Is It Safe To Be In An Apartment During a Tornado?

Tornado – Photo by Nicolas Servoles @nikomachado (Sourced: via twenty20)

Tornadoes are scary. They are synonymous with the expansive and costly destruction they leave in their wake. Destruction is not only subjected to property but to life as well because a lot of people have lost their lives as a result of being caught in tornadoes.

Apartments are generally built to withstand tornadoes. This makes them safe to be in during one. Avoid windows and wide, open spaces. Get as close to the basement and the innermost place in your apartment building as you can.

Sheltering safely during a tornado is extremely important. You want to avoid debris collisions swept up by the wind’s speed and strength. It will also stop you from being swept away by the winds. This article will take a closer look at all these things and more.

What are tornados?

The name tornado derives its name from the Latin word ‘tonare’ to mean violent winds and thunders. Therefore they are set to occur during a storm and preceded by violent winds and at times thunder. However, the key characteristic to identify in a tornado is the funnel-shaped rotating cloud-like appearance. This column of air is known as a condensation funnel.

These rotate counterclockwise in the northern hemisphere and clockwise in the southern hemisphere. Tornados therefore not limited to any one part of the world as per most people’s beliefs. These condensation funnels are responsible for the destruction left as they pick up wind speeds while rotating. Once the cloud-like funnel touches the ground, it is then known as a tornado. Wind speeds in tornados range from 40 miles per hour to 300 miles per hour in the extreme.

Such wind speeds can cause major destruction. These include uprooting of trees, destruction of large buildings in its path, or even the hurtling of large objects such as cars hundreds of yards away.

The size and destructive ability of the tornados depend on the parent thunderstorm. Tornados are first formed as a result of thunderstorms known as supercells. These are large thunderstorms able to be sustained over a longer period as a result of having their pressure levels being somewhat in balance. Within this supercell is an area with an organized mass of rotating air going high up into the atmosphere. The area is known as a mesocyclone.

The mesocyclone then descends and picks up cool but moist air. This results in cold air descending while warm moist air is lifted into the storm. The result is an area of low pressure formed on the ground surface. This low pressure then pulls down the entire mesocyclone in a cloud-like funnel to form the tornado within minutes.  Tornados can also form on the water surface. The mesocyclone picks up water instead of air to form a structure known as a water sprout.

The intensity of the tornados is measured by their circumference, length, and period it takes before they dissipate. The resulting wind speeds and size of the tornado are what results in the damages witnessed. Some tornados can be averagely small but still can cause damage.

One of the smallest ever measured tornado was only 7 feet wide. On the extreme, some have been measured at 2.6 miles wide. Averagely though the size in the northern hemisphere is 500 feet. The average distance they travel is usually 5 miles. However, on the extreme, some tornadoes have been measured to travel for more than 210 miles.

The time in which tornados occur also determines their intensity categorization. Weak tornadoes tend to have a wind speed of fewer than 110 miles per hour and can last 1 to 10 minutes. Strong tornadoes have a speed of 110 to 205 miles per hour and can last 20 minutes or longer. Violent tornadoes can have winds with speeds upwards of 210 miles per hour and can last an hour long. These intensities are measured on the Fujita scale. This scale measures the damage caused by tornadoes on a scale of F0 to F5, with F5 being on the severe end.

In the northern hemisphere, the country most affected is the United States. It experiences over a 1000 tornados per year. The tornadoes form as a result of warm moist air from the Gulf of Mexico converging with cold air coming from Canada. A phrase has been coined for the areas affected by these tornadoes. They are cumulatively known as the ‘tornado alley’.

These are large areas in the central United States and sometimes entire states such as South Dakota, northern Texas, Kansas, Nebraska, eastern Colorado, and Oklahoma. These are the major areas likely to experience tornadoes frequently. Among these states, there are over 24 major cities that experience at least a tornado occurrence a year. However, almost every area of the US has at one time experienced these twisters. The yearly human cost of these tornados is upwards of 80 casualties and more than 1500 serious injuries. Pecuniary costs, on the other hand, are estimated to be billions.

Tornados occur at the onset of spring in the northern hemisphere. This is between May and early June. They are also likely to occur in the evenings around 4 to 9 pm. However, as the storms are not static, a rough estimate is given. In cooler months of the year, the tornadoes can shift from the southeast toward the south and central plains. It may then shift to the northern Plains and Midwest as the temperatures start to rise in early summer.

Recently scientists have estimated that tornadoes will occur more often than we are used to. The intensity is also predicted to increase as a result of climatic changes. It, therefore, warrants a different approach to your overall strategy in dealing with them to ensure you come out the other side unscathed.

Is the apartment safe in a tornado?

Most apartments are made of sturdy materials like reinforced steel and concrete. These materials can withstand the gale-force winds from a tornado. They, therefore, do offer a safe haven from Mother Nature’s fury.

As most apartments are built close together, they tend to also act as artificial windbreakers. They significantly reduce the speed with which the winds sweep through. Damage from tornadoes, however, occurs through the collision with debris picked up by the winds.

Certain areas within your apartment may, therefore, prove to be loose ends that expose you to the dangers posed by the tornado. Areas such as the windows that are made of glass are prone to bear less of the strong winds. The glasses themselves may shatter and be dangerous pieces of debris flying about in your apartment. They will also let in other pieces of debris and the winds will cause chaos in the apartment. Safety is therefore only guaranteed with regards to your preparedness.

Despite a majority of the tornadoes occurring at a particular season, complacency is not advised as they may occur at any time. If you live in areas prone to tornado occurrences, you should always be prepared for such eventualities. Having already known the likely times’ tornados may occur; it is always best to watch for the signs.

If key indicators for the possible occurrence of a tornado are unavailable, it is best to consult other sources. A key indicator may most likely be a sudden change in weather and the approach of a thunderstorm.  An important source of information to enhance your preparedness would be your local meteorological reports and tornado warnings. There are two types of warnings, a tornado watch, and a tornado warning.

A tornado watch is a general type of warning and not specific to a particular location. It stems from the NOAA storm prediction center. The center only watches for weather conditions that may ultimately lead to the formation of a tornado before it occurs.

Tornado warnings, on the other hand, are much more specific and are leveled down to counties or other much smaller areas of administration. These are issued by your local NOAA National Weather Service. NOAA meteorologists are available 24/7 and keep watch of changing weather patterns in specific areas.

Tornado warnings mean that the occurrence of a tornado within your area is imminent. You need then to know how intense the tornado will be to be adequately prepared. It also means you need to take shelter immediately.

To bring back the results the department uses a Doppler radar that may accurately interpret the tornado’s wind speeds and direction of rotation. Therefore information from such sources is reliable and means you have to take immediate caution.

 If a tornado warning is issued in your area of residence, then you need to be prepared in your apartment.  You need to stay tuned to your sources of information, be it TV, radio or online source. Carry out your emergency plans for such an occurrence.

Preparations for a tornado within the apartment

  • Before a tornado, you should have a disaster plan. This is a plan with exact procedures on what needs to be done, how it should be done, and when it should be done. Having such a plan will help you mentally cope with this disastrous event. This is because the feeling of control won’t be wrestled away from you.
  • Wind speeds indicated on the tornado warnings may pose a significant risk to the structural integrity of the building. Winds with high speed can pick up items in your apartment that may be ultimately dangerous if they hit you. The safest place, therefore, to be in a tornado is an underground facility. In an apartment complex, this is preferably the basement.
  • If you are unable to get to the basement on time, then you need to ensure you can outlast the tornado in your apartment.
  • If it catches you in your apartment, you should know the safest room to be in. Rule of thumb should always be that the lower you are in the apartment the safer you will be. Items will be picked up by the strength of the wind. If you are lower, chances of these items hitting you and leading to blunt force trauma are minimal.
  • If you are unable to prevent these items from hitting you, then you should place a barrier between you and the items. Use sturdy materials such as heavy tables or even hide under a bed. Keep in mind that these wind speeds have enough power to pick and trash large items such as a car. In some cases, they are tossed hundreds of yards away.
  • Move to a room with the least amounts of objects that may pose harm to you. Preferable rooms within the apartment are bedrooms as well as bathrooms. This is because these rooms contain the least amounts of objects that may pose a direct threat in the case of a collision. These rooms also have the least amounts of windows to let in wind.
  • If your apartment has a basement, it is best to move there. This is because the destructive power of the wind there is greatly minimized.
  • If you do not have enough time, places such as below the stairwell of your apartment may prove to be much safer places. Just crouch underneath and face down. Cover your head with your hands it from any debris flying about.

Final Thoughts

Emergency plans with regards to a tornado should always be revisited especially after one occurs. This is to assess damages and find ways of preventing them. Even though this phenomenon is predicted to increase in intensity, your level of preparedness will ensure you see it through.

Always restock your supply and keep them in ready to reach areas as tornados can occur without much warning. Maintain your situational awareness at all times as well as perceptiveness. Play your part by taking care of the environment to limit the pace at which the global climate is changing.

Melanie Asiba

Melanie is an author, and she enjoys traveling, reading, and trying out new things. In addition to writing for Apartment ABC.

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