Tornado Tips From a Former Tornado Alley Resident
The news out of Gaylord, MI last week was tough to hear. An EF3 tornado resulting in dozens injured, and two dead, with millions of dollars in damage, leveling parts of town.
It's all too familiar of a sight for this native Kansas boy. When people find out that's where I'm from, inevitably it's one of two things - A reference to the Wizard of Oz, or our tornadoes (sometimes even in the same sentence).
The sad reality, though, is we DO see a lot of tornadoes in Kansas, and my family became one of those victims in 2004. My parents and I weren't home when it happened, but my younger brother was, and rode it out in the basement, under a sleeping bag, hunkered over on a wood shipping pallet. When the wind and rain cleared, he emerged to open sky over his head, where there was once an entire house.
But, we made it, HE made it out alive, and that storm, which at one point was a half-mile wide, didn't kill a single person. It's cliché to say, but when it comes to tornadoes, we're built different in Kansas.
Meanwhile, tornadoes are far less likely in this part of the country. Not completely uncommon, because Michigan does log at least a handful of small tornadoes every year. But major twisters - EF3 or larger - are rare, especially in the northern parts of the state. In fact, the last time a tornado of EF3 strength, or bigger, happened near Gaylord, was the mid 1970s.
The Michigan State Government has some great information about tornado safety in the state, and we've written about it recently at WRKR, but what advice can I offer as a "veteran" to life in Tornado Alley?
1. Find Your Safe Space
This kind of goes without saying, but if you have a basement, that's the best thing you can ask for. in a tornado scenario... just make sure you're in a structurally sound part of the basement. Some homes in Kansas have been known to fall in on themselves over open basement floorplans. Most basements are built with concrete or stone walls. Putting yourself against the strongest parts of your basement's construction will theoretically up your chances of survival. If you're not lucky enough to have a concrete safe room in your home, be sure to find that strong point in the basement.
If you don't have a basement, or safe room, then your best bet is to ride it out in a central room with no windows, or a bathroom. I personally know people who have ridden out a storm in their tubs, covered by blankets, even went airborne in the storm... and lived to tell the story.
2. Preparation and Essential Items
Wherever your safe space ends up being, make sure you're stocked for (potentially) a long wait, similar to what people tell you to pack for hurricanes in the south. Have water, snacks, flashlights, an airhorn (so rescue workers can hear you if you're trapped under debris), and even some extra clothing ready to go.
And probably the most important thing you can have stashed in your safe place... strong boots or shoes. If your home is hit and destroyed, there will be debris EVERYWHERE, and if all you're wearing are flip flops or plain tennis shoes, you'll have to be VERY careful where you step.
Something else to consider, if you're in a basement room, or safe room, and could potentially be trapped behind a door... might be a good idea to have a deck of Uno cards on hand to pass the time while rescue workers clear the debris. OR, I guess in Michigan, a deck of playing cards for some Euchre. (You laugh... but it can get boring waiting on someone to get to you.)
3. Help Your Fellow Humans
This seems like another no-brainer, but after my family went through our storm, it was difficult to even know where to start. Literally everything you own is scattered, shredded, and splintered across miles of landscape. Some of it you'll never see again. (We had entire appliances like the fridge and oven that we didn't even find pieces of.) Where do you begin? Your mind is in a fog, in disbelief, and shock. If it hadn't been for our friends and neighbors, we might still be cleaning up some things nearly 20 years later.
If you're lucky enough to avoid the storm, find out how you can help those around you. A pair of gloves, jeans, and boots is all you need to show up and help. Find the homeowner, or emergency official in charge, and ask how you can help. There are also volunteer outlets that can help distribute help where its needed.
And don't be offended if they say you can help "by not helping." Sometimes, space and only a few hands is enough. In that case, reach out to organizations helping those in need. The American Red Cross helped us greatly, providing food, and money to buy new clothes after our storm.
4. Don't Believe What You See/Hear in Popular Media
The movie "Twister" is not scientifically accurate... at all. There is no "suck zone," cows don't fly like that, and you can't put a tub of little helicopters in its path to gather scientific data. Not a single thing about that movie is correct. (Doesn't keep it out of my top-10 movies list though.)
NOW, back to reality, it is NOT OKAY to stand out on your porch to watch the 'naders. Contrary to popular belief, we don't all run outside when we hear the sirens to watch the storm come at us. We do take them very seriously. In fact, in bigger cities (Wichita, Topeka, Kansas City, etc.) it's difficult to see far enough to judge where the storm might be. Storm direction and intensity is often heard primarily on radio with storm spotters reporting.
That being said, I'd be lying if I said I haven't done this exact thing. BUT, the big difference was, we were living out in the country, and could literally see 30 miles in any direction. If a tornado was coming, we saw it LONG before it even got close. But in Michigan, with more trees, hills, and a more dense population... do as I say, not as I do, and take shelter if you're in a warning area.
Now that THIS storm has passed in Michigan, how can you help those in Gaylord? Donate... time, money, needed items (clothes, food, etc.), and just keep thinking of those affected. It sounds kind of dumb, but as someone who's been on the receiving end of those "good thoughts," it really does help us keep going after such a massive loss.