A lot of natural disasters can be area specific. Folks in Minnesota really don’t need to prepare for hurricanes and folks down in southern Florida don’t really worry about being snowed in. Each of us should look at the possible natural disasters for our area and do our best to be ready in case one strikes. But there is one disaster that doesn’t care if you are in New England or the southern Great Plains. Thunderstorms can develop anywhere in the country, or world for that matter. Sure, some places they are more frequent, but anyone can experience the damaging winds, flooding, and lightning strikes from a thunderstorm. The area I call home is notorious for violent thunderstorms, so much so that we just consider them a normal part of life. Spring and summer are the seasons where they show up most frequently, but we’ve had some pretty significant storms in the dead of winter. We won’t go in to great details on the meteorology behind storm formation since this article is geared to being prepared to cope with the effects of a thunderstorm. The National Weather Service has great information on thunderstorms and their formation, so I’ll post a couple of links at the end of the article.
Thunderstorms come in a couple of varieties and vary in intensity based on a lot of complex variables. There are some necessary ingredients for a thunderstorm to get going. These are humidity, instability, and lift. Lift is one of the most important parts of storm formation since the stronger the lift the more intense the storm. There are lots of causes of lift, but the most common is a frontal system. Cold fronts are notorious for spawning storms if the other conditions exist. As a cold front moves across an area all that cold dry air interacts with warmer humid air and forces it up. We’re all familiar with those radar images of a long line of thunderstorms moving over a wide area. Occasionally these systems can be very powerful producing hail, heavy rain, and powerful winds. Tornadoes in these systems can pose a threat as well.
The next type of system to look at are the infamous Supercell thunderstorms. These aren’t as common as frontal systems which is good for us. These thunderstorms can turn ugly in a hurry. I’ve personally seen, chased, and spotted these types of storms and I’ve seen hail the size of softballs, straight line winds of 100 miles per hour and tornadoes. One of the biggest problems with this type of storm is that they can develop very fast, which doesn’t give us much time to prepare for them. When your local meteorologist is predicting conditions favorable for the formation of Supercell storms, you should start paying attention to what’s going on. You might not have much warning to take shelter.
The best course of action is to be prepared before you get word that a storm is on top of you. You don’t want to be the one in a panic when the weather radio starts broadcasting a severe thunderstorm warning or a tornado warning for your area. Of course, having plenty of warning is nice but it isn’t always possible. I’m a firm believer in having a plan in place before anything can go wrong. One of the most important parts of having a plan is being able to get important information in time to act on it. Thunderstorms are a great way to have a power loss, so getting information can be affected when the power goes out. Having a battery powered NOAA weather radio is a must. With a battery powered radio, you’ll never be without the information you need to react to any developing weather situation. Be sure that radio has good batteries and know where spares are. The last thing you want is to hear the name of your county then silence because the batteries died. I’ve covered being prepared for a power outage here, so check that out since it applies quite well to storm induced power outages. The next step is to have a predetermined place in your house to take shelter if you need to. The best place is an interior room, hall, closet closest to the center of the structure and as far from windows as possible. If you have a basement, that’s probably the best place to be. If your house is two story, a closet under the stairwell is pretty good. Stairwells are usually close to the center of the house and are pretty strongly built. If your house doesn’t have features mentioned, a bathtub with a mattress or heavy blanket can can provide additional protection. Analyzing this beforehand will let you have the area prepared to shelter in case of a severe storm. If possible, stage a blackout kit and a weather radio in this location. By doing this, you can eliminate running around to locate what you need when you should be getting to cover.
Getting Caught Outside
One of the scariest experiences you can have is getting caught out and about during a violent storm. Many years ago, a storm producing softball and grapefruit size hail moved rapidly over Fort Worth, Texas. Unfortunately, it moved right over a big outdoor public event called Mayfest. 10,000 people were caught out in the open as the storm moved over. A lot of people scrambled to shelter in vehicles, but with hail that size windshields and windows were shattered. Over 90 people were injured by the hail. 16 people were killed in this storm, mostly from drowning in flood waters. It’s actually amazing that more people weren’t killed or injured in this storm. The biggest lesson this event teaches is to have a plan in the back of your mind if you are out and about with the threat of severe weather. If you are in your vehicle, get to a safe place and park. Try to get in a sturdy building if you have time. If not, staying in your vehicle is the safest bet. It will provide some shelter from rain, wind, and hail. If there is a lot of lighting, try not to touch any metal surfaces inside the vehicle. Hail and windblown debris can shatter windows, so if you can you should cover up with a blanket or coat.
After the Storm
Once the storm has passed, it’s usually safe to get out and survey any damage. A lot of folks like to drive around an look around the neighborhood or town. There is still a silent danger lurking after the storm has passed. Storms produce a lot of rain, which results in a lot of run-off. This water will flow into creeks and flood control channels pretty quickly. Those rolling waters kill more people than just about any other weather event each year. You’ll do well to keep yourself and your children away from any rushing water. If you are driving, NEVER cross running water. A few inches of running water can sweep a vehicle away. As the National Weather Service says, “Turn Around, Don’t Drown.” It would really suck to survive a violent storm then end up failing at survival because of flood waters.
My friend Brian Burns is an incredible songwriter that put out an album several years back called “Heavy Weather”. It isn’t a survival topic by any means, but the album certainly relates to the topic at hand. The title track is my theme song when I’m out chasing thunderstorms. You can support independent artists and check it out here.