As spring rolls into summer, we’re right in the thick of the prime season for severe weather here in North America. That’s not to diminish the challenges posed by ferocious winter storms and cold snaps, by any means. The combination of thunderstorms, tornadoes, and hurricanes in the spring-through-fall window, however, translates to the most all-around violent skies we deal with in an average year.
So we figured it was worth running through the basics of preparing for and enduring this kind of potentially destructive and dangerous warm-season weather. Read on for some storm safety tips!
Storms, of course, are hazardous not only for the threat they can directly pose to life and limb, but also for the damage they can wreak upon our homes, businesses, and other structures, and for the interruptions to essential services they often produce.
The same basic approach to readying yourself for any natural disaster, or even simply a prolonged power outage (which, of course, often follows in the wake of a storm), applies to storm-safety prep. That means, for one thing, putting together an emergency kit (aka a 72-hour kit or disaster kit), and having a disaster response plan prepared.
We won’t go into the nuts-and-bolts of putting together such an inventory of essential supplies and provisions here, but instead direct you to the following resources for doing so:
Getting a storm safety kit together goes hand in hand with constructing a disaster response plan for your household and your workplace—and practicing its protocols so you can jump into action if a dangerous storm situation actually develops. You can learn more at Ready.gov and in this Mountain House blog post.
We also suggest reading our post on how to integrate emergency planning, including stockpiling supplies for your disaster kit, into your daily life so that it’s less of an overwhelming, onerous burden.
On a regular basis—and certainly ahead of any predicted stormy weather—check your property and your home for issues that could be unsafe in high winds or heavy rains. Those might take the form of dead or dying trees, dead or loose branches, unsecured objects lying around the yard, loose or damaged roof shingles, and clogged or compromised gutters. Deal with these before the weather hits!
It may go without saying, but if you don’t already it’s a good idea—anytime of year, but particularly in this dicey season—to get in the habit of regularly following weather forecasts. Those can include the morning reports of your favorite TV weather person, information from any number of weather apps and websites, and, of course, the National Weather Service’s web page (weather.gov).
Many people are confused by the difference between a weather “watch” and a weather “warning,” as issued by the National Weather Service. A severe weather watch—for example, a Severe Thunderstorm or Tornado Watch—is issued when atmospheric conditions make such an event likely. If a watch has been issued, you should be ready to take action if need be, and you should continue to closely monitor weather reports.
A Severe Thunderstorm or Tornado Warning, meanwhile, indicates that severe weather of this type has actually been observed, identified, or strongly suspected in the area. You should take shelter promptly if your area falls within a severe weather warning zone.
Tornadoes and hurricanes may be more dramatic, but thunderstorms pose a more widespread and frequent risk. Indeed, each year lightning kills more people in the U.S. than either twisters or hurricanes, and you don’t need a strong thunderstorm to produce lightning (every thunderstorm generates lightning—that’s what makes it a thunderstorm. The extreme heating of air around a bolt of lightning causes the rapid expansion and contraction that produces a thunderclap).
So any thunderstorm is dangerous, especially if you’re caught outdoors in one. The most damaging thunderstorms are classified as “severe,” which by the National Weather Service’s criteria are those storms producing hail of at least an inch in diameter or winds gusting to at least 58 miles per hour. Vigorous severe thunderstorms can pack a much greater punch, including outflow gusts beyond 100 miles per hour and hailstones in golf ball (or bigger) territory.
Strong and severe thunderstorms thus add the risk of wind-damaged trees and buildings, plus glass-shattering (and head-bruising) chunks of ice, to the lightning danger. Thunderstorms can also unleash torrential rains leading to flash flooding.
Get indoors (or at least in a car) if you hear thunder when you’re outside. A lot of people are majorly blasé about lightning, but it’s absolutely nothing to mess around with. And cloud-to-ground bolts may strike 10 miles or more away from the thunderhead that produces them, putting you at risk even if you’re well outside the overcast and rainfall of the storm’s shadow.
You may not realize it, but you can still be at risk of lightning indoors; indeed, it’s been estimated as many a third of lightning-related injuries are incurred inside. Don’t use electronics during a thunderstorm and stay off corded telephones. Avoid indoor plumbing; don’t wash dishes or take a shower. An under-the-radar threat is concrete, the anchoring metal bars or wires of which can transmit electricity from a lightning strike; stay off concrete floors and don’t lean against concrete walls when it’s storming.
Stay away from windows, glass doors, and skylights during a thunderstorm in general and seek shelter in a secure location inside in the event of a severe storm.
Caught in a thunderstorm in the mountains? Lightning can be extra dangerous at high altitudes. Make sure to take precautions and know how to react quickly in this situation with our tips on what to do if stuck in a high country thunderstorm.
Strong thunderstorms, especially those rotating kinds known as supercell thunderstorms, sometimes produce tornadoes: those tapered, columnar, or ropey “twisters” that rank as the planet’s most violent storms. Wind speeds in the most powerful tornadoes are thought to exceed 300 miles per hour, and though these great whirlwinds tend to be short-lived and localized in area, the devastation they inflict along their relatively narrow tracks can be horrendous.
The U.S. is the global hotspot for tornadoes, experiencing more than 1,200 on average each year and also by far the lion’s share of the strongest variety, EF5 tornadoes, boasting winds in excess of 200 miles per hour. Even comparatively “weak” EF0 and EF1 tornadoes can inflict major damage, though.
Tornadoes can arise suddenly, and you may have only a short notice that one has developed in your vicinity. Pay attention to any and all emergency alerts issued by your local forecast office and your community officials. The best place to be during a tornado is in an ICC50-certified storm shelter or FEMA-approved safe room; otherwise, compact and windowless interior rooms on the lowest floor or basement of a home or a storm cellar offer the greatest protection. In a high-rise, seek a hallway in the building’s interior if you don’t have time to get down to the lowest floors.
A vehicle is an undesirable place to ride out a tornado, to say the least. If you’re caught in a car during a tornado, drive to the nearest safe indoor shelter if you can. “If the tornado is visible, far away, and traffic is light,” Roger Edwards of the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center notes, “you may be able to drive out of its path by moving at right angles to the tornado.”
But if not, don’t try to outrun a rapidly advancing funnel. If you can’t reach an indoor refuge, pull over so you’re not blocking the road; despite what you may have heard, don’t shelter under a bridge or overpass. Should you find yourself in the direct path of high winds and flying debris, keep your seatbelt fastened, lower yourself below the window level, and cover your head with your arms, hands, and a blanket, pillow, clothing, or any available swaddling. Alternatively, you may opt to leave your car if you can see an area close by that’s lower than the level of the roadway; lie down in that low spot and cover your head with your hands.
Tornadoes can reach higher wind speeds over a small area, but no storm on the planet compares to a hurricane when it comes to violent, destructive weather across vast swaths. The Atlantic hurricane season that impacts the southern and eastern U.S. officially runs from June 1st to the end of November, though these storms—also called tropical cyclones or typhoons—may occur outside of that interval.
Those who live in areas vulnerable to hurricanes can do much ahead of time to boost the security of their homes in the face of these monstrous storms, including installing hurricane shutters and hurricane straps, elevating their utilities above flood level, and constructing a safe room. Such retrofitting, however, does not mean you shouldn’t follow any and all evacuation orders issued by authorities.
Keep in mind that, while the same interior, windowless rooms you’d shelter in during a tornado may provide protection during a hurricane, lower-level floors and basements are not a good refuge inside homes in a coastal zone or low-lying area that may experience storm surges or flooding from hurricane rainfall.
We’ve compiled an entire blog post focused on hurricane safety, which you can check out right here.
Although flooding is not always a weather event per se, it often accompanies storms: from a little (but very wet) thunderstorm to a hurricane (indeed, flooding is statistically the most dangerous phenomenon associated with hurricanes). Check out our Mountain House blog post on flood preparation and safety here.
Don’t take severe weather lightly: Respect those volatile and unsettled skies of ours, whether at home or out and about in the great outdoors!