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Tornado Watch or Warning – When do you seek shelter?

Meteorologists are getting much more accurate predicting when conditions are right for violent storms and tornadoes.  But, what do you do if your area is under a warning or a watch?  The answers are not as simple as you might think, and as we learned during the recent tornadoes there were a lot of questions.  The basic guidelines are as follows:

WATCH

If your area is under a tornado WATCH, this means that conditions are favorable for tornadoes to develop and you need to WATCH out for them.  And, when a tornado WATCH is issued for your area, like it is for ours today, it is a good time to prepare your safe place in your home; Gather items like water, weather radio with extra batteries, snacks, blankets, and flashlights.   Keep a radio or TV on tuned to a local station, so you will have access to the most up-to-date storm information.

If you live in a mobile home and a tornado WATCH is issued for your area, seek shelter in a more permanent structure immediately.

Mobile homes are particularly vulnerable during bad storms, and any time there is a tornado watch and you are in a mobile home, you and your family need to seek shelter in a more stable building like a neighbor’s stick-built home, hospital, library, bank, fire department, rest stop, or government building.  (Note that strip malls, big box stores, and fast food restaurants are not typically safe places to ride out a storm because of the type of construction). 

Additionally, it is important to limit travel during a tornado watch.  One of the most dangerous places you can be during a tornado is in your car.

WARNING

WARNING means that a funnel cloud has been spotted in your area.  Go to your safe place immediately.  Do not hesitate.  If possible, bring your smart phone or laptop with you, so you can track the storm’s progress and direction.  Stay in your safe place until the storm passes. 

Even if the storm looks like it will barely miss your area, it is a good idea to go to your safe place anyway.  Meteorologists are quite good at predicting storm paths today thanks to advances in technology, but this is not a perfect science and there is still a margin of error.  Additionally, even if you are not in the funnel cloud’s direct path, flying debris and falling trees can be very dangerous or even deadly. 

Cars are inherently dangerous places to be during a tornado. Restrict travel during a tornado WATCH and get to a safe place like a bank, hospital or fire department if a tornado WARNING is issued for your area.

If you are in your car, and you hear that there is a tornado near you, or you spot a funnel cloud, do not try to out run the tornado, seek shelter in a stable, brick building like a hospital, library, bank, fire department, rest stop, or government building.  Avoid seeking shelter in strip malls, big box stores, and fast food restaurants are not typically safe places to ride out a storm because of the type of construction.  Quickly get to an interior space away from windows and glass. Do not seek shelter under an overpass or bridge because they can collapse upon you.  If you have no other choice, get out of your vehicle and into a low lying ditch.

The most important thing we can learn about tornado preparedness is for everyone to have an advance plan and to take both tornado WATCHES and WARNINGS seriously.   Tornados, although they do not affect our area often, are very dangerous and it is always better to be safe than sorry.

Barb Bisset is the director of the WakeMed Emergency Services Institute.

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