Natural Disaster Preparedness [NOT 4/4/22]

Hi, friends!

April is often the month that has bad tornado outbreaks in the US, and so I thought today’s post could be focused on “things that are useful when dealing with tornadic weather.”

I grew up (and live still) in Missouri, which definitely gets tornadoes but also I spent about 5 years in Alabama. Alabama also gets tornadoes but has no residential structures built around the idea of tornado safety. And appalling bad public safety plans which impact notification and response.

First up – watch vs. warning. Tornado watch = huh we got weather conditions that make a tornado likely. Tornado warning = oh fuck there’s a tornado happening in the region. Hail commonly happens with tornadoes, and there’s weird cloud colors, air pressure changes, and sounds you have with them, too.

So what’s your best plan before inclement weather?

Know where you’ll go. If you have a basement, that’s ideal. If your basement has a closet, even better. You don’t have a basement? Interior room with no windows, typically a bathroom. You cower in the tub under a mattress/couch cushions and wear a helmet if you have one. No joke, I have friends who survived a tornado in Tennessee doing this.

You live in an upper level shitty apartment in Alabama where the only room without windows is the bathroom but it’s also on an exterior wall so literally there is nowhere safe? Well my friends we’d sit outside under the awnings on folding chairs, get drunk, and watch the funnel clouds. (side note, while I no longer lived there when the April 2011 tornado tore through the town, that apartment complex was turned into a pile of rubble and people died)

What about if you’re at work? Know where the tornado shelter spot is, typically in an office building/large store it’s the bathrooms. What if about if you’re out shopping? Here’s where it gets dodgy because where you are probably isn’t safe but how much time do you have? If you’re somewhere with a walk in cooler, those are generally a good plan because of the reinforced structure.

Tornadoes typically move at 10-20mph, but they can go up to 60mph, so don’t assume you can out-drive one. Definitely don’t think under an overpass is a safe place, you’re better off hunkering down in a ditch. My dad lived through a small tornado in 1970s Texas in a ditch.

I gotta be honest, because tornadoes can completely flatten houses, I don’t see a point in stockpiling any goods and food beyond what you normally have around. Like I get if I’m expecting an ice storm, I need to prepare. But a tornado is either going to kill me real fucking quick or people are going to be able to access my neighborhood pretty quickly with chainsaws, etc, to clear debris so I don’t see the expectation of having to wait out several days with no access to food or aid.

In general though, having a bag with emergency documents that you can easily grab when it’s time to shelter in place is good. I had one with copies of legal docs, my passport, some cash, copies of my dog’s vet records (when he was still alive), contact info, portable hard drive (with my photos saved on it), phone charger, and a small battery-powered radio and flashlight. Try to remember to wear good shoes when you run and hide, because who knows what debris you might be walking over after it’s passed.

Most importantly – don’t assume you’ll get a good lead time for the warning. Yes, sometimes you get a tornado on the ground and they can get people a lot of warning. The National Weather Service says the average warning time is 24 minutes. However, there’s a huge difference between information and a warning. Going back to my Tuscaloosa tornado reference – that whole day was full of storms in the region, and Tuscaloosa county is about 1300 sq miles. People heard tornado warnings on their phones for Tuscaloosa County, and then people got alerted again when there was about 5 minutes before it hit the southwest part of town. Friends said that alert was something like “seek shelter now, tornado is imminent.” A few years back when I still lived there, a college professor told me that Tuscaloosa county didn’t blare all their storm sirens at the same time, they daisy-chained them one after another. So you could hear a siren, then think things are fine after a few minutes, and then by the time it gets back to your area it’s been 20 minutes and oh fuck there’s the tornado.

A few days after that devastating Alabama tornado, one hit North County in St Louis where I lived. I’ll be perfectly honest – at the time I lived in South County and when the tv meteorologists said there was a tornado on the ground in North County, I was worried about those folks but not going to my basement because of the location and direction it was taking. If you’re not getting localized data about location or path, it’s not helpful.

tl;dr if an EF4 or EF5 hits your structure, you’re probably dead anyways, but there are some things that can help your odds if weaker tornados hit. Please pay attention in bad weather and stay safe. Tornadoes are terrifying and if you’re in one/have a close call, PTSD is totally understandable and be patient with yourself.

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15 Comments

  1. When my Mom was about 12 in the corn belt, the sky got freaky green blue and my grandparents got everyone in the cellar as they had practiced many times.

    The sky got worse, the air got weird.

    And then the tornado literally picked up their house above their heads and dropped the wreckage some distance away. Everyone survived but the house was nothing but kindling, and a dozen or more people in the area were shredded.

    Don’t mess with them.

      • My Grandfather and her older brother rebuilt the house by hand on the foundations of the old house while the rest of the family lived in a tent and pulled water from the well.

        I keep encountering hipster doofuses who moan about the impossibility of their modern life and I want to scream.

        To be fair, there are a lot of people today who really care about making stone walls, knitting, and growing food. So it’s not all bad or good.

  2. Never lived in Tornado or Hurricane country.  Don’t really want to.

    Can’t imagine having to face the power of a tornado/hurricane.  Again, don’t want to experience it.

    However, thanks to our greed/ignorance/stupidity we’re all going to have to face the slow motion natural equivalent of a nuclear airburst sooner than later.

    • I’d like to think I’d be fine in a hurricane only for the simple reason that no fucking thank you I’m getting my ass out of there and I’d be the panicked person evacuating way early. But also that’s a luxury that many people don’t have.

  3. I’ve been through 2 hurricanes, Iwa & Iniki.  I was in high school when the warnings went off for Iwa & they let us out of school.  We were all told to go home so of course we all went to the beach to watch the giant surf.  Our island had lots of roofs lost & flooding but not as bad as other islands.  Iniki was worst for Kauai but we got off pretty easy.  We get super high winds in WA but mostly just fear earthquakes.  Been through one big one so far but not as scary as Hawaiian storms.  My house is on a fault line on the edge of a gulch so I should be more worried about earthquakes than I am.

    • I was doing fieldwork in Belize in 2009 when a big earthquake hit off the coast of Honduras.

      It happened overnight and even though we were like 100 miles away it was still very scary to be woken up by it. Luckily we were staying on at ecopreserve that had rooftop water cisterns on small cinderblock cabins  and used almost no electricity so like what was the impact? It wasn’t like there was anything to disrupt or damage.

      That being said I’m good I don’t need to experience that again, k thanks.

  4. I was in Palmdale working on a film when the 1994 Northridge earthquake hit. We were staying in a two story motel. It was the craziest feeling I’ve ever had – it hit at around 4 or 5 am. I woke up to feeling like I was on a mattress out in the middle of a wave pool. The motel pool cracked and all of the water drained out. A bunch of people got trapped in their rooms because of the tv consoles getting knocked down in front of their doors. We were supposed to start our first day of shooting that day. Production actually had us show up for our call times and try to shoot – even though the costume building only had two walls still standing. They finally called it  because the train depot we were using had too many cracks in the walls. The quake had damaged both highways in and out so we were stranded for a week. My dog got trapped in my apartment in Studio City – so my neighbors pretty much ripped out the windows to get her out.  I had a really cool fish tank and my guppies had had babies and they had just gotten their tails – completely destroyed. Production finally moved up to a taller Holiday Inn in Ventura that was on rollers and when the aftershocks would hit – it would sway back and forth like you wouldn’t believe.

    I’ve been through two hurricanes in Wilmington, NC – Bertha and Fran – both back to back in 96. The wind was crazy, but my house was on the hospital grid so we never even lost power. My dog, Edie – who had been through the earthquake and Fran and Bertha –  was in  another hurricane with my pet sitter who waited too late to evacuate during Floyd in 99. They were fine – but my pet sitter said he was never going to wait that late to leave ever again.

    I was in a tornado in Atlanta when I was little. My mom taught in metro Atlanta schools and I remember the sky being green and a sound like a train. We were all in the basement of the school doing the tuck and cover. I don’t think there was a lot of damage – for sure not like the ones that hit the mid west.

    The earthquake was the scariest – because there is literally nothing you can do.

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