I have had a dramatic fear of tornadoes ever since my fifth-grade teacher taught a science unit on weather. Shortly after that, my family moved to Birmingham, where tornadoes happen much more often than in my native North Carolina. I began the habit of asking my dad, “What’s the weather?” every night before bed because I was terrified that a twister may come at us in the dark. Eleven years later, on April 27, 2011, my fears were realized as I huddled alone in my Tuscaloosa apartment. Thankfully, I survived and I want to pass on what I have learned about tornado preparedness through both my fear and my experience.
Take Tornado Watches and Warnings Seriously
I am so grateful that, on a beautiful Wednesday morning, the supervisor for my internship saw a tweet from James Spann declaring that Tuscaloosa was in a “bullseye” for tornado activity. She immediately sent me home and told me to stay safe, even though at that point the weather appeared clear. It is so very important to take any significant weather updates seriously. If you are not from Alabama, do not brush these warnings aside and assume that we are overreacting. Tornadoes are unpredictable and deadly. You do not receive the same type of advance notice that you might receive with a hurricane.
Don’t Try to be a Storm Chaser
Unless you are a trained meteorologist with specialized vehicles and equipment, do not get in your car and follow a tornado. These deadly funnels do not follow a straight path and can change direction suddenly. Your YouTube video may get 1,000,000 views if you survive, but it will get zero if you don’t and you will leave many grieving friends and family members behind.
Become Well Acquainted with Your Safe Place
When a weatherman says to, “get in your safe place” they are referring to a room in your home or workplace that is your designated spot to ride out a storm. Make sure that you and everyone in your home know that this is the place you go during a storm. This space will ideally be in a basement but, if you do not have a basement, seek shelter on the ground floor in an interior room. Avoid windows and heavy items like refrigerators and pianos if you can. Providing as much protection over head is key, a table or mattress can protect you from falling debris. I know this works because of my fellow students who survived on April 27th by getting in a bathtub and holding a mattress over their heads.
Be Equipped with the Right Supplies
Here is a great list for what you need in your basic disaster supplies kit. I know the kit can seem overwhelming, but every item has a purpose. The idea of grabbing all of these things in the moment, as a disaster is heading your way, is a recipe for chaos. So, being prepared is key! In an ideal world, you could have a kit put together that lives in your safe place. If, like me, you do not live in an ideal world, try these steps.
- Keep a few flashlights, spare batteries, a whistle (or air horn), and a NOAA weather radio in your safe place. These are easy to store and are some of the most crucial items to have on hand. You never know how long power will be out during a storm so the flashlights and batteries will help you find your way. The weather radio will help you know when it is safe to exit your safe place and the whistle/air horn will allow you to signal for help if you become trapped under debris.
- If you have space, keep gallon jugs of water in your safe place. This takes up more space but is vital because, even if your home is not damaged, your drinking water could be affected after a storm.
- Locate some bike/sports helmets and keep them in your safe place (maybe with hooks on the wall). This goes for you and your kiddos! You may feel silly, but wearing a helmet drastically decreases your chance of a traumatic head injury.
- Treat your diaper bag like a satellite supply kit during tornado season. The idea of keeping food in our basement (where I know I’ll forget about it) is not ideal for me. So, I try to keep the diaper bag very well stocked with food, snacks, water cups, diapers, wipes, and first aid supplies at all times (I reload each afternoon). There are times where this feels like a pain. But, I know when we need to go to our safe place, I only need to grab the diaper bag. *Side note: I do not keep three days’ worth of food in the diaper bag; I keep enough for our toddler and a few snacks like protein bars for my husband and me.
April 27, 2011 changed my life in more ways than I can explain. I should have been driving home from class when the tornado hit, but I stayed home because James Spann had his sleeves rolled up (so I knew he meant business). That was how my senior year of college ended. My last official day of class as an undergraduate at The University of Alabama was spent huddled in my closet wondering if I would make it out alive. The last contact I had with my parents that day was when my mom told me that the tornado was hitting the mall next to my apartment complex. I lost cell service after that and did not get it back for quite some time. When our delayed graduation ceremony was held in August of 2011, degrees were award posthumously to the students who lost their lives in the storm. By the grace of God, I was able to walk across the stage and receive my diploma myself. But, it is not lost on me that things could have turned out very differently.
So please, please, please take tornado warnings seriously! You do not need to have a slightly irrational fear like me; just take the necessary precautions to keep you and your loved ones safe. Oh, and find a local meteorologist that you trust. I highly recommend James Spann. 🙂