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III. Multicultural and Regional Preparedness

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Emergency Preparedness in the Interior Plains

By John Cavanagh and Anne Malia

The Interior Plains of the United States extend over 1,000 miles, from the Appalachians to the Rocky Mountains. Water drainage for most of the region is provided by the Mississippi-Missouri river system. The Interior Plains can be divided into two sections: the Central Lowlands, agricultural ‘breadbasket’ of the U.S.; and the Great Plains, a treeless plateau that gently slopes upward from the Central Lowlands toward the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. The Black Hills of South Dakota form the region’s only upland area. Within these vast boundaries there exists an area with the unofficial yet ominous name of “Tornado Alley.” Tornado Alley is commonly defined as the location where the strongest tornadoes happen most frequently—usually stretching from Northern Texas up through Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, and into South Dakota. It is important to remember that tornadoes can occur in many parts of the country (and the world)–‘—but in the U.S., most occur in the Interior Plains during the spring and summer months.

A tornado is defined as a violently rotating column of air extending from a thunderstorm to the ground. Annually, on average, 800 tornadoes are reported nationwide. These severe windstorms result in an average of 80 deaths and over 1,500 injuries every year! Most tornadoes travel at wind speeds of up to 110 miles per hour, are approximately 250 feet across, and travel a few miles before dissipating. However, the most violent tornadoes are capable of incredible destruction, at wind speeds of 250 mph or more. The path of damage they create can be in excess of one mile wide and up to 50 miles long. When such an awesome force of nature is a part of life, emergency preparedness becomes an absolute necessity. Knowing exactly what to do when you see a tornado, or when you hear a tornado warning, can help save your life and the lives of your family. When tornadoes approach, people will face hazards from the extremely high winds, as well as from flying and falling objects. After the disaster, the wreckage left behind can cause additional injuries. Nothing can be done to prevent tornadoes, but there are precautions you can take to help ensure your safety.

Before a Tornado
Make tornado preparedness effective by taking precautions before the fact. Tornadoes often accompany thunderstorms, so pay close attention to changing weather conditions during severe thunderstorm alerts Make sure to keep a battery-powered radio or TV and fresh batteries on hand. Electrical power is often interrupted during thunderstorms—exactly when weather warnings are most needed. Here are other important measures to take before a storm develops:

  • Make a tornado emergency plan with your family. Sketch a floor plan of where you live, or walk through each room and discuss where and how to seek shelter.
  • Finda second way exit from each room or area. If you will need special equipment, such as a rope ladder, mark where it is located.
  • Mark where your first-aid kit and fire extinguishers are located.
  • Mark where utility switches or valves are located so they can be turned off—if time permits—in an emergency.
  • Teach your family how to administer basic first aid, how to use a fire extinguisher, and how and when to turn off water, gas, and electricity in your home.
  • Learn the emergency dismissal policy for your child’s school.
  • Make sure your children know about tornado preparedness and how to take shelter, whether at home or school.

It is important to learn about the tornado warning system in your county or locality. Most tornado-prone areas have a siren system; learn how to distinguish between the siren’s warnings for a tornado watch and a tornado warning. A tornado watch isissued when weather conditions favor the formation of tornadoes—for example, during a severe thunderstorm. During a tornado watch, stay tuned to local radio and TV stations or to NOAA Weather Radio for further weather information. Also, keep an eye on weather conditions and be prepared to take shelter immediately if they worsen. A tornado warning is issued when a tornado funnel is sighted or indicated by weather radar. During a tornado warning, you should take shelter immediately.

During a Tornado
Some tornadoes strike quickly, without time for a tornado warning, and sometimes even without a thunderstorm in the vicinity. When you are watching for rapidly emerging tornadoes, it is important to know that you cannot depend upon seeing a funnel, because clouds or rain may block your view. Look for the following weather signs, which may indicate that a tornado is approaching:

  • A dark or green-colored sky
  • A large, dark, low-lying cloud
  • Large hailstones
  • A loud roar that sounds like a freight train

If you do see a funnel cloud nearby, take shelter immediately. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) makes the following recommendations:

At Home: Pick a place in the home where family members can gather if a tornado is headed your way. Above all, AVOID WINDOWS because an exploding window can cause injury or death. The safest place in the home is the interior part of a basement. If there is no basement, go to an inside room, without windows, on the lowest floor. This could be a center hallway, bathroom, or closet. For added protection, get under something sturdy such as a heavy table or workbench. If possible, cover your body with a blanket, sleeping bag, or mattress, and protect your head with anything available—even your hands. Avoid taking shelter where there are heavy objects, such as pianos or refrigerators, on the area of floor that is directly above you. They could fall though the floor if the tornado strikes your house.

In a Mobile Home: NEVER STAY IN A MOBILE HOME DURING A TORNADO! Mobile homes are liable to turn over during strong winds. Even mobile homes with a tie-down system cannot withstand the force of tornado winds. Take precautions. If you live in a mobile home, plan go to a nearby building, preferably one with a basement. If there is no shelter nearby, lie flat in the nearest ditch, ravine, or culvert, and shield your head with your hands.

Long-Span Buildings: A long-span building, such as a shopping mall, theater, or gymnasium, is especially dangerous because the roof structure is usually supported solely by the outside walls. Most long-span buildings hit by tornados cannot withstand the enormous pressure; they simply collapse. If you are in a long-span building during a tornado, stay away from windows. Get to the lowest level of the building—the basement ,if possible—and away from the windows. If there is no time to get to a tornado shelter or to a lower level, try to get under a door frame or get up against something that will support or deflect falling debris. For instance, in a department store, get up against heavy shelving or counters. In a theater, get under the seats. Remember to protect your head.

On the Road: The least desirable place to be during a tornado is in a motor vehicle. Cars, buses, and trucks are easily tossed by tornado winds. Do not try to outrun a tornado in your car! If you see a tornado, stop your vehicle and get out. Do not get under your vehicle. If you are caught outside during a tornado and there is no adequate shelter immediately available:

  • Avoid areas with many trees.
  • Avoid vehicles.
  • Lie down flat in a gully, ditch, or low spot on the ground.
  • Protect your head with an object or with your arms.

After a Tornado
A recent study of injuries after a tornado in Illinois showed that 50% of the tornado-related injuries were suffered during rescue attempts and cleanup. Nearly a third of the injuries resulted from stepping on nails! Other common causes of injury included being hit by falling objects and heavy, rolling objects. Because tornadoes often damage power lines, gas lines, or electrical systems, there is a risk of fire, electrocution, or an explosion. Protecting yourself and your family requires promptly treating any injuries suffered during the storm and using extreme care to avoid further hazards. Never attempt to move seriously injured people unless they are in immediate danger of further injury. Get medical assistance immediately. According to the CDC, these general safety precautions could help you avoid injury after a tornado:

  • Continue to monitor your battery-powered radio or television for emergency information.
  • Be careful when entering any structure that has been damaged.
  • Wear sturdy shoes or boots, long sleeves, and gloves when handling or walking on or near debris and be aware of hazards from exposed nails and broken glass.
  • Do not touch downed power lines or objects in contact with downed lines. Report electrical hazards to the police and the utility company.
  • Use battery-powered lanterns, if possible, rather than candles to light homes without electrical power. If you use candles, make sure they are in safe holders away from curtains, paper, wood, or other flammable items. Never leave a candle burning when you are out of the room.
  • Never use generators, pressure washers, grills, camp stoves, or other gasoline, propane, natural gas, or charcoal-burning devices inside your home, basement, garage, or camper—or even outside near an open window, door, or vent. Carbon monoxide (CO)—an odorless, colorless gas that can cause sudden illness and death if you breathe it—from these sources can build up in your home, garage, or camper and poison the people and animals inside. Seek prompt medical attention if you suspect CO poisoning and are feeling dizzy, light-headed, or nauseated.
  • After a tornado, be aware of possible structural, electrical, or gas-leak hazards in your home. Contact your local city or county building inspectors for information on structural safety codes and standards. They may also offer suggestions on finding a qualified contractor to do work for you.
  • In general, if you suspect any damage to your home, shut off electrical power, natural gas, and propane tanks to avoid fire, electrocution, or explosions.
  • If it is dark when you are inspecting your home, use a flashlight rather than a candle or torch to avoid the risk of fire or explosion in a damaged home.
  • If you see frayed wiring or sparks, or if there is an odor of something burning, you should immediately shut off the electrical system at the main circuit breaker if you have not done so already.
  • If you smell gas or suspect a leak, turn off the main gas valve, open all windows, and leave the house immediately. Notify the gas company, the police or fire departments, or State Fire Marshal’s office, and do not turn on the lights, light matches, smoke, or do anything that could cause a spark. Do not return to your house until you are told it is safe to do so.

Rescource 19 – Regional Preparedness:


The Center for Disease Control’s Department of Health and Human Services posts a website that offers free tornado preparedness information and links

All articles in Bridge Multimedia’s 30 Days, 30 Resources series are available for publication in whole or in part without further permission, free of charge, with attribution to Bridge Multimedia and


About the Writers

John Cavanagh is Communications Director for Bridge Multimedia and Chief Researcher for Emergency Information Online.

Anne Malia writes about technology and emergency preparedness for people with special needs and has contributed to the production of and

Article inquiries welcome. On request, we can provide feature-length articles tailored to your audience and requirements. Please contact John Cavanagh at Bridge Multimedia: or .

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