If you’ve been watching the news lately, you know tornadoes are not just in stories like “The Wizard of Oz.” These violent storms seemingly come out of nowhere to devastate communities.

 

Unfortunately, most of us don’t have a plan in place if a tornado heads our way. If you're one of them, here are some safety tips for tornadoes that will hopefully increase your chances of survival and avoid being harmed.

 

Where to begin

From a meteorological standpoint, staying tuned to the weather and heeding warnings are a start, but awareness of your surroundings is an equally important factor.

 

“Always seek the lowest level of your home and away from windows as the safest place,” says Justin Berk, a former meteorologist at WMAR-TV in Baltimore and an adjunct professor at Stevenson University in Stevenson, Md. “Doorways with arches are good, and so are bathrooms because many showers and tubs are reinforced with concrete walls.”

 

Berk shares another tip that can help avoid many of the most common injuries. “Flying debris is one of the biggest risk factors as the strong winds are still blowing,” he explains. “Keep pillows on hand to cover your face and head as objects start flying.”

 

Memories of Joplin

In May of 2011, a catastrophic EF5 multi-vortex tornado struck Joplin, Mo., destroying about 25 percent of the town, and killing 160 people. Karen Parsons-Bieligk, mother of three girls, and wife of a physician, Dr. Sam Bieligk, (formerly of St. John’s Hospital, the only level one trauma center in Joplin, which was destroyed in the tornado) survived the tornado and learned many valuable lessons about the storms and what to do, and what she wishes she had known before.

 

For some reason, myth tells us that prior to a tornado, the sky turns dark and there is an ominous feeling. “This wasn’t the case at our house in Joplin,” she says. “It was a normal Sunday, sunny, and BBQ weather, and we were working on the pool. Suddenly, the warning siren went off, so we checked the weather on the television, and it said the tornado was going to miss us, and we went back about our day.”

 

This was not the case, but luckily, Parsons-Bieligk was prepared.

 

“Ironically, when Sam was offered a position at St. John’s in Joplin, one of the things I insisted on in a house was a safe room in the basement,” she says. “It was a room fortified with solid concrete, but unfortunately, the room just had a regular door, which I learned the hard way.”

 

Preparing the room

She had stocked the room ahead of time with food, water, and bedding that would get them through a few days. After the sirens stopped screaming, Karen and her older daughter came back upstairs, but suddenly something felt wrong. She grabbed her purse with car keys, and her daughter, and went back down to the safe room as the lights began to explode from the ceiling, because a local power transformer had been hit.

 

“We made it down, and that’s when I realized the door was not stable,” she says. “Sam held the kids and the dog, and I held the door.”

 

In minutes, the storm seemed over, but the tail end caused another strong gust.

 

'House was gone'

“That’s when I realized I was the only person in the safe room wearing shoes,” says Parsons-Bieligk. “I knew the house was gone, but told everyone to stay put while I found their shoes.” 

 

There was no house or shoes to be found, but there was a strong smell of gas. Luckily, her car was untouched, and they carried the kids to the car and drove off, picking up their elderly neighbors in the process.

 

Now relocated to Tulsa, Okla., what would Parsons Bieligk do differently?

 

Change of clothes and shoes

“Well, the door of course, but I would have put a change of clothes including shoes for each family member in the safe room,” she says. “I had spare contacts in my purse, but Sam lost his glasses, and it took us a month to get them replaced, so I would pack a fire-proof safe in the room with important documents, back-up prescriptions, and spare glasses or contacts and a better first aid kit with masks, because the dust and debris got in our eyes and noses.”

 

A last note that few people think about: take inventory of your house for insurance.

 

Walk through your house with a video camera twice a year to update your furnishings and electronics, and keep lists of purchases with details. Put these details with your documents in a safe. When it comes time for insurance claim, the more details you have, the more likely you will be reimbursed.

 

Have other safety tips for tornadoes? Leave us a note in the comments below.