Published on 02/05/09

Increase your chances of surviving tornadoes

By David E. Stooksbury
University of Georgia

The first week in February is Severe Weather Awareness Week in Georgia. The coming months are often the ones with the highest rate of tornadoes in the state.

Many tornado deaths happen at night while victims sleep. These deaths show the importance of being warned when asleep.

The fastest way to hear about severe weather is with a NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, pronounced “Noah”) weather radio. NOAA weather radios sound an alarm when severe weather approaches and broadcast details about it.

A NOAA weather radio placed in your bedroom will awaken you if needed.

NOAA radios are sold at electronic stores and even some grocery stores. Choose one with “SAME” technology, which allows you to program it to sound the warning only for severe weather in your area.

Local radio and TV stations can notify you of severe weather, too. Make sure that you are listening to a local station. A station in a neighboring county may not broadcast warnings for your location.

The Weather Channel monitors severe weather, but only if a local cable company provides it. Satellite subscribers don’t get local warnings.

The major drawback of relying on local radio, TV or cable is that you must be awake and paying attention. A NOAA radio doesn’t depend on you being awake or even paying attention. When the National Weather Service broadcasts a warning, it will sound the alarm.

Don’t depend on outdoor warning sirens, which are intended to warn people working or playing outside.

If the National Weather Service issues a tornado warning, seek shelter quickly. Go to a shelter in a well-constructed building on the lowest possible floor in an interior room away from windows.

The basement is generally the safest place. Stay away from windows and doors and protect yourself from blowing objects.

If you don’t have a basement, a small interior room on the first floor is your next choice. An interior bathroom often meets these requirements. The plumbing reinforces the bathroom. Another possibility is an interior closet.

In a business, school or church, the same rules apply. Everyone should seek shelter in an interior room away from windows on the lowest level. In many large buildings, interior hallways and restrooms are the best choice.

Avoid large rooms such as gyms, auditoriums, libraries, cafeterias or sanctuaries. They generally don’t have the structural support to keep from collapsing in a direct hit.

Mobile homes aren’t safe during severe thunderstorms or tornadoes. Even if it’s tied down, it’s not structurally sound enough to withstand severe winds. The general safety rule for mobile homes is to evacuate to a storm shelter or a sturdy building.

When working outdoors or in a car, keep up-to-date about changing weather conditions. This means listening to a local radio station or having a portable NOAA weather radio.

Don’t get under a highway underpass. The myth that this is a good shelter has grown thanks to a video showing a reporter doing this during a tornado. That reporter was very lucky.

If you’re caught outdoors or in a car with a tornado approaching, seek shelter in a sturdy building. If one isn’t available, lie down in a ditch or a low spot where cars or trees won’t be blown on top of you. Don’t stay in your car. A tornado can pick up your car and blow it around like a toy.

Remember to protect your body, especially your head and neck, from flying debris. Use pillows, blankets, coats or whatever you can find.

Another common tornado myth is to open the windows to equalize the pressure inside and outside the building. Once taught as correct, recent research has shown that it’s the wind not the pressure that destroys buildings. Closed windows help a building withstand wind.

David Emory Stooksbury is associate professor of Biological and Agricultural Engineering at University of Georgia's College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.