Rethinking family disaster plans: 10 lessons from Tornado Alley

On the morning after a tornado destroyed parts of Moore, Okla., it was tough dropping off my daughter at school. Storms also hit here in Rogers, Ark. on Monday, but they were mild compared to Oklahoma. Still, wedrove past fallen tree limbs and leaves everywhere. I tried not to cry listening to the radio report about the children in the Plaza Towers Elementary School, and the mother who picked up her child from school because she didn’t want to take any chances.

“You’d come and get me, right?” my daughter asked.

“Of course,” I told her.

But the truth is, I have no idea what I’d do because like many of us here in severe weather country, I have taken safety for granted. And I have been very, very lucky.

What many of us don’t have is a real family disaster plan. Every spring I decide that this will be the year I finally get prepared. Every year I get overwhelmed. But Moore is close. I have friends in Oklahoma. Talking with them this week has taught me a few lessons.

1. Heed the warnings.

Moore, Okla. officials are crediting early warning systems with saving so many lives that could have been lost in yesterday’s historic tornado. Gayleen Rabakukk is an Edmond, Okla., mom who admits to becoming cynical about severe weather warnings. “The TV weather people can tell us exactly which street the storm is on, where the tornado is going,” she says. Now she knows that’s not necessarily true.

Courtesy of Mari Farthing / Today
Mari Farthing with kids Spencer, 11, and Lauren, 8, in their Oklahoma City storm shelter Monday night.

2. Shelter in place

Most experts agree that the safest thing to do in the face of an impending weather disaster is to shelter in place. Like many in Oklahoma who do not have basements, Rabakukk thought an interior room on a lower level would be safe. In our house we use the closet under the stairs. That’s the best we have. “After seeing the pictures from Moore, I'm not so sure.” Now we are both shopping for safe rooms and storm shelters.

3. Ask for better shelters, and pay for them.

Tom Barczak is a father of three and an architect in Norman, Okla., who designs tornado shelters for schools. He says that in the case of an F4 or F5 tornado you are safer below ground. However, Oklahoma’s clay soil acts as a sponge.

“Below ground structures, over time, will always flood, he says. Barczak says that FEMA-approved above ground standards for an F5 tornado are by far the safest bet. But that’s not cheap. “We can design a classroom to be an above ground shelter, and do, but the construction cost is easily double.”

4. Know the school/childcare buildings and plans.

Many parents picked kids up from Moore schools Monday as the storm approached. Jennifer McMurrain of Bartlesville, Okla. says she won't send her22-months old daughter to childcare on high-risk weather days. But some parents don’t have that option. And some institutional buildings will be safer than a residence or car.

Knowing the school’s building specs and emergency protocols can provide some peace of mind and help you decide if it’s safer to retrieve them or leave them in the care of others.

5. Make a plan for after the disaster.

Brent Robinson is a Red Cross volunteer who suggests making a plan with your family for what to do after a disaster event, including trying to call, text, meet at a central location, and check social media sources like Facebook and Twitter.

“We saw after Hurricane Sandy that as acommunity, social media is a huge way people are connecting after a disaster.” If cell towers are down, there are a lot of other options for accessing the Internet and finding family members.

6. Get educated.

Robinson started volunteering with the Red Cross because he wanted to help others and keep his family safe. The more people in the community who acquire emergency response skills, the safer we will all be. Robinson stressed that a key part of emergency preparation is knowing the dangers that are specific to your geographic location.

7. Teach kids to seek out help.

Children separated from parents or family members should look for a first responder in uniform. “Fire fighters and EMTs will usually direct people to a Red Cross volunteer,” Robinson says. They wear uniforms too, and are there to take care of people who need help, but are not in immediate danger. Also teach kids to stay away from power lines, even if they appear to be dead.

“You never know when the power companies are trying to turn the power back on,” says Robinson.

Courtesy of Mari Farthing / Today
Spencer and Lauren Farthing in Veterans Memorial Park in Moore, Okla. The photo was taken a few years ago. The park was destroyed by Monday's tornado.

8. Pack a real bag.

Before the tornado hit Moore, McMurrain felt somewhat prepared. “I have a backpack filled with water, snack bars, diapers, wipes, important medicine and extra shoes, but I wouldn't say those things would get us through a "worst case scenario" for long.”

She has re-committed to a better-equipped bag. Robinson reminds us to keep some identification in a safe place. “If a neighborhood gets wiped out, you’ll need to show I.D. to get access to your home,”

9. Put it in perspective.

“My kids were freaked out [Monday],” says Mari Farthing, a mother of two in Oklahoma City. “They are calmer today, but I’m preparing them for the possibility that there may be no more school, and that it may be overwhelming to them when they finally get out and see the damage.”

Bottom line, as a parent you have to instill safety without instilling unnecessary fear. “I think the fact that you can't ever fully plan for something that you can't control needs to be a part of what you teach.”

10. Trust your instincts.

Bartlesville, Okla. teacher and mother Heather Davis describes her family disaster plan as on-the-fly. “I didn't let my daughter go to her end of year after-school party Monday because I just had that gut feeling. I think she had it too because she didn't complain.”

The final piece of tornado preparedness advice on the Red Cross website is this: “Your choice should be driven by your specific circumstances.”

The truth is we can’t control everything. We can plan for things we can foresee. We can teach our children to help others, to appreciate the boring days of safety, and to trust their own innate sense.

And we can hug them all a little tighter, every chance we get.

Lela Davidson is the author ofBlacklisted from the PTA, and Who Peed on My Yoga Mat? Her thoughts on marriage, motherhood, and life-after-40 have appeared in hundreds of magazines, websites, and anthologies.