The Woodward News

April 20, 2013

Program focuses on tornado safety

Rowynn Ricks
Woodward News

Woodward, Okla. — By Rowynn Ricks

Assistant Editor

Woodward and area residents learned a number of severe weather and tornado safety tips during a Weather Awareness and Preparedness Seminar held at the conference center Thursday night.

The seminar was hosted by the Woodward Office of Emergency Management (WOEM), with WOEM Director Matt Lehenbauer leading the safety discussion.

Lehenbauer's presentation also included some basic storm spotting tips to help the public be able to identify potentially tornadic storms, such as how to identify a rotating wall cloud.

However much of the information he provided was centered around how to stay safe during a storm.

The following are some of the big safety issues he discussed:

• The No. 1 tornado danger is being in your vehicle.  -  "If you leave your house and get in your vehicle (during a tornado), your risk of death jumps 10 times," Lehenbauer said.  

He shared one of his own personal experiences to illustrate his point.  He said when he was chasing one tornado near Gainesville, Texas several years ago, he saw a secondary funnel drop down right onto a semi truck and trailer on the highway.  He said that tornado "flipped the whole truck over," ejecting the semi driver and "killed him instantly."  

"So I'm pretty adamant about not getting into your vehicle when there's a tornado warning," Lehenbauer said.  "The only time you should leave your house is if you're in a single wide trailer or mobile home."

The reason for leaving these types of structures is because just like with vehicles, tornadic winds can easily flip and roll trailers, he said.

"With a single wide, the winds both go over it and then get around the skirting to go under it, and like when wind goes over and under an airplane wing, that creates lift," he said.

However, even if you have to leave a trailer, Lehenbauer said it is best to find a shelter that you can reach quickly on foot rather than by car.  "Ideally your shelter should be accessible within 2 minutes walking distance," he said.

And if you happen to already be on the road when there's a tornado warning and you can't take shelter in any nearby structures, then try to drive away from the tornado.

In Oklahoma, he said most tornados and storms travel in an easterly or northeasterly direction, so usually a good option will be to drive south, as long as that doesn't put you in the path of another storm.

• Underground shelter is the best, otherwise take shelter in small, interior room.  - When it comes to the best option for taking shelter, Lehenbauer said "underground is best."  That's because the strongest tornados, classified as F-5s, with winds 200 mph and over, "will strip everything off the ground," he said.

However, he understands that for those with mobility issues who may not be able to easily make it down into an underground shelter, a safe room is a good alternative.

For those who have neither an underground shelter area nor a safe room, Lehenbauer said the best place to be is usually the bathroom.

The bathroom has several benefits, including that it's usually an interior room, is a small room, and has other structural features that help to make it sturdier.

"The structural weak point on a standard home is the roof, if the roof comes off, then the walls will give way," Lehenbauer said.

But the smaller size of the bathroom means that "the walls are closer together, which helps hold them up," he said.

The concrete board used in the construction of many bathrooms (for tiling work) helps provide strength, and the water pipes in the walls also help, he said.

"Even with F-2 and F-3 tornadoes, which can have up to 170 mph winds, you'll still find most bathrooms intact," Lehenbauer said.

• "Tornadoes don't kill people, debris does." - So just making it into your bathroom may not be enough to protect you, you also need to "cover up," Lehenbauer said.

A tornado's violent winds send a lot of debris flying through the air which can hit you, causing injury or even death depending on the type of debris and where it hits you.

So any additional protection that you can give yourself against the debris, the better.  This means using whatever you have including pillows, blankets, sleeping bags, mattresses and even helmets.

"If it's a tornado, I'm all for putting helmets on because head trauma is what kills people," Lehenbauer said.

He also recommends putting infants in car seats and shared a story about "a baby who was thrown 200 yards during the Joplin tornado, but survived with just a few scratches because was in a car seat."

• Storms come with multiple dangers including hail, flooding and lightning. - Debris isn't the only danger though.  Flooding and lightning can also be deadly.  When it comes to high water, Lehenbauer said to remember the phrase "Turn around, don't drown."  How can you tell if the water level is unsafe? "If you can't see the road, don't drive through it," he said.

As for lightning, Lehenbauer recommends the "30/30 rule," which means that if you see lightning, start counting to 30.  If you hear thunder before you reach 30, then the lightning is close enough to be a danger and you should take shelter inside a structure.  You then wait for 30 minutes until you no longer see lightning before returning outside.

For hail, avoid injury by staying inside, away from windows.

• Have multiple ways to get notification about severe weather. - One tough lesson learned by the April 15, 2012 tornado that hit Woodward, is how quickly and easily a storm in the wrong place can damage and disrupt traditional warning methods.  Lehenbauer talked about how last year's tornado took down outdoor warning sirens and a radio tower, which prevented officials from being able to notify citizens of the dangerous and deadly storm using those systems.  Power lines were also damaged, shutting off electricity, meaning no warnings via television either.

That is why it is important for people to have as many different notification options as possible.  And one of the best options is a weather radio, with a battery backup system, so that even if the electricity goes out, the weather radio will still have power to issue emergency alerts, including weather watches and warnings.

Weather radios can also be programmed to provide alerts for specific counties, so the warning area can be as broad or as narrow as you choose.

In an effort to help more area citizens stay informed, the Red Cross, thanks to a donation from CF Industries, gave away 10 weather radios as door prizes to attendees of Thursday's weather seminar.  For those who won the radios, Lehenbauer helped to program the devices so they could be used immediately.

In addition to weather radios, Lehenbauer said that there are several smartphone apps available to help keep the public informed.