head.  My husband threw his body over me just as our BBQ grill was thrown into our arcadia door, shattering the whole thing, where I had been just a moment ago. 

(This was one of the smaller shards of glass suck in our wall.)

5.)  Do not open your windows or doors.

This one goes along with tip number 4.  After the tornado hit our house someone had told me that if you think a tornado is coming you should open your up your windows and doors to let out some of the pressure.  According to this is a bad idea.  "Opening your windows and doors may in fact increase the damage to your house and make you susceptible to being struck by flying glass."  I couldn't agree more with this statement.  After the tornado had passed we started taking an assessment of the damage.  There were huge shards of glass stuck in our walls.  The blinds had been thrown across the room and indented the wall.  We had all sorts of random pieces of construction fly into our house from who knows where.  It’s not worth the risk!

6.)  Know the basics of tornado formation and its signs. 

This is where my west states nieveness shows through.  I hadn't given much thought to what it takes to form a tornado.  Before I my thoughts were along the line of, "It takes a lot of wind."  My friends, it takes more than wind to form a tornado.  In fact they form from rotating thunderheads.  Specifically they form from a supercell thunderstorm.  The process itself is quite the equation of elements.  Before the tornado hit our neighborhood we had been having a "severe thunderstorm."  I woke up to lots of lightening, hail and wind.  The hail was coming down pretty darn hard, although hail is not required for a tornado.  To be honest, if I hadn't gotten online to see if there was a chance of a tornado I would have just thought we were having a bad storm... which is not uncommon here.  I'm grateful for modern technology and people who can read clouds and storms better than I can. 

7.)  You don't always get a lot of warning.

If you live in the Midwest, chances are you have sirens that go off when a tornado warning has been issued.  In other areas like Northern Arizona there are no sirens.  As it is, tornados can be hard to predict far in advance.  Sometimes our weather people can't detect one until minutes before they touch down.  Other times they can see the storm system moving in a particular path and issue the warning out sooner.  That morning there were not sirens.  Most people were in bed sleeping (it was a little after 5:00 A.M.).  They weren't listening to the radio or watching TV where an emergency broadcast was being streamed.  I saw the warning five minutes before only because I had gotten up and checked online, which in and of itself is a whole other story.  That is why knowing what to do is so important.  You may have to react quickly.

8.)  Know where to go if you aren't at home.

Today, I left for lunch when an emergency announcement was broadcast issuing a tornado warning.  Ironic since I had already started writing this post.  Luckily it was 40 miles north of us and I don't think near any cities or towns.  Still I was in my car listening to the announcement waiting to hear the location of the warning and started thinking where would I go for shelter if it was headed my way?  I had just pulled into the parking lot of some office buildings.  I knew the layout of the building and knew I would go for the bathroom.  Again it was in the center of the building and did not have any glass windows or doors. has suggestions of the best locations to seek shelter which include avoiding wide, free spanned roofs such as gymnasiums or auditoriums.  If you are outside or in your car with no buildings around, get out and find a ditch and lay flat with your hands over your head.  Campers and Mobile Homes are not suitable forms of shelter.  We live across from an RV dealer and that morning we found pieces of those campers all over the place.  My neighbor had a sink fly into the side of their house.  Our tornado was classified as an F2 which is on the smaller end yet it still caused quite a bit of damage. 
9.)  Teach your kids.

We don't want to freak kids out but it’s a good idea for them to know your plan.  Time is everything in an emergency.  Growing up we practiced family fire drills and made a plan of where we would meet if a fire ever started in our house.  I don't remember those drills scaring me.  My parents made sure it was light enough that we wouldn't have fears of house fires but serious enough that we would know how to react.  Likewise, my mom once had to go somewhere and leave the kids with one my brothers.  A tornado warning had not been issued but she saw a storm in the distance that looked like it had potential.  We can't live in fear of the "what ifs" or stay home every time a thunderstorm rolls in.  Instead she told the brother being left in charge to watch the thunderheads and what it would look like should a funnel start to form.  If it did, she instructed my brother where to take the kids for shelter; in the basement, in the bathroom. 
10.)  You will not be alone.

One of the most comforting things I learned was that you will not be left alone through an experience like this.  After the tornado had passed through our neighborhood and it was safe to go outside everyone began going door to door checking on their neighbors... neighbors they didn't know.  Phone calls were made.  As soon as it was safe to for those living in town to drive out to our community (another tornado touched down a mile west of us) people began showing up with plywood and nails, boarding up peoples windows to save homes from as much damage as possible.  It was pouring cats and dogs for quite a while after.  Meals were arranged.  Hotels and people opened up their homes for shelter.  The community came together and helped with clean-up.  It really was quite an amazing site and was greatly appreciated. 

I still get nervous when severe thunderstorms roll through but I find comfort in knowing what to do.  Have you been through a natural disaster?  What things do you wish you had known beforehand?  What things about tornadoes have you learn? 


  1. There's something that I'll never figure out why.
    You guys live in a country with lots of tornadoes and yet have a lousy construction quality.
    I also like wood houses, but wouldn't build one if I live in Oklahoma.

  2. The destructive force of tornadoes is amazing. It makes me pause to consider the awesome force of nature. So sorry for the loss and difficulty that you face.

  3. May I suggest having a severe weather kit in your safe area. Keep a case of water, non perishable foods and copies of all your important documents. You never know when disaster will strike. After our tornado last year (I live in Joplin) while our home was spared, we had no water for a day and when the service was restored, we were under a boil order for more than a week. There was a run on the remaining grocery stores and even Wal-Mart was short on many things for a few days. Also have an emergency contact outside of your immediate area as long distance typically works better than local calling.

    And when it happens, life goes on. You dig out and rebuild.

    1. I love this comment! All of these are great suggestions. My goal is to get an emergency list compiled so I will know where my "essentials" are and have a check-list in order of importance.

  4. Gosh! That experience was pretty scary! THanks for the helpful tips!