Tornadoes and Hurricanes – Where is Your Shelter in a Time of Storm?

By Janice Barlow

Every year, the Weather Channel gears up for what is its exciting new season of weather reality – spring and summer storms. Tornadoes have already been wreaking havoc across the nation with their inevitable swaths of destruction. Hurricanes usually start forming in the Gulf of Mexico and as tropical depressions off the coast of west Africa around this time of year.  Those of us who live in the paths of either type of storm often tune in to the Weather Channel to see if conditions are right for a tornado, or if a hurricane could be headed our way.

As a person who has been in the path of both, I know first hand that these storms are nothing to mess with. As a teenager, I was camping in a small travel trailer with my family in northern Missouri in the 1970’s. We were staying in a campground for several nights, so my dad pitched up the add-on screened-in room and set up our outdoor furniture. The campground was also a storage facility for camping vehicles. During the first night, a tornado swept through the park. We heard it coming, and my parents tried to downplay the fear so that my younger brothers and I would not panic. But we all had heard the siren. The camper shook and rattled. Our dog whined. We all huddled on the floor.  There was nowhere to go.

As fast as it had approached, it was gone. Then it rained hard for about an hour, and was perfectly still afterwards. Since it was still dark, all we could do was wait, so we went to bed. I didn’t sleep though. At the first light, I jumped out of the bunk bed and opened the door. Our screened-in room and all the furniture were gone. The camper next to us was gone too. It was a good thing that it had been empty and was just being stored there.

There was debris everywhere and trees were down. I remember as we drove down the main road that had been cleared, that clothing hung from trees. A car was tipped over on its side and was leaning against a garage. People were out everywhere, some with chainsaws and others just cleaning up trash. Thankfully, no one died in that tornado, an F-2 by today’s standards, but a few people were injured and sparsely scattered homes were damaged. To this day, when I hear a tornado warning siren, my heart starts pounding.

Hurricanes give people more warning. If you are in the path of a hurricane and a mandatory evacuation is ordered, don’t play super hero. Leave. Those who stay behind are often never the same again. Like tornadoes, wind is a major damaging force from hurricanes. Which side of the storm you are on determines if it is a rain event or a wind event, or a double whammy. Flooding is also a real problem with hurricanes, which often spawn tornadoes as well.

I spent 21 years in coastal Florida, and escaped many close calls with hurricanes. Only one damaged our home and knocked down a small tree. To say that we moved in time to avoid the inevitable isn’t the case though, since we simply moved from the Gulf of Mexico to the coastal Atlantic in North Carolina, where the hurricanes have been pretty severe in recent years.

It is easy to get jaded when watching or listening to the news regarding tornado and hurricane watches. Most of the time, the danger passes without incident. However, the one time that you fail to prepare could be the time that the storm catches you off guard. For hurricanes, follow the instructions to prepare your home, and then decide whether or not to leave based on the severity of the storm and how close you are to the anticipated landfall. The longer you wait, the harder it will be to get out of town because of traffic. If you have no family or friends to stay with who are out of the danger zone, make hotel reservations a few days in advance, since rooms will book rapidly, especially in places that take pets.

For tornadoes, there is little warning. The posting of a tornado watch is the best indicator that conditions are right for a tornado in your area. As the saying goes, “keep your eye on the sky“. An oddly shaded sky with a greenish tint is often bad sign. Another visual signal is low hanging lumpy shaped clouds that appear before a very bad storm. These are called, “mammary clouds” for obvious reasons. In wide open skies, such as those in Texas and Oklahoma, they are classic signs that a very bad day is on the horizon. “The calm before the storm” does not always apply, as the air can be muggy but breezy before a tornadic storm.

 Mammary clouds

Watch the news, but also watch for local conditions, because a tornado needs to form somewhere, and it might just be over your neighborhood. Purchase a battery operated weather radio. I prefer the kind that is AC powered but switches to battery power if there is a power outage so that I can keep it on all the time in the event of a warning.

The best place to shelter from a tornado is below ground. If you are moving to an area where tornadoes are a menace, buy a home with a basement if possible. You won’t be sorry. If you don’t have a basement and tornadoes are frequent in your area, it would be a good idea to build an underground shelter. These can be dug just outside and against a home, or they can be professionally installed as a unit in the floor of a garage, starting at around $5,000. For preppers, the larger ones can be lined to serve as fallout shelters as well.

The next best place to shelter is in a closet, hallway or room with no outer walls or windows. Bathtubs are safer than most bedrooms. Closets under a stairway are good places to hole up. Structurally, they stand up better in a direct hit than other rooms. Stay away from all windows, and, contrary to popular belief, do not open them. Air rushing in will depressurize rapidly and lift the roof right off the house.

Mobile homes, which, for some unknown reason seem to attract tornadoes, are not safe. Get away from them and to a place of safety if possible. Many parks have a common shelter area. The same holds true for campers and vehicles. They are not safe to be inside in the event of a tornado. Get out of them and get to a place of safety, even if it’s a low lying ditch. If you are not home and a siren goes off, look for the closest shelter on your smart phone. Your workplace should have one.

If you are driving and you see a tornado drop out of the sky, do not chase it. This is common sense advice, but surprisingly, because of the glorification of storm chasing, people don’t heed it. In 2013, in Oklahoma, Tim Samaras and his son Paul, a couple of the most experienced storm chasers in history were killed by a tornado that made an unpredictable turn.  Don’t turn around and try to outrun it either, unless you can tell it is not very close, it is moving away from you and you can drive quickly in the opposite direction.

Make sure everyone in your home knows what the plans are in the event of a dangerous storm. One person may be the only one home when danger hits. There may not be time or phone service. Don’t wait until it is too late and you are one of the victims wandering your unrecognizable street looking for your family.


Janice Barlow is a true crime author. Her books are on Amazon in soft cover and Kindle format. Her newest book will be released in early July.

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