This is perhaps the most important topic covered on this Severe Weather Awareness Week in Wisconsin. For that reason, we will keep this and all other severe weather safety topics on the right side of the wqow.com/weather page through late fall when it will be replaced with winter weather safety tips.
This information on where the safest place is and what to have in a safety kit is not intended to scare you as the odds of your home being directly hit by a strong tornado in Wisconsin is very low. Still, it does happen and is something you need to be prepared for. When these situations arise, they go from zero to a hundred extremely fast so knowing ahead of time and having a plan that fits your family and specific design of your home is a crucial part in surviving if the worst were to happen.
By now, you’ve probably heard a million times to go to your basement or interior room in your house when there’s a tornado warning. That’s all good advice, but not all homes or apartments have basements or even the ideal interior location.
For apartments, all of the following is true, but it might be that you find the best place in your building is a hallway on the lowest floor or even in someone else’s apartment. It’s a very good idea to become friends with your lower floor neighbors.
We’ll go into both the decision tree you should use in determining the safest place in your home and the reasons why this is what’s recommended after going over how tornadoes are formed and how they cause damage so you gain an understanding as to why these recommendations exist.
First, there is no place that’s 100% safe every time. There are cases where the statistically safest place in a house is what gets the most damage due to the randomness of how tornadoes cause damage.
What is a tornado and how does it cause damage/injuries?
Tornadoes are rotating columns of wind in contact with the ground. The wind blows inwards towards the tornado and then up into the clouds. The fastest wind speeds are located in the tornado itself, though the strongest tornadoes will actually create smaller, faster spinning tornadoes that rotate around the larger one. This is what causes a house to have very little damage with major damage to homes all around it.
While the strong winds inside and near a tornado do cause a lot of damage, it’s actually the damage itself that hurts people. The goal of your safety shelter is to minimize your risk of being hit by flying objects that are picked up and thrown by tornadoes.
Prioritized decision tree
Top priority: sturdy building
The first and most important place to be in a severe storm or tornado is inside a sturdy structure that is securely fastened to a strong foundation. Mobile homes, cars, etc. are very easy for even weak tornadoes to flip and even pick up.
2) Lowest level
Once inside a sturdy structure, you want to get to the lowest floor, and preferably underground in a basement. The reason for this is that tornadoes will pick up and throw debris, and that debris will be moving the fastest when it is being picked up into the tornado in that rising air. Many studies have shown that weaker tornadoes will destroy attics and upper floors of buildings first, strong tornadoes will take the outside walls of a first floor, and extremely strong tornadoes will rip homes from their foundations.
If you’re underground, that debris can still fall onto you, but it has to clear the edge of the basement while moving horizontally, so debris in homes destroyed by EF-4 and EF-5 tornadoes tends to collect along the edges and especially the corners of basements. This is why the southwest corner of a basement being safe is a myth.
Wind spins in all directions in a tornado regardless of which direction it comes from. The third tier of the decision ladder is where things get a bit tricky as not every home or apartment is built to maximize safety in a tornado, especially in the age of open-concept houses.
3) Interior room
This can be said in two different ways: you’ve probably heard that you should be in the center of a building away from doors and windows, but a more accurate way to say this is to maximize the number of walls between you and outside.
It’s very difficult to impossible to change the layout of your house’s main living space, so deciding where is best isn’t always easy with open-concept homes or houses without interior closets or bathrooms. This issue of not having an interior room isn’t limited to the main floor as it can especially be true in basements. It can be easier to change the layout of a basement, especially if it isn’t finished.
If you can build a small storage room or bathroom in a basement that adheres to the following guidelines, you’ll be even safer in the event your home gets hit.
An important note about this section is your safe room does not need to be in the exact center of the house, but ideally is a place that has no outside walls.
As debris such as tree limbs, cars, glass, lumber, other building materials, etc. impacts a home, it gets slowed down as it damages outside walls, and any additional wall between you and outside will greatly improve your chance of surviving, especially if you’re not in a basement but it does make your basement shelter much safer, too, if you have an interior room.
4) Smaller room
In addition, smaller rooms are better because the walls all support each other when taking damage and will help support the ceiling above you, too. If that small room is a bathroom, it is thought that pipes inside walls may offer additional support and certainly do not take away from the protection of the wall.
5) Under something sturdy
Finally, the safest place in your house that fits as much of the above steps as possible is a place with something to take cover under like a staircase or a large piece of furniture. This is just another thing to protect from flying and falling debris.
Again, this list is in order of priority to help you best decide where the best spot in your home is.
Have a safety kit inside your shelter:
Storms form fast and you might only have minutes to get to your safety shelter. This is why having a kit already there is important so that you’re not scrambling or forgetting to grab things when time is not on your side.
Any added protection is a good thing. This is why we talk about having old bike helmets, pillows, and blankets in a kit that’s already located in the safest place in your home. It’s simply added protection.
Bike helmets give yet another layer of protection to your head, and shoes/work gloves protect your extremities especially if you have to climb through damage in order to get out after a tornado hits.
While major injuries and unfortunately deaths come from flying large debris such as parts of trees, houses, cars, and other unsecure objects, many people get injured in tornadoes from flying glass. Wrapping yourself in pillows and blankets has been shown to greatly reduce the risk of getting cuts and bruises.
Again, having these items already in your shelter is important because many tornadoes still form with only a few minutes of warning, though the strongest tornadoes on average have 5 to 15 minutes of warning before they cause major damage, but that’s not always the case.
Other things that should be in your kit already located inside your severe weather shelter is anything you might need for an extended period of time.
Don’t forget about something to keep you informed like a television or smart phone, but if the power goes out you’ll want a battery powered or crank radio with extra batteries. In the world of smart phones and our ability as a tv station to stream emergency video feeds live or near-live online and on Facebook, having a phone charger cable and external battery packs will provide you with that method of receiving information so long as cell phone towers remain undamaged.
A first aid kit can be very helpful if your home gets hit or you get trapped, but also don’t forget about medications you may need in case you’re in your shelter for a couple hours or worse, if you’re trapped and need them for a day or so.
Something that’s often overlooked for a severe weather safety kit is items to pass the time and help with mental health in what could become a very stressful situation, especially for kids. Having a comfort toy or two for each kid and games, snacks, and water can help pass the time. Don’t forget diapers or extra clothes to change into.
Also, make sure not to forget about your pets! Treats, food, toys, and perhaps even an extra kennel is something that can protect your furry family members.
If the worst were to happen, having copies of insurance information and other important documents along with a spare key to your car can be very helpful. Air horn and whistle are both on the list as a suggestion for a type of noisemaker so you have something to get attention of rescue workers if you become trapped.
Again, all this information is not designed to scare you as the odds are very low that you’ll be directly hit by a strong tornado especially here in Wisconsin, but it remains a possibility and following all these steps are proven to greatly increase your chances of survival if the worst were to happen. Stormtracker 18 Meteorologists strongly believe that it’s much better to be overprepared and never need to use this information or your severe weather kit than to not be prepared and need it.