A big tornado hit my old hometown of Marshalltown, Iowa, the other day. There I was making dinner here in California and Marty was watching the national evening news. Next thing I know Marty says, "Come here. You probably want to see this." And there it was.
A video of the steeple on the courthouse of my old hometown being ripped from its moorings and toppling to the ground! I was in shock. Later on we heard how the F4 tornado had made its way down Main Street and messed with just about every building there. We were amazed to hear that no one was seriously injured.
Photo credit: Fox 4 News KDFW
That got me thinking about my own upbringing in Iowa. My mom had a lot of knowledge about what to do in a tornado, or so it seemed. I was wondering if any of it was really sensible. At the time I was just a kid and I believed her.
Here are things she told us:
- The TV will glow when a tornado is approaching. — I have not been able to find any information that the change in atmospheric conditions caused by a tornado has any effect whatsoever on a television set from the 50s. If you know of anything I would greatly appreciate your input.
- Open the windows on the side of the house away from where the storm is coming from because this will help equalize the pressure when the tornado passes by. — Opening windows during a tornado provides no benefits. Though the center of the vortex has less pressure in it the wind will destroy your home way before the lesser pressure reaches it. Opening them only creates a portal through which more debris can enter your home.
- Go to the southwest corner of the basement for safety because tornadoes always come from the southwest and the debris from the house will blow away from you. — I didn't know tornadoes were so rule driven! Marshalltown's tornado came from the west and went in a easterly direction. So there you go.
- Brick houses are not safe because the walls always collapse inwards. — Brick walls actually help against blowing debris. The tornado itself usually sucks the roof off first. If the tornado is an F4 or F5, then brick walls will not stand up to that force of nature but it's anybody's guess which way the walls will collapse.
- Wood frame houses are safest because they blow away from you. — A tornado turns a wood-frame house into a gigantic, wind-driven pry bar. As soon as some of the house gets blown away and there's a hole in the structure, the wind enters and dismantles the home like a bomb. Pronto. Think about what worked for the Three Little Pigs.
- Towns built at the confluence of two rivers will never be hit by a tornado. Indians always made their camps near a confluence. — Marshalltown is built at the confluence of the Iowa River and Linn Creek. Now we know how well that worked!
- Lying down in a ditch or depression will save you. — There's a partial truth here. The lower you can be, the safer you are from the tornado's powerful wind, not only because wind speed increases with altitude, but also because you are less likely to be picked up by the wind. Some experts also claim that tornadoes tend not to follow topography precisely, so they may pass over a ditch rather than dipping into it.
- It's safe to hide under a highway over pass. — People have tried to take shelter and been killed in overpasses. The wind forced through a small, rigid opening like that can actually increase the wind speed and likely tear you right out of there, which has happened. Maybe you can survive a dust devil but not a mature tornado!
- If the clouds look green a tornado is coming. — Green is significant, but not proof that a tornado is on the way. A green cloud will only occur if the cloud is very deep, which generally only occurs in thunderstorm clouds. Those are the kind of storms that may produce hail and tornadoes. Green indicates that the cloud is extremely tall, and since thunderclouds are the tallest clouds, green is a warning sign that large hail or a tornado may be present.
What really works:
- Having a home that is constructed out of insulated concrete. — In 2014 my sister and I had a road trip trough Kansas. We had a blast and one of the high points was visiting Greensburg, Kansas, which is home of the largest hand dug well. Greensburg is also famous for being almost completely destroyed by an F5 tornado in 2007. The only buildings left relatively unscathed were the grain elevator and the courthouse. When we visited the museum we were told that people are now encouraged to build homes that have similar construction to the grain elevator.
- Having a safe room. — A safe room can be as simple as a cleaned out closet (so you can all fit in) or a specially built room just for the purpose. I remember the storm cellars of the old days. Who can forget Dorothy as she desperately tried to get the storm cellar door open as the terrifying tornado approached her family's farm in The Wizard of Oz.
- If you're driving stay in your car. — If you can ascertain which direction the tornado is moving you can outrun it by driving away. If for some reason you can't and you can't get into a safe building, stay in your car, lock the doors, put on your seat belt and keep low. If you have anything to wrap around your face do that so if glass breaks you won't be as hurt. Also don't turn off the engine. The air bags can hopefully deploy if you're hit.
In conclusion, I'm glad the whole time I was growing up in Marshalltown we never had a direct hit. I may not be here to tell the story if we had been. Mom didn't know what she was talking about!