I grew up in Erie, Pennsylvania. Not exactly considered tornado alley, but I can remember two distinct occasions where waterspouts (tornadoes over water) were spotted near our house. Because we weren’t plagued with tornadoes, we didn’t really even think about tornado preparedness. Well, my family didn’t think much about preparedness at all. But that was also thirty to forty years ago when preparedness wasn’t on too many radars.
The consequence of not thinking about how to handle a tornado ahead of time was that we really didn’t know what to do quickly. Fortunately, our house wasn’t hit by THAT tornado. Fast-forward to Good Friday 2011. I was six months pregnant with my youngest child. My husband was preaching at a church an hour and a half away from home. The rest of us were sitting through the service when I got a phone call from my mother. Our house had been hit by a tornado. (If you want more of the story – and it is both funny and not – you can find it here.)
Between those two instances, having experienced a tornado scare and our house getting hit by a tornado, it’s been quite a whirlwind – (Pun SO intended).
But from having lived through those two instances (and honestly more) I wanted to walk you through some things now in the hopes of helping you, should you (perhaps very unexpectedly) find yourself having to take shelter from a tornado. As someone recently told me, they’ve ‘seen firsthand how quickly life can change.’ And she’s right.
1.) Papers and Information to have in place before a tornado hits (well actually any kind of disaster)
Speaking from experience, having your information in one place when a disaster hits (and eventually it will – yea, go ahead and call me a Debbie Downer, but it’s statistically true!) will make life SO MUCH easier for you! If you want a comprehensive list of what documents you should be keeping, you can find it here. At a very minimum, you need to have the following information in one place:
Phone numbers and account (or policy) numbers for:
- Homeowner’s insurance
- Car insurance
- Life insurance
- Electric company
- Gas company
- Water company
Not a phone or policy number, but you need to have an inventory of your house. You can do this with your cell phone. Walk through one room at a time and take pictures of EVERYTHING! If you lose your clothes because the house fell down on top of them, you need to know and document WHAT clothes you really had. This doesn’t mean that you should take pictures of each individual shirt (unless you’re just THAT detail oriented) but for me, I know what kind of shirts I own if I see the sleeves or the sides of each one.
Take pictures of the serial numbers of:
- kitchen appliances
- cell phones
- gaming stations
- handheld gaming units
- handheld telephones
- Power tools
You should document
- each piece of furniture
- the items in your pantry, survival pantry, or storeroom
- desk contents
- craft supplies – man, the cost of those add up!?! Don’t they, husbands?
- window coverings
- handheld tools/tool sets
- school supplies – especially for those of us homeschoolers
2.) Tornado Watch vs Tornado Warning
I have always found this graphic profoundly helpful – and incredibly funny.
3.) When to seek shelter
Once you get the tornado warning or hear the tornado siren, don’t wait!
I remember five of us (me and four kids) being crammed into a three-foot by three-foot bathroom which also contained a toilet and a large sink cabinet. It can seem like you’re in there forever. Your kids may be whining. You know the sound, “when can we leave?” said in that irritating whiny voice. And kids do it oh-so-well! Yes, it is frustrating for parents. While we’ve waited in that cramped space, we’ve passed the time by singing, reading books, telling jokes, and even playing games.
4.) Where to seek shelter
What’s the lowest level to your house – preferably with inside access. We had an old-fashioned root cellar with a dirt floor in our house in Ferguson. The problem was that you had to go outside to get to it. There were locks to unlock, stooping to do to get in, and then it was rather………well, not so nice once you got in.
When I had four children ages four and under, I didn’t bother trying to get outside if there was a tornado warning. I would have had to make multiple trips etc. It was much easier to find a central room on the main floor of our house. We had a bathroom without any windows. Yea, that 3’x3′ space I described earlier.
The best spaces to shelter are ones without windows. If you have a mostly closed staircase that you aren’t using for storage, hiding in there is a good idea. Stairs have to support weight and are generally sturdy. Yes, like five of us in our bathroom, it might be a tad cramped, but better cramped and alive than the alternative.
But what if you DON’T have a place to shelter? It might be time to think about a tornado shelter depending on your circumstances. If you live in the mountains and you pretty much NEVER see a tornado, then you may want to find the safest place in your house that you can on the VERY off chance that you ever have a windstorm of any kind. Even then you can do things like installing shatter resistant film over your windows in the area in which you want to shelter.
5.) What to include in your shelter
Even if you are just sheltering in your main floor bathroom, you can take a little space to make sure you have a few comfort items in the area. Keep several kid-friendly books that your kids enjoy. Maybe you grab a kindle on your way in. If you’re doing that, make sure you keep at least one video downloaded to it (if you use Netflix or Amazon). You should also keep kid-friendly books and a couple of games on it.
Where do you keep your emergency food tote of food? If you have room in your space, you should include:
- 72-hour tote of food (with a heating method). Put one together yourself or buy one. This one is good for 4 people for 3 days.
- Important account/policy/phone numbers that you’ve already gathered (from above)
- 1 or 2 small boredom busters for kids. Sometimes the sirens can go off for 15-20 minutes.
- Whistle – If in the minute chance that something did go wrong and the house came down, but you were protected in your hiding place, a whistle would alert others to your whereabouts and that someone was down there and alive.
Dealing with the Aftermath of a Tornado
6.) Assess safety and damages and determine if you need to contact your insurance carrier.
Please always start with assessing safety. We’ve lived it, and we KNOW it’s hard. The morning after the tornado when we were finally able to get into our house (the police wouldn’t let us the night before), we had downed wires which had been live the previous night. If you aren’t sure if the power lines are live, assume they are!
The other aspect of safety that we had to address was structural integrity – Yep, I’m a Trekkie too, but that’s not what I’m referencing. We had a curved floating staircase between our first floor and our second floor. After the tornado, we weren’t sure if it was safe to go up. We weren’t sure if it was structurally secure. We needed a structural engineer to tell us if the stairs were safe and if it was safe to be in the house at all because we had had a significant drop in the front corner of our house. Please start with safety.
If you aren’t sure if it’s safe, then you definitely need to be calling your insurance agent because you’ll be needing their services too. This is why you want to have your insurance agent’s phone number and your policy number handy.
7.) Debris clean up & equipment to have on hand.
As you can see from the pictures above, we had plenty of debris and that’s just PART of the rubble from the tornado. We had a friend who came out with a chainsaw to help us cut through the downed trees and limbs. You’ll need a handsaw to cut the small branches off of the main branches or trunk. Make sure that you have twine on hand because the small branches will be required to be bound with twine by the companies that come out to pick up your wood. You’ll also need to have several pairs of good sturdy gloves because you’ll need it to clear out the detritus.
8.) Dealing with your power loss – don’t lose your food!
Since your power will probably be out, make sure you do everything you can to keep your food from going bad. While we discovered that our insurance policy covered SOME food, ours only covered $500 worth of food, and at that time, we had a half of a cow (after it was processed – well, duh!) in our freezer. Losing that is WAY more than $500. It’s closer to $1600 depending on where you get your food from.
One way to go about saving your food is by buying ice for your freezer (if it’s a chest freezer, you can just pile as much ice in it as you can get and don’t open it. Every 24-48 hours you can open the drain to see how much water comes out. This will let you know how much of your ice has thawed. You can keep adding more ice as you need, but don’t open it often.
For your refrigerator, consolidate as much of your food as you can on one or two shelves. Depending on your style of fridge, you may be able to put shallow totes filled with ice onto the empty shelves. This should work to keep your food good for a few days until power is restored.
9.) Feed your family using your 72-hour food kit
This is where having your 72-hour kid is very helpful! Even after our tornado, it was only 3-4 days before we had power in our house. Having the 72-hour kit gets you over the hump when everyone else is going crazy buying shelf stable food, you have one less thing to worry about, and trust me, you want one less thing to worry about!
Life is going to be crazy whether you stay in your house or you are displaced like we were. You’re going to be talking with your insurance agent, haggling with insurance adjusters, trying to find a reputable company or three to repair your home, you’ll be clearing out debris, figuring out what items were broken on the inside of your house because guess what – those have to be itemized. You’re going to feel frazzled. Not thinking about what you’re going to feed your family will be a life-saver.
10.) Don’t count on the government – if you need help, depend on friends and family.
We found out that friends and family were willing to pitch in and help when we needed it. Churches were giving out help in the form of cleaning supplies. When we looked into government aid, though, as you can imagine it was more than bureaucratic! It only took us a moment or two to decide that we weren’t going to pursue that avenue. Besides making it difficult to cut through the red tape, it would have taken FOREVER. Take it from someone who’s been there, don’t hang your hat on that hatstand.
What About You?
Have you lived through a tornado and its aftermath? Do you have tips to help others weather (HA!) a trial like this? We’d love to hear! Leave a comment below.
Together let’s Love, Learn, Practice, and Overcome
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