I once photographed a funnel cloud. (That’s cloud, mind you, not funnel cake, which is much easier to photograph.) It wasn’t the greatest picture – in fact, you needed a magnifying glass to make it out. I didn’t have a zoom lens, and I was right where a person should be during a tornado: Away.
Being on storm watch was my excuse for being there. Say, why are firefighters given the job of watching for storms? It’s not like we’re going to put them out, and a twister can suck up a fire truck as easily as any other vehicle. Considering tornadoes have been known to drive straw through solid walls, I’m not sure a helmet’s much of an advantage.
Still, we’re the emergency services, and if a tornado isn’t an emergency, I’m not sure what is. There are also police, ham radio operators, and emergency management people out there, doing the same thing. They stay out to watch, give warning, and deal with the aftermath, all of which can be pretty nasty.
We also have storm chasers. Some collect scientific data, to better understand, prepare for, and warn about severe weather. Some just like to take pictures, to better understand why they’re nuts.
Then there’s the prairie dog syndrome. That’s when somebody makes a loud noise in one of those cubicle filled offices, and everyone else pokes their head over the cubicle walls to see what’s going on. This is normally harmless. Few office workers have had a straw driven through their skull when they peak over the wall. Almost none have been sucked into the air and found two days later in the next county.
On the other hand, we invest a great deal of money in warning systems, so the citizens know when to walk out into the yard and stand in the open, like so much twister fodder They should be scrambling for cover, and staying there.
I understand it. There’s a stark, violent beauty in severe weather, especially something as amazing as a tornado. I’m sure that’s been the thought of many people, right up until their final words: “Uh oh.” Not really quote worthy.
Not justifiable, either. I suspect they don’t let you into Heaven if the TV broadcasts a tornado warning, the sirens go off, and you die after running outside to see.
For the sake of those who are smart enough to take shelter, here are some tips:
The first smart thing is to invest in a NOAA Weather Radio. Well, the smart thing is to move to western South Dakota, which not only has a low tornado risk, but is also the only state that’s never had a recorded earthquake. Or hurricane, which I suppose goes without saying. They get blizzards, though, so never mind.
Get the radio with the battery backup, and the tone-alert feature. When a warning’s issued, a tone triggers the radio even if the audio’s turned off. Don’t you wish your favorite song could do that? Like a smoke detector, all you have to do is keep the batteries fresh, and it’ll get your attention no matter what you’re doing, unless you’re doing it somewhere else.
You should know where you are. Seriously. You’d be surprised how many people don’t have a grasp of local geography, but Watches and Warnings are issued based on county and town locations. You do know the difference between a Watch and a Warning, right? Right?
A Watch means conditions are right for severe weather to form, but it hasn’t happened yet. It’s “Uh oh”. A Warning means severe weather has broken out, so instead of “uh oh” you say something else, which often begins with “Oh” and has a variety of endings, mostly four lettered.
What do you do when a tornado has been sighted in your area?
Go right away to your predetermined shelter. You know, the one you determined ahead of time. That one.
Okay, go determine a shelter, in the lowest level of the building. If there’s no basement, you should have moved, but it’s a bit late for that now. Use a smaller room, especially a walk-in closet, or a bathroom. The bathroom might be necessary if you actually hear a tornado coming. Windows are a no-no because, hey – glass. Ever been cut? Now multiply that by a thousand.
Get under a piece of sturdy furniture. Okay, go buy a piece of sturdy furniture, then get under it. Protect yourself with cushions, pillows, huge piles of clothing, pets, family members, strangers you pulled in off the street. Flying debris does a lot of damage to soft tissue, so don’t spend time worrying about why the “s” in debris is silent, just take shelter.
If you’re in a mobile home, I really feel for you. But that doesn’t help, so be somewhere else. Believe it or not, a low lying area like a ditch is better protection than a mobile home or a car. With ditches you want to watch for flash flooding, but I’ve seen that inside a house.
If you’ve been in the military – dig a hole.
In a public building, the basement’s still the best bet – next best is an inside hallway, bathroom or closet. This is not the time to worry about whether it’s the men’s or lady’s room. People will understand.
If you’re outside, get inside. Unless inside’s a mobile home. Otherwise, the ditch is right over there.
The problem with outrunning a tornado in a vehicle comes when the twister’s moving at 70 mph and you’re driving into heavy rain, hail, stop lights, and other idiots trying to outrun a tornado. Pull off somewhere away from power lines, and find a building. Unless it’s a trailer. That ditch is still right there, people.
The wind speed of a tornado can be over 300 miles per hour. Don’t assume you can stand there and take pictures in that without harm. The survivors on TV are the lucky ones – they don’t interview the people who tried that and failed, because of the whole “they’re dead” thing. Be smart. Take shelter. Stay alive. I may be a humor columnist, but that’s no joke.