Talk About Tornadoes: How to Prepare Your Family for Storm Season at Home or School

By Kay Pinkerton, volunteer contributor, American Red Cross

As the saying goes, everything is bigger in Texas.

It can definitely be true when it comes to storms.

On April 3 of 2012, just one year ago, a tornado outbreak roared through North Texas, leveling houses, damaging schools and tossing tractor-trailers into the air like toys.

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the storm system’s most violent tornado occurred in Forney/Rockwall. The F3 tornado touched down in Forney’s Diamond Creek subdivision, located near Crosby Elementary School. Crosby wasn’t directly hit by the tornado; however, high winds broke windows, damaged air conditioning units and ripped off sections of the roof. Children were in class at the time of the tornado. Neither students nor staff members were injured during the storm.

The Fujita Scale classifies tornado intensities with ratings between F0 (weakest) to F5 (strongest). An F3 tornado is considered severe, with wind speeds between 158-206 mph.

Severe weather is one of the most common hazards in the North Texas area. If severe weather threatens while your child is at school, the Red Cross offers the following safety tips:

Before a Tornado

  • Have a plan. Learn the safest places to seek shelter when at home, work, school or outdoors. Discuss with your children. The American Red Cross offers a one-page Tornado Safety Checklist to help you and your family become “Red Cross Ready.”
  • Know your school’s severe weather procedures. For parents, it’s vitally important to review the school’s emergency procedures — including its parent notification system — before disaster strikes. School-to-school protocol can vary widely. And rules that detail early dismissals, bus runs and parent pick-ups can be daunting. Further, as situations change, so may the associated policy. The final goal is to keep children safe.
  • Know where you live. Know the counties where your home and your child’s school reside. Make sure every family member knows, as well.
  • Remain alert. During any storm, listen to local news or a NOAA Weather Radio to stay informed about watches and warnings. NOAA’s Storm Prediction Center can also help you remain alert to the possibility of severe weather during the school day. A great new way to stay on top of tornadic activity is to download the Red Cross Tornado App (more on that below!)
  • Learn basic weather terms.  Know the difference between a watch and a warning:
    • Tornado watch – tornadoes are possible in and near the watch area.
    • Tornado warning – a tornado has been sighted or indicated by weather radar. Tornado warnings indicate imminent danger to life and property. Seek shelter immediately.
  • Know your community’s warning system. Communities warn residents about tornadoes in different ways. Many have outdoor warning sirens.
  • Watch for tornado danger signs:
    • Dark, often greenish clouds – a phenomenon caused by hail
    • Wall cloud – an isolated lowering of the base of a thunderstorm
    • Cloud of debris
    • Large hail
    • Funnel cloud-a visible rotating extension of the cloud base
    • Roaring noise
  • Download the Red Cross Tornado App. The free Red Cross Tornado App offers instant access to life- and property-saving information before, during and after tornadoes. You can receive real-time NOAA tornado watch and warning alerts – whether it’s in your community or places where your loved ones live. There are also apps available that provide both first-aid information and Red Cross shelter locations.

During A Tornado

  • Have Your Child Stay at School. According to NOAA’s National Severe Storms Laboratory, your child is safer at school than he would be traveling home early by foot, car or bus. If the tornado sirens are sounding, parents should wait until the danger has passed to pick up their children. School staff members are trained to follow specific procedures designed to keep the students safe. Children will be taken to a safe place, such as a basement, to wait out the storm. Students with special needs will be accommodated, as well. If children are riding on a bus when a tornado siren goes off, bus drivers will be instructed where to go and when they can safely deliver the children to their homes.
  • For Families at home:
    • Go to a basement, underground shelter or safe room.  If these aren’t available, use a small, windowless interior room (such as a bathroom), hallway or closet on the lowest floor.
    • If you can, crawl under a sturdy piece of furniture, like a table.
    • If you’re in a mobile home, go to basement, sturdy building or shelter, if possible.
    • If you are outdoors and cannot quickly walk to a shelter:
      • Immediately get into a vehicle, buckle your seat belt and try to drive to the closest sturdy shelter.
      • If flying debris occurs while you are driving, pull over and park.  The following are considered last-resort options:
        • Stay in the car with the seat belt on. Put your head down below the windows, covering with your hands and a blanket if possible.
        • If you can safely get noticeably lower than the level of the roadway, exit your car and lie in that area, covering your head with your hands.
        • Remaining in your car or seeking shelter in a depression or ditch are last-resort options that provide little protection. The safest place to be is in an underground shelter, basement or safe room.

After a Tornado

  • Continue listening to local news or a NOAA Weather Radio for updated information and instructions.
  • Avoid downed power lines and broken gas lines. Report them to the utility company immediately.
  • Stay out of damaged buildings.
  • Check for injuries. If you are trained, provide first aid to persons in need until emergency responders arrive.
  • Use the telephone only for emergency calls.
  • If your community experiences a tornado or other disaster, register on the American Red Cross Safe and Well website to let your family and friends know your welfare. If you don’t have Internet access, call 1-866-GET-INFO to register yourself and your family, or click on the I’m Safe button on any of your Red Cross apps. You can even share that you’re safe with your social networks.

To learn more about how you can prepare your family for tornadoes or to learn more about the Red Cross, visit us online at redcross.org.

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