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Are you ready for a tornado? What you need to know to prepare

Tornadoes are killers. They strike fast, pack a deadly punch and can leave a swath of debris a mile wide and 50 miles long. While some areas of the country experience tornadoes frequently, these lethal weather phenomena can impact any state.

According to FEMA, tornadoes are most prevalent between March and August and usually strike between 3 p.m. and 9 p.m., but can occur at any time. Don’t wait for a cell phone alert or TV siren to prepare for these dangerous storms. Make an emergency plan today.

As director of systems development at ServiceMaster Restore, one of the largest disaster restoration companies in the United States, Peter Duncanson knows about preparing for, surviving and cleaning up after a tornado. Here are his tips.

Understand the warnings

Knowing the difference between a "tornado watch" and a "tornado warning" is crucial.

A tornado watch means conditions are ripe for a tornado. Stay tuned to TV or radio until the threat passes.

A tornado warning means a tornado has been sighted in your area or tornadic rotation is in the air. There is imminent danger to life or property. Seek shelter immediately.

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Tornadoes, floods ravage parts of South and Midwest

Play Video - 2:37

Tornadoes, floods ravage parts of South and Midwest

Play Video - 2:37

Check your insurance plan

Make sure you’re covered for a severe weather incident. Take photos and/or dated videos of your possessions and keep digital copies of them.

Know the warning signs

All tornadoes do not exhibit the same warning signs, but the following are the most common: dark skies that are possibly tinted green, a rotating funnel cloud, roaring noises like a freight train or jet, large hail, flying debris.

Designate a shelter

Find a secure place, like a basement or cellar, as your shelter at home or at work. If no such rooms are available, go to the lowest level of the building and put as many walls between you and the outside as possible.

“A closet or bathroom is generally good, especially if it’s located under a set of stairs,” advises Charlie Neese, Emmy-winning meteorologist and tornado safety expert. “In a tornado, the winds at the surface are slowed by friction with the ground. This means that the winds are stronger the higher you go up in a building.”

Windowless bathrooms are good choices because they have strong framing. Within the bathroom, it can be lifesaving to seek shelter in the tub because it is often connected to the home’s foundation,” said Duncanson. It’s also important to protect your head with a mattress or cushion in case of falling debris and to put on sturdy shoes because walking through debris after a tornado can be dangerous.

Keep an emergency kit in your safe place. If a tornado strikes, it may take rescue workers days to reach you. Include a whistle, canned food, can opener, bottled water, flashlight and batteries, radio, medications and more. See FEMA’s emergency kit recommendations for the complete list.

According to FEMA, residents of mobile homes should seek shelter in a pre-identified location such as the lowest floor of a sturdy, nearby building or a storm shelter since they are not built to withstand sustained high winds. Even if tied down, they offer little protection from tornadoes.

Make a plan

Have a response and communication plan in place. (FEMA has excellent advice for dealing with the special needs of children, the elderly, those with disabilities and pets.) Practice the plan at least twice a year with your family and co-workers. Parents should check with schools regarding their procedures, as well as where children go if there's a tornado warning. At work, your HR department can advise you of safety procedures for tornadoes or you can use OSHA guidelines and create a plan for your business.

Of course, even the best plans are sometimes broken. Here's what to do if you find your self in a tornado if you are ...

  • ... in a motor vehicle

If a tornado warning sounds while you’re in a vehicle, seek shelter in a building, if possible. If there are no buildings nearby, FEMA guidelines suggest that you pull to the side of the road and remain in your car.

Never park under an overpass or bridge. You are safer in a low, flat location. Buckle your seatbelt, put your head down below the windows and cover your head with your hands and a blanket, coat or other cushion. Also, never try to outrun a tornado in urban or congested areas in a car or truck. Instead, leave the vehicle immediately and seek safe shelter.

  • ... walking outdoors

If you’re walking outside and there is no car or shelter, try to find a ditch or area lower than the ground and lie down. You are safer in a low, flat location than under a bridge or highway overpass. Watch out for flying debris.

  • ... trapped under debris

Do not move around. Make a noise by blowing a whistle or tapping on a pipe so rescuers can find you.

  • ... outside of your home after it's damaged

Do not enter the property if it is damaged. Exposed nails, broken glass, debris, electrical hazards, gas leaks, contaminated water and other dangers can seriously threaten your health and safety when you enter a building damaged from a tornado. If you suspect the property’s structural integrity has been compromised by the storm, don’t enter the building until professional inspectors confirm that it’s safe. You may need to have the main power or water lines turned off before entering. If your home is habitable but without electricity, minimize the risk of fire by using flashlights or battery-powered lanterns instead of candles.

If your home has serious damage, make sure to document it and contact your insurance agent to start the claims process immediately. Once your insurance agent confirms that cleanup can begin, let the experts handle the cleanup.

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