On Monday, May 20, 2013, an EF-5 tornado struck Moore, Okla., once again bringing the small town into the public spotlight. This was not Moore’s first tangle with an EF-5. On May 3, 1999, Moore took a direct hit that killed 48 people, and served as the catalyst for the Safe Room movement in Oklahoma. This week’s tornado killed 24 people, including seven children.
With each new major disaster, a plethora of stories appear, as well as posts on social media sites, giving recommendations on how to survive, how to prepare, how to recover from disasters. Much of the information is very good, but there are always a few bits in there that range from inaccurate to mythical, often with the potential of being dangerous if followed. So here are a few disaster clarifications:
1. Myth: If your community is under a tornado warning, crack open the windows in your car or home. This will alleviate the pressure.
Reality: Opening the windows actually generates a lifting force, making it easier for a storm to lift the roof off. While your windows should be closed, it’s best during a warning to just stay away from windows and take shelter immediately in an inner room, storm cellar, or safe room.
2. Myth: The Triangle of Life will save your life during an earthquake. This theory, posited mostly via emails, says that Drop, Cover and Hold On, the conventional action to take in an earthquake, does not save lives. It recommends instead huddling up against a large object, like a bookcase or a wall, or a sofa, that will provide a protective void, a triangle of life.
Reality: The theory’s advocate and promoter, Doug Copp, is currently under investigation by the Department of Justice for fraud. The emergency management community, including FEMA and the American Red Cross, has spoken out in strong opposition to the Triangle of Life theory, saying that it might be better suited in countries where there are no strict building codes, and there is a greater danger of buildings pancaking in an earthquake. But here in the states, the safest action is to drop to the ground, get under a sturdy piece of furniture, such as a table, and hold on.
3. Myth: In an earthquake, get under a doorway for safety.
Reality: This is only true for strong, load-bearing doorways. However, most doorways don’t meet that standard, and therefore, are not safe. So drop, cover and hold on.
4. Myth: If you don’t have an underground shelter during a tornado, there is no safe place to go.
Reality: There are multiple types and styles of above ground shelters that are safe, even for an EF-5 tornado. These include built-in shelters, shelters that have been retrofitted into homes, and modular units that attach to your foundation in your garage. If you want to make sure your safe room is truly safe, make sure it is certified by the National Storm Shelter Association (NSSA). NSSA-certified shelters are tested by shooting a 2×4 piece of wood out of a cannon at 100 mph, the speed which best simulates the same debris being blown in 250 mph winds. This technology was developed at the Texas Tech Wind Engineering Institute, and has a proven record of success. Although Moore lost two schools to the May 20 tornado, Kelly Elementary School, a school built with steel and Kevlar, weathered the twister, keeping its students and teachers safe.
5. When under a tornado warning, don’t leave your home to drive to a shelter. Driving during a tornado warning is extremely dangerous. The only exception is if you live in a mobile home. Take the advice of the meteorologists and emergency management professionals who say to take shelter immediately. If you don’t have a storm cellar, or basement, then find an inner room inside your home, away from windows and outer walls. If you have no inner room, then get in a bathtub and cover yourself with thick padding such as pillows or comforters. If you have time, a mattress is good. This is to reduce the impact of flying debris.
6. If you are driving during a tornado, don’t take shelter under an overpass. The overpass acts as as a wind tunnel, sucking out everything inside it. If you are driving and see a tornado, stop immediately, get out of your car, and lie flat, face down on the ground in the nearest ditch.
7. Quick quiz: You’re on your way to pick up your kids from school. It’s been raining non-stop all day. As you approach the school area, you see that a long stretch of the road ahead of you is completely covered over in water. You can see where about a quarter mile ahead, the road reappears. Your children are waiting for you to come and get them. There is a line of traffic behind you. You:
a. Get out and swim.
b. Hit the gas and forge ahead.
c. Turn around and go back the way you came.
The answer is C. Turn around, don’t drown. Call the school and let them know what is happening, then try to find an alternate route. And call your state Department of Transportation or community Public Works Department and report it. They will put up barricades to prevent drivers from entering the area. If water is covering the road, you have no way of knowing the road is still there. It only takes six inches of water to cause a driver to lose control, and only 12-18 inches to float it. Two feet of water will carry it away, even if it is a large vehicle like a pickup truck or SUV. The 1984 Tulsa Memorial Day Flood killed 14 people. All of them were in their cars. Turn Around, Don’t Drown!
8. Myth: When a community experiences a disaster, they need all hands immediately.
Reality: Unless you are a trained responder, this is not true. And trained responders know not to self-deploy. Unsolicited volunteers are a danger to themselves and others. This was illustrated in the Murrah Federal Building bombing in 1995. After news of the explosion went out, doctors and nurses from around the state got in their cars and drove to the site, eager to be of help, hoping to save lives. One nurse was killed when a piece of debris fell on her unprotected head. If you want to help, volunteer with an agency ahead of time. Get trained. And when the disaster happens, wait. Don’t self-deploy.
9. Myth: When a disaster happens to a community, they need every piece of every item we can possibly send.
Reality: There are still warehouses in New Orleans full of contributions sent after Hurricane Katrina. People want to help, and often, they have a tendency to go through their home and gather all their own unusable items, as well as items completely inappropriate for the location and the climate, such as warm coats sent to Florida after Hurricane Andrew. If you want to help, send money to well-established and vetted organizations such as the American Red Cross or the Salvation Army. They will make sure the money is spent for items the survivors actually need.
For more information on how to prepare for disasters, what to do during them and how to help afterward, visit www.ready.gov, www.redcross.org/prepare, or www.spc.noaa.gov.
Author’s correction: Kelley Elementary was not in the direct path of the tornado. However, it was rebuilt after the 1999 Moore tornadoes in such a way as to make it tornado safe, and stands as an example of how schools can build facilities with tornado-safety in mind.