There are many natural disasters that might befall a community, but a tornado is one of the most unpredictable. Several people were killed in the last few days as a rash of storms wreaked havoc in the South and Midwest. Indeed, hundreds of people are killed yearly by tornadoes, but many injuries and deaths may be avoided with sound preparation.
A tornado is a violently rotating column of air that is in contact with both the surface of the earth and the thunderstorm (sometimes called a “supercell”) that spawned it. From a distance, tornadoes usually appear in the form of a visible dark funnel with all sorts of flying debris in and around it. Because of rainfall, they may be difficult to see when close up.
A tornado (also called a “twister”) may have winds of up to 300 miles per hour, and can travel for a number of miles before petering out. They may be accompanied by hail and emit a distinctive roaring sound that will remind you of a passing train. We have personally experienced this at our own home some years ago, and it is terrifying.
There are almost a thousand tornadoes in the United States every year, more than are reported in any other country. Most of these occur in “Tornado Alley”, an area that encompasses parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas, Arkansas, and neighboring states. Spring and early summer are the peak seasons.
Injuries from tornadoes usually come as a result of trauma from the flying debris that is carried along with it. Strong winds can carry large objects and fling them around in a manner that is hard to believe. Indeed, there is a report that, in 1931, an 83 ton train was lifted and thrown 80 feet from the tracks.
Tornadoes are categorized as level 0-5 by the Enhanced Fujita Scale, which is based on wind speeds and the amount of damage caused:
F0 Light: Winds 40-72 miles per hour; smaller trees uprooted or branches broken, mild structural damage. F1 Moderate: winds 73–112 miles per hour; Broken windows, small tree trunks broken, overturned mobile homes, destruction of carports or toolsheds, roof tiles missing. F2 Considerable: winds 113–157 miles per hour; Mobile homes destroyed, major structural damage to frame homes due to flying debris, some large trees snapped in half or uprooted. F3 Severe: winds 158–206 miles per hour; Roofs torn from homes, small frame homes destroyed, most trees snapped and uprooted. F4 Devastating: winds 207–260 miles per hour; Strong- structure buildings damaged or destroyed or lifted from foundations, cars lifted and blown away, even large debris airborne.
F5 Incredible: winds 261–318 miles per hour; Larger buildings lifted from foundations, trees snapped, uprooted and debarked, objects weighing more than a ton become airborne missiles.
Although some places may have sirens or other methods of warning you of an approaching twister, it is important to plan for your family to weather the storm. Having a plan before a tornado touches down is the most likely way you will survive the event. Children should be taught where to find the medical kits, and how to use a fire extinguisher. If appropriate, teach everyone how to safely turn off the gas and electricity. For a more complete supply list of items before, during, and after the storm, follow this link on tornado safety from the Red Cross:
When you are in the path of a tornado, take shelter immediately unless you live in a mobile home. These are especially vulnerable to damage from the winds. If there is time, get to the nearest building that has a tornado shelter or is, at least, solidly constructed; underground shelters are best.
If you live in Tornado Alley, consider putting together your own underground shelter. Unlike bunkers and other structures built for long-term use, a tornado shelter only has to provide safety for a short period of time. As such, it doesn’t have to be very large; 8-10 square feet per person would be acceptable. Despite this, be sure to consider ventilation and the comfort or special needs of those using the shelter.
If you don’t have a shelter, find the safest place in the house where family members can gather. Basements, bathrooms, closets or inside rooms without windows are the best options. Windows can easily shatter from impact due to flying debris.
For added protection, get under a heavy object such as a sturdy table. Covering your body with a sleeping bag or mattress will provide an additional shield. Discuss this plan of action with every member of your family regularly, so that they will know this process by heart.
If you’re in a car and can drive to a shelter, do so. Although you may be hesitant to leave your vehicle, remember that they can be easily tossed around by high winds; you may be safer if there is a culvert or other area lower than the roadway. It is not safe to hide under a bridge or overpass, however, as the winds can easily reach you.
In town, leaving the car to enter a sturdy building is appropriate. If there is no other shelter, however, staying in your car will protect you from some of the flying debris (it should be noted that even a car can be sent flying in a powerful tornado). Keep your seat belt on, put your head down below the level of the windows, and cover yourself if at all possible.
If you’re out hiking when a tornado hits, get away from heavily wooded areas. Torn branches and other debris become missiles, so an open field or ditch may be safer. Lying face down flat in a ditch or other low spot in the ground may give you some protection. Make sure to cover your head if at all possible, even if it’s just with your hands.
Joe Alton, MD
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