How to prepare for a tornado

Eric Pfeiffer
Yahoo News
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The National Weather Service forecasts that a series of severe tornadoes and thunderstorms is likely to hit the South Plains this weekend, affecting areas from Texas to Tennessee.

Veterans of extreme weather can tell you there are some basic steps when preparing for a potentially catastrophic event such as a tornado: shelter, food, your address book and, now, a tornado app.

“The data shows that unfortunately a lot of people still don’t know what to do when a tornado or other extreme weather hits,” Russ Paulsen, Red Cross executive director of community preparedness, told Yahoo News. “Preparedness can literally mean the difference between life and death.”

The Red Cross recently debuted its Tornado App, which you can download for free on the iPhone or Android devices. The app is meant to be an all-in-one resource, including a to-do list of reminders in advance of a tornado strike. But the coolest feature has to be the app’s siren, which emulates an actual tornado siren.

“It’s actually quite loud,” Paulsen said. “And it tells you when a tornado is close to the device you are using and what you need to do. It has literally already saved lives."

The app connects to information from the weather service and triggers the siren as soon as an alert has been issued. The timeliness is essential as most people have only a few minutes warning before a tornado strikes.

If apps aren't your thing, Paulsen still highly recommends a number of classic preparation tools, most of which are free:

- Be aware of whether a "Tornado Watch” or “Tornado Warning” is in effect. The latter is more severe and means an actual tornado or tornadoes have been spotted.

- Before a tornado warning is issued, families, businesses and individuals should share contact information and a plan for how they will reach one another. For businesses and other individuals, this is also a good opportunity to organize essential documents

- Make note of the closest evacuation center and have an easy-to-follow plan of action for reaching the center on short notice. “The best thing you can do is get somewhere inside that’s safe,” Paulsen said.

- If you anticipate being stuck at home during a tornado, multiple guides suggest having an emergency kit on hand and a safe room. Along with first aid, the kit should include basic supplies such as food, water, flashlights and maps.

- Safe rooms are best located on the ground floor or in a basement and should be kept away from windows. Turn off all the utilities before the tornado strikes to avoid potential gas leaks.

- If you are stuck outside when a tornado strikes, do not hide under a bridge or overpass. If you’re in a car, it’s best to stay low and cover yourself in a blanket if possible to protect from shattered glass windows and other debris.

- Mobile homes provide little to no security during a severe tornado. Paulsen says that for people living in mobile homes it’s even more important for them to have an early alert system and to know where the nearest shelter is located.

- Have your radio tuned to a station carrying National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and local weather alerts and have the NOAA website bookmarked on your computer or tablet device.

- And finally, once your plan is in place, regularly conduct drills.

Follow Eric Pfeiffer on Twitter (@ericpfeiffer).