This is a guest post by my dear friend Amy. It was written for her friends, and you'll notice a couple of signs of that, but this is such an excellent post on the topic of tornadoes that I thought it should see a wider audience. Read it and pass it around. No wisdom is so useful as practical wisdom.
So, tornadoes being butts. I've said before: I like you, tornadoes, when
you are frolicking out in fields in the middle of nowhere; I like you a
lot less when you barrel into communities and kill people.
That said, this is so cynical, but yesterday I thought, “Well at least it’s not more people killing people,” after the steady barrage of shootings and terrorism we’ve been having throughout 2013 /:
Of course people are still finding human scapegoats for their emotions in the tragedy, like criticizing senators about how they are handling the budget for relief funds, and I’ve also heard a few people criticize the local schools for being open at all when there had been storm warnings all morning (apparently not realizing that in tornado country, if school is out of session whenever there is threat of a tornado, you might not have much of a spring semester), or questioning why schools aren't equipped with state-of-the-art storm shelters. (My bitter response on behalf of most rural American schools being: Yeah, we'll get on that. Right after we scrape up the money for textbooks that aren't from 1992). And of course there will always be that obnoxious fringe who will chalk it up to God’s wrath upon whatever they heck they find politically distasteful. (Or global warming, for that matter, as if Oklahoma hasn’t been Violent Tornado Central for centuries*). But I like to pretend those people don’t exist . . .
On the bright side...
Actually, the way I see it, the human response to the storm was exactly right. The tornadoes came during the day when citizens were alert, and the National Weather Service was able to give 16 minutes’ advance warning to Moore (the hardest-hit community), longer than the current average of about 10 minutes’ warning and much longer than pre-1970s warnings that were barely better than looking outside and seeing the funnel cloud yourself. I’ve been reading so many reports of citizens who did exactly what they were supposed to, getting into basements or, in the absence of a basement, hunkering down in internal closets and bathrooms with mattresses and helmets as is recommended by experts-- which saved their lives. Miraculously, though service was spotty, cell phone reception remained stable enough to facilitate the rescue of many trapped survivors. Plaza Towers Elementary School is cited as having been one of the most structurally-sound buildings in the county and they followed school storm safety procedure to the T, and surely this is why the majority of children survived the direct hit. After reading a chilling soundbite that the Plaza Towers search and rescue was now to be considered a recovery mission (ie: they did not expect to recover any more living children, only bodies), initial projections of the death toll were substantially lowered overnight as more survivors were pulled from the wreckage. There is much to be thankful for.
On Sunday, while this was all just a vague prediction of stormy weather in the plains early in the week, I happened to watch a documentary about the 1974 Super Outbreak and the major changes in storm forecasting it precipitated like Doppler radar (they used to use old WWII physical radars and tracked storms by hand!), a vast connected network of National Weather Service prediction stations, a huge increase in civil warning sirens, and the widespread adoption of school tornado drills. I don’t even want to imagine the consequences of this storm in a pre-1970s world.
Of course, knowing that people responded just about the best they could also kind of makes it worse, since it highlights that no matter how well we prepare, nature still has the upper hand. Advance warnings can get people to basements and interior spaces, but in an EF4 or EF5, even a basement won’t necessarily save if you if the entire house goes right down on top of you. And as we saw with Joplin and the April 2011 outbreak in Alabama, triple-digit death tolls (such as surpass even the Super Outbreak) are still possible when humongous storms meet populated areas, especially when basements and cellars are not a common thing in the area due to the terrain. And even in the relatively small death toll of the Oklahoma outbreak, 24 dead is still 24 people (9 children!) whose loved ones will never see them again ):
Like I said, I think the people of Oklahoma did exactly what they were supposed to, but the importance of preparedness is worth repeating. Now that I live in earthquake country-- where by the time you know the disaster is coming, it’s already happening-- you can’t even imagine how much I envy the prospect of a 15-minute advance warning and having a reliable safe place to go in the first place! But I get frustrated with how flippant some people can be about storm watches and warnings* as if every time a siren goes off it’s some personal attack on their time, and not because they live in a tornado-prone area and, golly gee, sometimes there's a tornado and the community is doing them the service of warning them. I’m sure occasionally there is a false-positive tornado identification, but let’s be real here, you’d much rather be warned about a tornado that doesn’t not exist than not warned about one that ends up running over your house! And the verified tornado may be on the other side of the county, far away from you, but if there’s a tornado that close, even if that one doesn’t come up to visit it’s exponentially more likely another one could fall out of the sky on top of you. And is it really that much trouble to hang tight in your basement or closet until a warning is lifted? You know, in the interest of not dying? Bring your iPhone and play some goddamn Angry Birds for twenty minutes while you not die. Be honest with yourself, was what you were doing before the warning really that much more important? More important than not dying?
*Not to mention confused about their meanings and the advised course of action-- though that may be a flaw of the weather service for choosing ambiguous terms. (I know they're considering changing them?). A WATCH means there is no tornado, but conditions are likely, so keep an eye on the sky and weather updates, and get your bearings (know where everyone in the family is, don’t travel out too far from home or other safe spaces) in case conditions change rapidly. A WARNING means a tornado is on the ground somewhere in your county and you should take shelter immediately. It does not mean, like my sister once believed, that “A tornado warning is warning you about the tornado coming, and a tornado watch means you can actually watch the tornado.” Lol.
And for chrissakes if you’ve got several DAYS to get out of town in advance of a hurricane and everyone is telling you to GTFO . . . GTFO!
Pay attention to civil alert sirens. Know when there are scheduled tests so you can ignore them, but any time you hear it outside the scheduled time, pay attention! If you live somewhere outside earshot of civil warning sirens, invest in a weather radio or subscribe to severe weather alerts on your phone. Frankly it's a good idea to have a second way to check the weather no matter what the circumstances. Oldschool battery-powered radios are nothing to scoff at when power, cell, and Internet service could all be cut together.
If you live in tornado country and you’ve got an accessible choice between a residence with a basement (or cellar) and without, get the basement! XD Or get to know nearby neighbors and see about using theirs in an emergency. (But be reasonable; if you're considering dashing across a field to a distant neighbor in a rural area, or driving to a friend's all the way across town, you’re better off in your bathroom). If you don't have a basement, plan ahead about which interior closet or bathroom would be safest to ride out a storm. It sounds silly, but consider grabbing a bike helmet, especially for kids!
If you live in a mobile home, research shelter options in your area. The park may have its own designated shelter, or you may have use of a neighboring brick-and-mortar building for this purpose. Know that inside your mobile home is basically the worst place you can ride out a storm. Don't stay there. You're better off lying in a ditch. Literally.
If you live in an apartment, investigate the best place to go in a storm. Is there a basement? Is there a windowless space on the first floor? Can you make a friend on the first floor and hang out in their bathroom?
If you’re driving, if you can get out of your car and inside a sturdy building, do it. If there’s nothing around you and you’ve got enough distance, you may be able to evade a (small) tornado by driving away at a 90-degree angle to its path-- but by the time you see the tornado, it’s probably too late for this, especially if you can’t go off-road. Get out of the car and get away from it. It’s counterintuitive as fuck, but STAY OUT IN THE OPEN. Lie in a ditch (like the drainage ditches on the side of a highway) or as flat against the ground as you can. Do not hide in or under your car, which will likely be blown over or even picked up and thrown. Do not go under an overpass, where wind speeds will be as much as doubled by the windtunnel effect through the enclosed space.
Find out about the storm procedures at your child’s school. Do they practice storm drills? How soon into the school year and how often? Where are the safe places students directed to? Schools generally don’t have shelters or basements, so the safest place is an interior hallway-- no windows, no exterior doors, no glass-- on the main floor when possible. (A school I student-taught at had students on the third floor go to a hallway on the second because apparently there simply wasn’t enough room on the first. This kind of freaked me out!). Bathrooms are good, too. Gyms, cafeterias, and auditoriums-- large rooms with a wide, relatively unsupported ceiling-- are not. (My elementary school once put us in the gym and I was like WTF?). I read about one family in this tornado who actually pulled their kids out of school to bring them home for the storm. I wouldn't really advocate that, since you'd have to have the time to get there and back before the storm hit, time which you probably don't have-- but I will say I wouldn't think you were crazy if you kept a child from catching the bus to school or waited to leave home to drop them off if the weather looked super bad at the time.
If there's violent storms in your area, plan around them. If you feel like it could be dangerous, even if you're not *sure,* wait a while before you leave home or send family members out. Violent storms can sweep in very suddenly-- and are often over in just as long, so it's really not a huge inconvenience even if nothing dramatic goes down. Don't be on the road if you can help it. Keep the family together if possible, but don't try to travel to one another during the storm; plan ahead about ways to get in touch and safe places to meet if a disaster occurs when separated. Don't wait until an emergency is declared, but gather animals-- who are often difficult to corral in a panic-- into a safe place just in case.
You guys know I love to watch storms. But when I watch storms, I stick close to home, minutes from the safety of my basement. Because I love weather, I keep up to date with the progress of storms as a rule, even when they're still states away-- but I still jump when I hear that siren. Frankly the reason I still haven't seen a tornado is because I do play it safe; I missed seeing a funnel cloud drift over the lake because I was in the basement tracking updates from the weather service, exactly what experts agree I should have been doing. And I'm someone who knows a far bit about the anatomy of a tornadic storm and the safe place to be around a tornado (but still would like to learn more before I go out looking for one specifically!-- better get on that, since it's on my 26 before 27, lol). If you know very little about them, definitely your best bet is to do the safe thing and follow recommended advice about storm watches and warnings. Don't take the risk!