Severe Weather Safety Tips

By: Paul Gross, Local 4 Meteorologist

Tornado safety

Tornado Watch vs. Warning

First, it surprises me how many people still get confused between a WATCH and a WARNING.

A WATCH means that severe weather is possible. Use this advanced notice to plan, as the potential storms could still be hours away.

A WARNING means that severe weather is happening right now. A lot of people don’t take Severe Thunderstorm Warnings seriously: To them, if it’s not a tornado, it’s not dangerous, and that couldn’t be any further from the truth. Some high-end severe thunderstorms generate wind as strong as a tornado -- the only difference is that this wind is blowing in a straight line, and not rotating.  A Tornado Warning means that either somebody has visually confirmed a tornado, or Doppler radar is showing strong indication that a tornado may be developing. You need to take cover immediately.

Where do I take cover?

The rules about where to protect yourself from a tornado are actually quite simple.

  • First, don’t delay!  A number of years ago I did a story about two women in Novi (one visiting the other) who grabbed their children and rushed down the basement as a tornado approached.  It hit the house and severely damaged it only thirty seconds after they got down there, and they didn’t suffer as much as a scratch.  Seconds really do make a difference in some cases.
  • Second, stay away from windows! Your parents or grandparents (or maybe you) were told many years ago to open windows when a tornado threatens. That is not only wrong, but actually makes things even worse.  Furthermore, windows offer you no protection from wind-whipped debris (more on this in a moment).
  • Third, if you have access to a basement, seek shelter down there, and further protect yourself by getting under a table or going into a small room if one’s available.

Finally, if the building you’re in does not have a basement, then get into a small interior room on the lowest floor, such as a bathroom, closest, or pantry. The reason you want to be in or near the center of the building is that this puts some walls between you and the tornado, which protects you from flying debris.

Remember: Most people who are hurt or killed by tornadoes are hit by airborne debris so, the more walls between you and the tornado, the better.

Watch: "Surviving the Storm" weather special

Dispelling some myths

There are so many myths about tornadoes that I don’t have time to discuss them all. The easiest thing to remember is that tornadoes don’t follow any rules. Some people think that tornadoes cannot cross a lake or river. That’s wrong. Some people think that tornadoes always travel in a straight line. Not only is this wrong, but three very responsible research scientists gathering data near the El Reno, Oklahoma tornado on May 31, 2013 lost their lives when the twister suddenly turned north, made a loop, and rapidly expanded to 2.6 miles wide.  Always remember that twisters can be very erratic and, even if you see one that doesn’t appear to be moving your way, it could change course.

Another myth is that twisters always look like a big, black funnel. That’s wrong. Some tornadoes are long and skinny. Others are a thick tube extending down from the cloud base. And some are white! That’s right, white.  And some people think that tornadoes don’t happen at night or early in the morning. Wrong again. Two of our biggest tornado outbreaks in the past 15 years occurred late at night -- those of you in Dundee will certainly attest to this -- your tornado touched down between 1 and 2 a.m.  And just to show that this isn’t a freak, isolated example, on Nov. 6, 2015 a small, weak tornado touched down at 7:20 a.m. just east of Yale, in St. Clair County, and on Feb. 28, 2017 a tornado touched down just before 9 p.m. in Niles, causing extensive tree and building damage.

NOAA Weather Radio

Weather Radio

Everybody should have a NOAA Weather Radio. My friend, Bruce Jones, at Midland Radio sums it up best: 

"Weather radios are like smoke detectors for weather. They sit in the corner of the room silently, and don’t sound an alarm until you really need it.”

This year, Local 4 will once again conduct a NOAA weather radio campaign, and you'll have the ability to purchase one at a significantly discounted price at Meijer. Since we began this campaign, well over 40,000 weather radios have been purchased. I'll let you know on air, online and via social media the campaign dates when you can come to a Meijer store and see the Local 4Casters and buy your radio, and even have it programmed for you so it only sounds for warnings in your county.

Dates for campaign days

Wednesday, April 26: Meijer in Westland -- 37201 Warren Road

Tuesday, May 23: Meijer in Warren -- 29505 Mound Road

Third date and location to be determined

My No. 1 Safety Tip

My No. 1 safety tip doesn’t involve tornadoes. Let me ask you a question: Have you ever been outside doing some yard work or otherwise enjoying a warm summer day, a storm is approaching, and you don’t rush inside until those first big drops start falling?

Yes, you have. Everybody has done it. And that decision could be a deadly one. When a severe storm with damaging wind approaches, the strongest, most dangerous wind gust normally rushes out AHEAD of the storm, and hits before the rain begins. Do NOT wait for the rain if you’re outside and severe storms are on the horizon -- you could suddenly be caught outside in the middle of trees and limbs coming down around you as a screaming wind develops with almost no notice.

Furthermore, if you see ANY lightning or hear ANY thunder, no matter how distant it is, then lightning is close enough to strike you. You need to get inside as soon as you see lighting or hear thunder. The official rule for safely resuming outdoor activities is only after 30 minutes go by with no more lightning or thunder.

Click here to view/print the "Top 4 Severe Weather Safety Tips" sheet. It's not a bad idea to put this on your refrigerator. 

Top 4 Weather Safety Tips