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Tornado Safety Guide
 Related Resources
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• Pennsylvania Disaster History
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Although tornados occur in many parts of the world, these destructive forces of nature are found most frequently in the United States east of the Rocky Mountains during the spring and summer months. In an average year, 1200 tornadoes are reported nationwide, resulting in 70 deaths and over 1,500 injuries. Tornados, violently rotating columns of air that extend from a thunderstorm to the ground, are capable of tremendous destruction with wind speeds of 250 mph or more. Damage paths can be in excess of one mile wide and 50 miles long. Once a tornado in Broken Bow, Oklahoma, carried a motel sign 30 miles and dropped it in Arkansas!

Tornadoes come in all shapes and sizes and can occur anywhere in the U.S. at any time of the year. Peak tornado season in the Northeast U.S. is May - July, and twisters are most likely to occur between 3 PM - 9 PM. They last anywhere from a few seconds to more than an hour - but most last less than 10 minutes.

While Western Pennsylvania rarely sees tornados, we have had a few encounters with their deadly power. On May 31, 1985 a line of violent storms with multiple funnel clouds left 65 dead, destroyed 1,009 homes and caused an estimated $375 million in damage in western PA. Sixteen people were injured by a twister that touched down in Mount Washington on June 2, 1998 - one of 14 tornados reported that day in Allegheny, Beaver, Fayette, Somerset and Westmoreland counties. Tornados do happen here in the western Pennsylvania area, and there is no such thing as guaranteed safety inside a tornado. Freak accidents happen, and the most violent tornadoes can level and blow away almost any house and its occupants. Extremely violent F5 tornadoes are very rare, however. Most tornadoes are actually much weaker and can be survived by following these safety tips:

Tornado Safety Rules

  • In a house with a basement:
    Avoid windows. Get in the basement and under some kind of sturdy protection (heavy table or work bench), or cover yourself with a mattress or sleeping bag. Know where very heavy objects rest on the floor above (pianos, refrigerators, waterbeds, etc.) and do not go under them. They may fall down through a weakened floor and crush you.
  • In a house with no basement, a dorm, or an apartment: 
    Avoid windows. Go to the lowest floor, small center room (like a bathroom or closet), under a stairwell, or in an interior hallway with no windows. Crouch as low as possible to the floor, facing down; and cover your head with your hands. A bath tub may offer a shell of partial protection. Even in an interior room, you should cover yourself with some sort of thick padding (mattress, blankets, etc.), to protect against falling debris in case the roof and ceiling fail.
  • In an office building, hospital, nursing home or skyscraper:
    Go directly to an enclosed, windowless area in the center of the building -- away from glass. Then, crouch down and cover your head. Interior stairwells are usually good places to take shelter, and if not crowded, allow you to get to a lower level quickly. Stay off the elevators; you could be trapped in them if the power is lost.
  • In a mobile home:
    Get out! Even if your home is tied down, you are probably safer outside, even if the only alternative is to seek shelter out in the open. Most tornadoes can destroy even tied-down mobile homes; and it is best not to play the low odds that yours will make it. If your community has a tornado shelter, go there fast. If there is a sturdy permanent building within easy running distance, seek shelter there. Otherwise, lie flat on low ground away from your home, protecting your head. If possible, use open ground away from trees and cars, which can be blown onto you.
  • At school:
    Follow the drill! Go to the interior hall or room in an orderly way as you are told. Crouch low, head down, and protect the back of your head with your arms. Stay away from windows and large open rooms like gyms and auditoriums.
  • In a car or truck:
    Vehicles are extremely dangerous in a tornado. 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. Otherwise, get out and seek shelter in a sturdy building. If in the open country, run to low ground, such as a ditch, away from any trees or cars. Lie flat and face-down, protecting the back of your head with your arms. Avoid seeking shelter under bridges, which can create deadly traffic hazards while offering little protection against flying debris.
  • In the open outdoors:
    If possible, seek shelter in a sturdy building. If not, lie flat and face-down on low ground, protecting the back of your head with your arms. Get as far away from trees and cars as you can; they may be blown onto you in a tornado.
  • In a shopping mall or large store:
    Do not panic. Watch for others. Move as quickly as possible to an interior bathroom, storage room or other small enclosed area, away from windows.
  • In a church or theater:
    Do not panic. If possible, move quickly but orderly to an interior bathroom or hallway, away from windows. Crouch face-down and protect your head with your arms. If there is no time to do that, get under the seats or pews, protecting your head with your arms or hands.

Tornado Spotting

Occasionally, tornadoes develop so rapidly that advance warning is not possible. Remain alert for signs of an approaching tornado such as a dark, often greenish sky, large hail, or a loud roar similar to a freight train.

Tornado photo and facts courtesy of the NOAA
Used with permission.

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