Staying safe during a severe thunderstorm or tornado

Maria Tussing
Digital & Sections Editor
The home of Rich Stangle, and his wife, Karlene, was in the path of the tornado that passed through Spring Creek Acres subdivision near Hermosa, South Dakota on June 13. Their shop was demolished, but with the help of family and friends, they were picking up the pieces, and still celebrating Flag Day. Photo by Maria Tussing.

Six miles from Hermosa, South Dakota, there’s a subdivision dotted with houses sporting blue tarps in lieu of roofs. Siding, insulation and splintered wood dots the ditches and fields. On June 13, for 12 minutes at about 4:30 p.m., an EF-2 tornado tore across 7.4 miles, snapping power poles, tearing off roofs and demolishing outbuildings. The 120 to 125 mile-per-hour winds did plenty of damage, but it didn’t significantly harm any living things.

If you’re reading this, odds are you’re not within earshot of a tornado siren. Without tornado sirens–which may or may not be an adequate warning–people in rural areas rely on each other, the forecast and their common sense to keep them safe. Knowing what to look for can help keep you safe this tornado season.

According to Matthew Bunkers, science and operations officer with the National Weather Service, right now is the peak of tornado season, which lasts from May through the first week of August for most of Tri-State Livestock News country, but tornadoes have been reported as late as October. Bunkers says most tornadoes happen in the late afternoon or early evening, and suggests keeping an eye on the sky when conditions are right for severe thunderstorms. Rotation and a lowering of the clouds, especially on the south side of a storm, is one of the most obvious signs of an impending tornado. Another sign is a change in the wind. “If you’re looking at the storm and the wind increases at your back, that’s a good sign the storm is intensifying,” Bunkers says. That indicates the storm is sucking the air into it.

“The calm before the storm” is a real thing that sometimes happens with tornadoes, but Bunkers suggests getting out of the way of the storm before that point. “That’s something you sometimes see. If you do experience that, you might be quite close to the storm. Head for shelter before then, because you might not experience that until you’re really close to the dangerous part of the storm.”

If you’re in a vehicle in the path of a severe thunderstorm, Bunkers recommends driving at a right angle to the storm, usually to the south, if possble. If you can’t get out of the way, seeking shelter is the next best option. That shelter should never be in an underpass, he emphasizes. The constriction of the structure can intensify the winds, in addition to creating a traffic hazard for other drivers, possibly keeping them from getting to safety.

It’s best to seek a safe place early from any severe storm, whether or not a tornado is a threat, Bunkers says. Unless you’re in a tornado, inside a vehicle is safer than outside, since it will offer protection from rain, lightning, hail and flash flooding. If you find yourself stuck in front of a tornado, it’s best to get into a ravine, culvert or low spot, he says. In that instance, though, you should always be alert for flash flooding.

Though two tornadoes are reported in this paper, Bunkers says this has been a relatively quiet year for tornadoes. “This is a somewhat down year for tornadoes. There are fewer tornados this year than on an average year,” he says. It may seem like there has been an increase in tornado activity in recent years because of technology. “A lot more are being reported because there are more people taking pictures and more storm chasers. There are more people out looking for them.”