When it comes to tornadoes, being alert to developing weather dangers and knowing how to protect yourself are your greatest safeguards, says Gary Huitink, a safety expert with the Cooperative Extension Service, University of Arkansas.
Although tornadoes can occur in any month, March and April are typically the most dangerous months for tornadoes to develop, Huitink said. “We had a lot of tornadoes last year,” he said, “but fortunately there were no deaths.”
He attributed this to better technology for detecting storms and the alertness of the news media and public to the dangers. He said the media and the National Weather Service forecast office are getting better at identifying problem situations.
Tornadoes are nature's deadliest weather phenomenon and people need to know how to safeguard themselves, Huitink said. They can occur any time of day on any day of the year in any part of the state, but more occur in spring than any other season because of the unstable weather patterns.
Huitink and Newton Skiles, lead forecaster with the National Weather Service in North Little Rock, are co-authors of an Extension fact sheet called “Tornado Safety.”
Tornadoes occur more often during afternoons and evenings because of increased instability in the atmosphere. In Arkansas, about 5 p.m. is the time of maximum tornado incidence.
“It can be a dangerous time because many people are moving from school or work,” Huitink said.
“Arkansas is in an area where warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico hits cold, dry air coming from the Great Plains. When those fronts clash, there is a tremendous amount of energy.”
Unseasonably warm and humid conditions can spawn tornadoes, and these conditions should cause concern about the possibility of a tornado.
Monitor weather bulletins and watch the sky for approaching thunderstorms. Violently moving clouds indicate high air velocities which may evolve into a tornado, Huitink warned.
Huitink said parents should teach young people about tornadoes, develop an emergency storm plan for family members and conduct storm drills.
Teach your family the difference between a tornado watch and a tornado warning, Huitink said. A watch means that conditions are favorable for a tornado to develop. A warning means that a tornado has been sighted or indicated by weather radar.
If a tornado warning is issued or threatening weather approaches, move to a previously designated safe area.
“If an underground shelter or basement is not available, move to an interior room, hallway or closet on the lowest floor,” Huitink said. “Crouch under a sturdy desk or rugged furniture, if possible, and place pillows or blankets over your head for extra protection.
“There's a real risk of your roof lifting off, and when it does, the broken pieces of the house can cause personal injury.”
Do not try to outrun a tornado in your car, Huitink said. Instead, leave it immediately. If caught outside or in a vehicle, get out and lie flat in a nearby ditch or other depression. Take refuge under an overpass only as a last resort.
If you are in a shopping mall or office building, go to the lowest floor and find a place that offers the most protection. Avoid windows. Clothing racks can help protect you from flying glass. Crouching under tables can help protect you from falling debris.
Mobile homes offer little or no protection if hit by a tornado. If you live in a mobile home in the path of a tornado, leave immediately and seek shelter in a storm shelter or on the ground floor of a sturdy structure.
“The primary thing is to get in a place where there is no direct wind velocity on you and so debris can't be blown at you,” Huitink said. “Flying debris from tornadoes cause most deaths and injuries.”
James is an Extension communications specialist with the University of Arkansas.