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The deadly tornadoes that have occurred over the last couple of years should serve as a reminder of how devastating these storms can be. More than 500 Americans perished during the 2011 tornado season alone, and many thousands more were injured. Yet despite this, many families – even those living in the heart of tornado alley or “Dixie alley” – remain largely unprepared, and there are still many widely-held safety myths. These pages will outline the basics of tornado safety, ensuring that your family is prepared should a twister head your way.

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Basics of Tornado Safety

Tornado safety tip #1: Have a NOAA weather radio

All households who live in a tornado-prone area absolutely must have a NOAA weather radio. Warning sirens in towns can lose power during a tornado, and they are notoriously unreliable. They also may not awake or alert you to a nighttime tornado that is heading in your direction. A NOAA radio gets real time information directly from the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, and can be set so that it only goes off if there is a tornado headed for your specific location.

Tornado safety tip #2: Build a tornado shelter

If you live in a mobile home or a house without a basement in a tornado prone area, you should have a tornado shelter. You can purchase steel tornado shelters that install in your house for around $5,000 dollars. There are also many other prefabricated shelters that you can bury in the ground that typically run anywhere from a thousand to several thousand dollars.

If you can’t afford a professional shelter, consider making one. It doesn’t necessarily have to be anything fancy. Simply grabbing a shovel and burying a homemade box in the ground that is big enough to fit your family can offer life-saving protection. Cover the top with 2 by 8 boards and make an entry latch using strong hinges, then cover the remainder with the dirt you dug out. Most tornado damage comes from crosswinds, so getting underground to any degree offers you far more protection. (More detailed tornado shelter plans can be found on the internet.) If you go this route, just ensure that your makeshift shelter is safely constructed and doesn’t pose a fall hazard or other safety risks for children.

Tornado safety tip #3: Have a tornado safety plan

If you don’t have a basement and absolutely can’t dig a storm shelter, have a plan. What are some safe places you can get to quickly? If there is a 5 or 10 minute warning or a tornado-warned storm is heading your way, are there any safer places you can get to? Who is in charge of gathering which kids? Can you create a network with other neighbors to ensure everyone is alerted? Families should also conduct tornado drills just like you would a fire drill. Kids will have fun with this, so you can make it something to do on a laid-back weekend. Have races to get inside the house and then burrow themselves in the bathtub under couch cushions.

Tornado safety tip #4: Ways to make your home more tornado resistant

Invest in a sturdy, stiff garage door, along with double pane laminated windows, which fare reasonably well in tornadoes. When a garage door fails, it can place a good deal of internal pressurization on the entire house, which can blow out walls and ceilings. Stronger windows can hold up better against the battery of debris, which might buy extra time and keep the winds out of your house for longer. Experts also say poorly installed shingles are another weak area. In high winds they can rip off, causing a domino effect that pulls the roof apart. None of these things will stand up to a strong EF3 or higher tornado, but they may reduce the damage sustained by weaker tornadoes, and perhaps make just enough difference in a mid-range twister to prevent total annihilation and give you a better chance of survival.

Tornado safety myths

Tornado safety myth #1: You should rush around to close windows before the tornado hits

The belief that you should close windows comes from the idea that an open window allows the wind to get inside the house and tear it apart from the inside out. There’s just one problem: If a tornado actually hits, ALL your windows (and maybe even your walls) will soon be open, because the glass will be shattered by rocks and two by fours. So closing windows will have no impact at all. In fact, it’s likely to get you either cut up or killed, since you’re running around and placing yourself in front of one of the most dangerous places in the house.

Tornado safety myth #2: Highway overpasses offer protection

One of my favorite tornado videos depicts a TV crew and a family managing to survive a tornado that was headed their way by climbing up underneath a highway overpass. The tornado passes right over them and they escape unscathed. Yet experts say such instances are not typical. Many highway overpasses are built differently, and offer little to no protection. More deaths and injuries occur to people who take shelter in highway overpasses than to those who simply lay low in a ditch.

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