A lesson from Joplin, Mo., is that tornadoes may strike with little or no warning, hidden by rain or nearly transparent until they kick up dust and debris.
The best thing in a tornado warning is to head for a predetermined shelter or a basement. But people often are caught in unfamiliar structures and situations.
You might be shopping, visiting a nursing home, driving a car or attending a movie.
Emergency management officials recommend these basic guidelines for any building:
Get to the lowest level, find an interior room or hallway away from windows, and put as many walls between you and the storm as possible.
Flying debris is the leading cause of deaths and injuries in a tornado.
No tip can guarantee safety, though.
“Sometimes you get a weather event that is so extreme you can follow all the recommended practices and still not be safe,” said Randy Duncan, Sedgwick County Emergency Management director.
Here are tips for a variety of situations.
Don’t try to outrun a tornado. If a tornado is visible far away and the traffic is light, you may able to drive out of its path by moving at right angles to the storm. Otherwise park the car as quickly as possible out of traffic, get out immediately, and head for nearest sturdy building, or lie flat in a ditch or low-lying area. If driving into flying debris, pull over and park. After that, the National Weather Service offers these options as a last resort: Stay in the vehicle with your seat belt on. Put your head down below the windows, covering your head with your hands and a blanket if possible.
If you can safely get to a spot that is lower than the level of the roadway, get out of the car and lie in that area, covering your head with your hands.
Don’t take shelter under overpasses. Deadly airborne debris can easily be blown into those areas.
Drivers may purchase “all-hazard” radios or hand-held devices that offer weather radar capabilities, to determine if there are storms ahead.
These are generally built of lightweight materials, said John F. Crosby, deputy director of Sedgwick County Emergency Management. They may meet code, but aren’t adequate protection in tornado conditions. Also, the many loose items inside any large store can turn into deadly missiles in a tornado.
People who go to large stores on days when severe weather is expected need to keep those warnings in mind. If they are in a store when a tornado is coming toward it, the only option is to find cover outside in a ditch or low-lying area, Duncan said.
People may seek shelter inside the store in restrooms or storage rooms. But those spaces won’t hold many people and aren’t adequate protection in EF-4 or EF-5 tornadoes, Duncan said. The best thing is to stay home if severe weather is expected.
HIGH-RISE APARTMENTS, OFFICE BUILDINGS
If there is no basement, or no time to get to a basement or to the lowest floor, pick a place in a hallway in the center of the building.
Central stairways are good if they are enclosed by concrete, not glass. Elevators are not good places to go because buildings could lose power.
Stay away from glass walls and windows, no matter how small.
Crouch as low as possible to the floor, facing down, and cover your head with your hands.
HOUSES OR OTHER SMALL STRUCTURES
Homeowners should prepare a safe place to go in tornado warnings. If there is no basement, go to a center hallway, bathroom or closet on the lowest floor.
Hide under a heavy work table or under stairs to avoid crumbling walls, chimneys and debris.
Be aware of where heavy objects such as pianos, refrigerators and beds sit on floors above, and don’t go under them.
The bathtub and commode are anchored into the ground and sometimes are the only things left standing after a storm. Get into a the bathtub with a cushion or heavy blankets over you.
If there is no downstairs bathroom, and closets are full, a hallway may be the next best shelter.
In a pinch, put a metal trash container over your head to protect against flying debris.
FACTORIES, SHOPPING CENTERS, CHURCHES, THEATERS
Again, interior hallways and rooms on the lowest floor are best if you unable to reach a tornado shelter.
Avoid areas with wide, free-span roofs in theaters, auditoriums and warehouses. Get under a sturdy table and use your arms to protect your head and neck. Crouch down and cover your head. Stay away from windows and outside walls.
In churches or theaters, get under seats or pews, protecting your head with your arms.
Schools should have safety plans and conduct frequent tornado drills.
Schools without shelters or basements should use interior rooms and hallways on the lowest floor away from windows.
Rooms with large roof spans such as gymnasiums, cafeterias and auditoriums offer little or no protection from tornadoes, although some Wichita schools do have sturdy roofs, county officials said.
Students and staff should sit facing an interior wall, elbows to knees and hands over the back of heads.
Forty-four Wichita school buildings have Federal Emergency Management Agency-approved storm shelters reinforced with 10 to 12 inches of concrete.
These shelters are accessible to the public if the school is open and people arrive before the shelter is locked down. All schools have secondary shelter areas that are available to those who arrive after the shelters are locked.
The National Weather Service recommends that schools keep children at the school beyond regular hours if a tornado is in the area.
It also recommends that school bus drivers identify protective areas along their routes where they and their passengers can take cover in case of a tornado.
Mobile homes aren’t safe, even if securely tied down. Residents should abandon them and go to the nearest sturdy building or shelter immediately.
Go to the basement of a nearby sturdy building or lie flat in a ditch or low-lying area. The National Weather Service recommends that if you are outside and can’t get to a sturdy building or low-lying area, go to a vehicle, buckle the seat belt and drive to the nearest shelter, following guidelines detailed above. On water, tornadoes become water spouts and pose a danger to boaters.
Boaters need to ask themselves: “Do I really want to be boating on a day when there’s a really good chance of severe weather?” Duncan said. They also are in danger of lightning from the storms. Boaters should get off the water at the first sign of a storm.
The obvious problem in nursing homes: “Realistically there’s no way you can move 25 to 50 people out of a building and move them somewhere else in a tornado warning. It would be impossible,” Crosby said.
In the case of multi-story homes, people should get to the lowest level and find an interior room away from windows and outside walls.
Mobility-impaired residents should be moved out of their rooms into a hallway to avoid flying glass and outside walls.