The deep, dark secrets of severe weather safety

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By Mark Bogner

Every spring, meteorologists all over the country go out to schools, groups, businesses, etc. and give storm safety talks. I have given more than 100 in my lifetime. Part of a meteorologist’s job is hand-holding. To be calm and reassuring in the face of something very scary. Something that we think about on a daily basis is something that most people think about only at the last second. As part of that hand-holding mission, the storm safety talks are there to reassure (often small children) that knowledge is power and with the proper knowledge, safety can be achieved.

Here is the deep, dark secret. Every time we give weather talks, we lie. Not maliciously, mind you, but in our effort to comfort, we gloss over some very frightening statistics. Some of these statistics give us nightmares and keep us up at night because we know we DON’T and never WILL have the right advice to keep people safe in EVERY situation. Here is a list of things I have personally said and what the deep, dark truth is behind it. Not every meteorologist uses these exact words, but usually some variation of them.


Finally, I don’t write this post to unnecessarily scare you. Life is about MINIMIZING risk and MOST of the advice we give does that, but it should be known that some safety advice has been WAY oversold, in my opinion.

NOAA Lightning at night
NOAA Lightning at night, Public Domain

What we say: “When thunder roars, go indoors!” or “Remember the 30-30 rule!” or “If you can hear thunder, you are close enough to be struck and killed or injured by the lightning!”

The deep, dark truth: Lightning isn’t called “the underrated killer” for no reason. On average, lightning kills more people every year than tornadoes and hurricanes combined. So, what is so “wrong” about our advice? It all relies on the fact that lightning will occur “somewhere close” and you will hear the thunder, thus giving you the necessary audible warning that you are in danger. Here is the truth: 2/3 of all lightning deaths and injuries occur from the FIRST STRIKE. Think about that. If there are 100 lightning deaths this year, 67 of them will never “hear” it coming. If there are 1000 lightning injuries this year, 667 of them will never “hear” it coming. By the way, those numbers are pretty statistically close to lightning death and injury averages. Of those 2/3, half of them will be BEFORE THE STORM ARRIVES and the other half will be WITH THE STORM OVERHEAD. The final 1/3 will be second strike (or later), including those from AFTER THE STORM HAS LEFT. I don’t know about you, but these numbers scare the you-know-what out of me.

The real “best” advice: Unfortunately, there isn’t much. The meteorological world hasn’t figured this one out yet. There is a preliminary study going on at OU to try and read electrical fields with sensors before the first lightning strikes, but the work is only in the early stages. The best advice I can give here is “don’t go there.” We have a human instinct for a reason. If there are clouds nearby that are building and their bottoms are growing dark while the tops are climbing, take the opportunity to go inside. Inside a car or inside a house and you are MUCH safer than being outside. This IS one case where I believe “better safe than sorry” applies. By the way, the advice for what to do when you think you are in danger has changed. It used to be to “crouch down” or “lie down” or stand in some funny position. The current advice is RUN! Run as fast as you can to the nearest vehicle or substantial building. It certainly isn’t the most comforting advice, but it is all we have for now.

What we say: “In a tornado, if you don’t have a basement, go to the lowest floor of the building to an interior room such as a closet or a bath.”

The deep, dark truth: This advice is OK ONLY if the tornado is weak. If you live in a poorly-constructed house or the tornado is stronger than an EF2 and you follow this advice, you are likely either severely injured or dead. Now, keep in mind that MOST tornadoes ARE EF2 or weaker, but also keep in mind that if you only count EF4 and EF5 tornadoes, Kansas ranks #1 of all 50 states. The worst thing is, we can never tell. The Hoisington tornado, for example, took the treetops off of a tree row southwest of town and in the matter of a few blocks, it had grown to an EF4, then it dissipated fairly quickly after leaving town. There is almost NO scientific way for a meteorologist to judge the STRENGTH of a tornado simply by its appearance either in person or on radar.

The real “best” advice: GET BELOW GROUND LEVEL. Your chances of survival go up dramatically if you can get to a basement. The real advice should be, “If you don’t have a basement, when the watch is issued earlier in the day, go to a place that DOES have a basement and hang out there until the threat has passed.” This may mean (gasp) getting to know your neighbors, but offer to bring over a pizza and a movie or something. You REALLY need to be in a place that has a basement.

What we say: “In a tornado, if your school or business doesn’t have a ‘tornado safe room’ get into the hallways, against the wall and cover your head to protect yourself from flying debris.”

The deep, dark truth: Again, this advice is only good if the tornado is a weak one. After the Greensburg tornado, witnesses reported that the remaining hallway in the high school was 6-8 feet deep in bricks, broken glass and shattered lumber. Anyone in that hallway would have died.

The real “best” advice: GET BELOW GROUND LEVEL. I firmly believe that every school and business should have a handicap-accessible basement room that can hold the entire student/work body and staff. Which leads me to…

What we say: “Your school or business is fine because it has a FEMA certified tornado safe room!”

The deep, dark truth: If you read the fine print, if the room is above ground level, it is rated, “up to an EF4.” That is fine if the tornado that hits your school or business is an EF0-3. The guarantee of safety is off above that. If/when that room gets hit by an EF4 or EF5, we HOPE that it was engineered stronger than regulations require because if not, it could become airborne, disintegrate or be punctured by flying debris. Granted, it is better than nothing, but don’t get lulled into a false sense of security!

The real “best” advice: GET BELOW GROUND LEVEL. I firmly believe that every school and business should have a handicap-accessible basement room that can hold the entire student/work body and staff.

What we say: “If you find yourself out in the open or in a car during a tornado, lie down flat in a ditch or depression and find something to hold on to.”

The deep, dark truth: Besides the fact that this advice is borderline absurd and would be comical if it wasn’t so serious, the truth is, if you are out in the open and get caught by a tornado IN or OUT OF a car, your chances of survival are very close to zero. There is so much debris being driven by such a force that if you DID survive, it wouldn’t be pretty. If a tornado can drive a wheat straw into a telephone pole, imagine what it can do to flesh.

The real “best” advice: DON’T GO THERE! If you are driving along and the sky in front of you is black. STOP! Don’t keep driving right into it. If you hear of a tornado warning on your radio (PLEASE listen to the local radio during bad weather…turn off the satellite radio or iPod!) and it is for the county you are driving into or through, STOP! Turn around! Go to a place of relative safety. Nothing is so important that you won’t be forgiven for being late to if they know you had to wait out a storm.

What we say: “If you are in a mobile home, GET OUT!”

The deep, dark truth: Actually, this is the EXACT right advice. The problem with it is that it doesn’t go nearly far enough. You should get out when the tornado OR SEVERE THUNDERSTORM WATCH is issued. If you wait until a warning, you have waited WAY too long. Even the weakest tornado or some moderately strong straight-line winds can flip a mobile home.

The real “best” advice: The real advice should be, “If you don’t have a basement, when the watch is issued earlier in the day, go to a place that DOES have a basement and hang out there until the threat has passed.” This may mean (gasp) getting to know your neighbors, but offer to bring over a pizza and a movie or something. You REALLY need to be in a place that is reinforced or has a basement.

What we say: “If you know what to do and if you do it, you can be safe in even the worst mother nature can throw at you!”

The deep, dark truth: Truth is, it is really only about MINIMIZING risk. There is NO WAY to eliminate it completely. Even if you follow all of the legitimate safety rules to the letter, truth is, if an EF5 hits you directly, you still might die or be seriously injured. These storms are powerful on a magnitude that is hard for humans to fathom.

One more that gets honorable mention. I mention it because most meteorologists and educators are to the point where they know the ineffectiveness of tornado sirens when it comes to hearing them indoors. You may have heard them referred to more and more as “outdoor warning devices” because that is what they are designed for. They are designed to warn people in parks and out walking their dog or going for a run. Far too many people rely on them to warn them when they are in their houses and then get mad when they don’t hear them. Believe me, if you are in your well-insulated house with a shower/dishwasher/washing machine/TV/iPod/air conditioner/etc. running, there is hail beating on the roof of your house and the wind is blowing, you won’t hear it unless your house is right under it. DON’T rely on the sirens. Have at least 3 other ways to get warnings.

What it all boils down to is personal responsibility. You are responsible for your and your family’s safety and nobody else is. Use your instincts. Follow the good advice you have received. Pray. And if a storm comes and someone dies even though they were doing the “right” thing, be thankful for the time that you had them and hope that they are in a better place.

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