Ten days into spring, we’re now in our severe weather season. Warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico makes for pleasant days. At the same time, the northern half of the continent is still cold. When those air masses collide, violent storms develop. The current 35-year anniversary of the most destructive storms in 100 years hitting Georgia and the Carolinas raises questions. What can we do to protect the home against the effects of a tornado? The answer is simply: nothing. Hurricanes, in summer and fall, also have violent winds, but they move slowly and we get 3 days of warning. Boarding up the windows before a hurricane helps prevent breakage. Clearing drainage ditches can avoid flooding from overflowing storm sewers. But tornadoes aren’t like hurricanes. They develop within minutes or even seconds. There’s no time to cover the windows or drive to a shelter.
Trying to outrun a tornado in a car doesn’t work. The Newberry storm of 1984 moved at speeds up to 80 miles per hour. Cars were picked up and thrown hundreds of feet through the air. Even if you have a Porsche capable of 150 mph, there will still be a traffic jam blocking the way. Once, on I-95 in North Carolina, I saw a tornado forming to the left, maybe 2 miles away. Gunning my fast little Nissan, I was hoping to clear the area before the twister got close. That moment, Uncle Millard and Aunt Millicent in a big Lincoln Continental saw the dangerous clouds, pulled into the left lane and hit the brakes, blocking my escape. The only way to avoid driving slowly into the tornado’s path behind the Lincoln was to pull off at the next exit and seek shelter in a store.
Cars don’t protect anything in a tornado. The lowest floor in a solid building offers some safety. If it’s a business, move to the rear, away from glass windows. Head injuries are usually the most damaging, so if you notice the building is going to get hit, “cover and hold” is in order. Cover your head, hold on to something solid. In a home, small rooms and closets are safer than tall, open living areas where ceiling rafters could come down hard. The only remedies in a tornadic storm are quick thinking and seeking shelter in an enclosed spot.
Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor at Brenau University, teaching physical and health sciences on Brenau’s Georgia campuses and in China. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.