In the Great Plains region of the United States, typically from Texas to South Dakota, is an area often referred to as Tornado Alley. Oklahoma is located in this stretch of land and is the third-most tornado-prone state in the United States, averaging around 67 twisters yearly.
A tornado is a rapidly rotating column of air that extends from a thunderstorm cloud to the ground. It is a type of severe weather phenomenon that can cause significant damage to structures and communities in its path. Tornadoes typically form when there is a combination of warm, moist air near the surface and cool, dry air at higher altitudes. For example, when warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico collides with cool, dry air from Canada, the result can be a powerful thunderstorm that can produce a tornado. They can vary in size and intensity and are often accompanied by other severe weather conditions, such as thunderstorms, heavy rain, hail, and strong winds.
Tornado season in Oklahoma typically runs from April to June. However, tornadoes can occur anytime during the year in this region. Because of their destructive potential, tornadoes are closely monitored by meteorologists and emergency responders, and it’s essential for people living in areas prone to tornadoes to be aware of the risks and take appropriate safety precautions.
How to prepare for tornado season
If you are new to Oklahoma and unfamiliar with tornado season, it is important to take the necessary steps to prepare yourself and your family for potential severe weather events. Here are some tips to help you get started:
- Stay informed: Sign up for local weather alerts and monitor local news and social media for updates on weather conditions and tornado warnings. The National Weather Service (NWS) issues severe weather warnings and watches to alert residents to potential tornadoes or other extreme weather events. These warnings typically include information on the size, location, and expected path of the storm and recommendations on how to stay safe during a tornado.
- Know your risk: Learn about the tornado risks in your area and identify the safest places to take shelter in your home or workplace. You can check tornado risk maps provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to see the likelihood of tornadoes in your area. You should also identify the safest places to take shelter in your home or workplace, such as a basement, storm shelter, or interior room on the lowest level.
- Create a plan: Develop a tornado emergency plan with your family that includes designated meeting places, emergency contacts, and instructions for how to take shelter during a tornado. A tornado emergency plan should include designated meeting places, emergency contacts, and instructions on how to take cover during a tornado. Ensure all family members know the plan and understand what to do in case of a tornado.
- Prepare an emergency kit: Assemble an emergency kit that includes essentials such as water, non-perishable food, first-aid supplies, and a battery-powered radio or NOAA weather radio. Keep the kit in a readily accessible place so that you can grab it quickly if you need to take shelter.
- Maintain your property: This includes trimming tree limbs that hang close to your roof, removing dead trees from your yard, cleaning up any heavy debris (i.e., branches, bricks, firewood) on your property, and moving lawn furniture inside when a twister nears. If you live in an area especially prone to tornadoes, consider installing storm-proof window shutters or upgrading to an impact-resistant roof.
- Consider building a storm shelter: A storm shelter or safe room can provide additional protection during severe weather events. Many types of storm shelters are available, including underground shelters, above-ground shelters, and safe rooms that can be added to an existing home. If you have a shelter, be sure you’ve registered its location with your municipality so they know where to look in case the shelter is covered in debris.
It’s important to remember that tornadoes can strike quickly and without warning, so staying informed and having a plan can help you react quickly and effectively if a tornado occurs.
Creating an emergency kit
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) recommends packing a few bags with essentials you can quickly grab as you take shelter when a tornado nears. Additionally, consider creating a checklist of items you want to have with you when seeking shelter. A few important things to have are:
- Weather radio
- Water (one gallon per person per day for at least three days for drinking and sanitation)
- Food (at least a three-day supply of non-perishable food) Non-perishable foods such as tuna and crackers, granola bars, and nuts are good choices but also include formula and baby food if an infant is in the home.
- First aid kit
- A small safe where you store important documents such as visa documents, birth certificates, passports, ownership certificates, insurance policies, social security cards, and more.
- First-aid kit
- Prescription medications
- Games and books for kids
- Extra clothes, closed-toed shoes, gloves
Tornado watch and tornado warning
In Oklahoma and throughout the United States, the National Weather Service issues tornado watches and tornado warnings to provide advance warning of possible severe weather conditions. These terms sound similar but hold different meanings. Knowing the difference is essential when preparing for a tornado.
Tornado watch: signifies the current weather is capable of producing a tornado.
Tornado warning: signifies one has been spotted and seeking shelter should be the priority. When a tornado warning is issued, it is crucial to take immediate action to protect yourself and your loved ones. This means seeking shelter in a safe location, such as a basement, storm shelter, or interior room on the lowest level of a building. Stay tuned to local news and weather reports for updates and instructions.
Stay prepared with weather apps
Knowing when to stay “weather aware” is an important part of living in Oklahoma during tornado season. The local meteorologists and news stations do a great job of informing the community in advance when the weather conditions could become tornadic. Consider signing up for an Emergency Alert System or a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) weather radio to receive emergency alerts when they happen. Here are some popular apps to consider:
- Local news stations such as KOCO, KFOR, News 9, KTUL, News on 6
- MyRadar: MyRadar is a popular weather app that provides real-time radar images, severe weather alerts, and detailed weather forecasts. It also includes a hurricane tracker and a real-time feature that allows you to see lightning strikes.
- NOAA Weather Radar & Alerts: This app is provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and offers real-time radar images, weather alerts, and detailed weather forecasts. It also includes a hurricane tracker and a feature that allows you to view past weather events.
- Storm Shield: Storm Shield provides weather alerts and real-time radar images for severe weather events, including tornadoes. It also includes a feature that allows you to track storms in real-time and receive customized alerts for specific locations.
- Weather Underground: Weather Underground provides real-time radar images, alerts, and detailed weather forecasts. It also includes a feature that allows you to track storms in real-time and receive customized alerts for specific locations.
- AccuWeather: AccuWeather provides real-time radar images, weather alerts, and detailed weather forecasts. It also includes a feature that allows you to track storms in real-time and receive customized alerts for specific locations.
- RadarScope: Popular weather app that provides advanced radar data for severe weather tracking. It offers high-resolution radar images from various sources, the ability to view severe weather warnings, and track storms in real-time. Users can also view storm tracks and trajectories and hail and wind speed data.
What to do during a tornado
There are several warning signs of a tornado approaching, including rotating funnel-shaped clouds, low-lying clouds of debris, large hail, a dark or green sky, and a loud roar that sounds like a freight train. It’s also critical to think about tornado safety long before a storm is on the horizon and plan what you will do to stay safe.
When a severe storm or tornado threatens, remember these basic guidelines:
- Get In – get as far inside a strong building as possible, away from doors and windows. Being outdoors, in a mobile home, or in a vehicle are all unsafe in a tornado.
- Get Down – get to the lowest floor.
- Cover Up – use whatever you can, a mattress, pillows, sports helmet, or blankets, to protect yourself from flying or falling debris. If you are in a vehicle, driving to the closest shelter is the best course of action. If you cannot reach a safe shelter, either get down in your car and cover your head or abandon your vehicle and seek shelter in a low-lying area such as a ditch or ravine.
Oklahoma does not have public shelters. According to Oklahoma City’s local news station, KFOR, “Many local school districts have prioritized creating a safe room or storm shelter for students during school hours. However, Oklahoma City Mayor David Holt says no public storm shelters are available to the general public. ‘Here in Oklahoma with tornadoes, as you know, we really only get a few minutes. The best that we can do is that occasionally, we’re told today might be a day where there is an opportunity for severe weather. But in reality, you only get 10 to 15 minutes of notice that there’s truly a tornado on the ground that may impact you,’ said Holt. Holt stressed that because of the nature of tornadoes, a public shelter could actually put more people at risk.”
If you’ve been affected by a tornado
While tornadoes are relatively common in Oklahoma, the chances of a person being hit by a tornado are quite low. According to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) data, most tornadoes occur in relatively rural areas, and only a small percentage hit populated areas. Despite the relatively low risk of being directly affected by a tornado, it’s still essential to be aware of guidelines to follow.
After a tornado has passed, and it is safe to do so, there are several steps you should take to ensure your safety and well-being:
- Check for injuries: Check yourself and those around you for any injuries needing medical attention. Call for help or seek medical assistance immediately if you or someone else is injured.
- Stay aware of your surroundings: Be mindful of any hazards in the area, such as downed power lines, broken gas lines, or other debris that could pose a danger.
- Avoid damaged buildings: Avoid entering damaged buildings or structures, as they may be unstable and could collapse. Wait for assistance from emergency responders or building professionals before entering any damaged structures.
- Shut off utilities if necessary: If you smell gas or suspect a gas leak, shut off the gas immediately and leave the area. Do not use electrical switches, appliances, or phones, as they could create sparks that ignite a gas explosion. If you need to shut off the gas, use a wrench or pliers to turn the valve at the gas meter.
- Listen for emergency instructions: Listen for updates from local officials and emergency responders, and follow any instructions they provide regarding evacuations, sheltering, or other safety measures.
- Document any damage: Take photos or videos of any damage to your property or belongings, as this can be helpful for insurance claims or disaster assistance.
- Reach out for help: If you need assistance, such as food, shelter, or medical attention, contact local authorities or disaster relief organizations. They can provide resources and assistance to help you recover from the tornado.
Recovery after a tornado can be a slow and challenging process, but taking the necessary steps to ensure your safety and well-being is the priority. Reach out for help if needed, and take care of yourself and those around you.
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