Be Straight With Me. Is There Really Something I Can Do About a Tornado?

This things sounds like my dishwasher.
This things sounds like my dishwasher.

Yesterday afternoon was scary. True story: I was at home. I go to the kitchen to watch the rain lash the driveway. I can hear the tornado sirens. Well, sirens.

Then, the rain stops. Sirens stop. Silence. Suddenly, I hear the dreaded "sounded like a freight train" sound -- a kind of low rumbling whirring roar, but way off in the distance. Way off.

I go outside on the front porch and listen. Nothing. My neighbor drives by and waves. Awfully damn plucky. I go back inside and return to the kitchen. There it is again. Aha! It was the dishwasher cycling on.

So all's well that ends well, I guess, but when I thought the damn sounded-like-a-freight-train sound was boring down on me, I was faced with the prospect of taking the dogs with me into our usual tornado shelter -- a pantry off the kitchen. It's so jammed full of hurtling missiles -- jarred pasta sauce, shish-kebab skewers, heavy ceramic vases -- I always figure by the time they find my body they'll take it for an artificial Christmas tree.

But where the hell else should I go? When the worst of it had passed, I went back to my computer and did a search for all the best state-of-the-art advice available anywhere in the Googlesphere on what to do if you hear the sounded-like-a-freight-train sound and you're sure it's not the dishwasher.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control warn us to, "avoid taking shelter where there are heavy objects, such as pianos or refrigerators, on the area of floor that is directly above you."

Had not thought of that. Much appreciated.

The CDC also tells people, "If you live in a mobile home, go to a nearby building, preferably one with a basement."

Great idea. But it does seem like one of those things people would have done if they could have done. In the first place.

The CDC also says, "On the Road: The least desirable place to be during a tornado is in a motor vehicle. Cars, buses, and trucks are easily tossed by tornado winds."

I call that the "kiss your ass good-bye" advice. But when that's the advice you need, that's the advice you need.

The Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma, a division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, says, "In a mobile home: Get out!"

They're in Norman, Oklahoma. They know what they're talking about.

The National Disaster Education Coalition in Washington, D.C, says, "Get under something sturdy, or use a large, hard-cover book to help protect your head and neck."


They also say, "If you're outside in a car or in a mobile home, go immediately to the basement of a nearby sturdy building."

A lot of car advice has a similar theme. Basically, it's kiss your ass goodbye.

The Disaster Education Coalition also says, "If you see quickly rising water or flood water coming towards you, move to another spot."

To my disappointment, they do not provide numbers for how many people are born not already knowing that. Seriously. That would be interesting.

Someone asks the Tornado Project Online in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, "Would a crawl space under a house be a safe place to go when a tornado comes? Why or why not?"

The Tornado Project Online answers, "A crawl space doesn't seem like a safe place."

Doesn't seem like? They're the ones calling themselves the Tornado Project Online.

They do go on to say, "Tornadoes often shift houses on their foundations, maybe only a few feet. ... Also, creatures such as snakes, that you wouldn't want to meet, have been found in crawl spaces."

Seems like a good time to get over phobias, although in my neighborhood what you find down there is homeless people.

The Tornado Project Online also advises people, "If you see a tornado and it is not moving to the right or to the left relative to trees or power poles in the distance, it may be moving towards you!"

Or away. Is that a Democrat/Republican thing?

"Remember," The Tornado Project Online says, "that although tornadoes usually move from southwest to northeast, they also move towards the east, the southeast, the north, and even northwest."

Yup. Back to kiss your ass goodbye.

Cars are definitely the most controversial tropic in all the advice I looked at. tells people, "If you are in your automobile and you see a tornado coming, don't try to out-run it. Tornadoes can easily outrun a car driving into a 100 mph headwind. Your safest option is to leave the car and get in a sturdy building. If that is not available, get out of the car and get in a low area such as a culvert, drain pipe or ditch."

But the National Weather Service says, "Immediately get into a vehicle, buckle your seat belt and try to drive to the closest sturdy shelter."

Everybody tells you to run as fast as you can from mobile homes, almost as if they are what causes tornadoes in the first place. Even Wikitravel, the people who told you to abandon your car and go lie in ditch, say, "A car is probably safer than a mobile home."

In other words, get out of your car and lie in a ditch, unless you own a mobile home, in which case, get into your car and put the pedal to the metal.

Makes sense to me.

One of the more interesting approaches to tornado safety was from the website of a group called "Newspapers in Education." I actually thought they had gone out of business years ago after it was revealed most of the daily newspapers that were donating copies to schools were doing it as a scam to falsify their circulation numbers. But here they are with a tornado safety education curriculum for school children, purporting to teach kids to be "Tornado Safe."

I'm for that.

They say the curriculum uses "Weather Clues transparency sheets" to teach children how to "recognize the weather clues for possible tornadoes," "role-play their assigned weather clues from the handout" and "use music to examine the feelings storms may elicit."

I have a clue: First, run outside and get in that huge green recycling Dumpster full of unread newspapers that's always parked behind your school. Then maybe the music.

Everybody has their own spin. The Humane Society, unsurprisingly, tells us, "If you have to evacuate, take your pets and their emergency supplies with you. Even if you think you will only be gone for a few hours, take your pets. You have no way of knowing how long you'll be kept out of the area, and you may not be able to go back for your pets."

Especially if you're dead.

And, oh my gosh, here's the damn National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration back again on another site, this time telling me to stay in my car: "If the tornado is visible, far away, and the traffic is light, you may be able to drive out of its path by moving at right angles to the tornado."

They say, "If you are caught by extreme winds or flying debris, park the car as quickly and safely as possible -- out of the traffic lanes. Stay in the car with the seat belt on."

Seat belt? I'm flying around in my car like Elmira Gulch on her bicycle in Wizard of Oz, but I need a seatbelt? Fine. Done. And a hardcover book over my head. Whatever you say. But before I go back for the pets, can I take one second to kiss my ass good-bye? I feel so guilty. I never told it I loved it.

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