SURVIVE THE STORM: Why we do not take cover during tornado warnings

Published: Mar. 28, 2019 at 4:13 PM CDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

When tornado sirens sound, some seek shelter immediately, others don’t.

If you’ve been in a tornado, you might not question the warning, someone who hasn’t may not take action right away.

“I was in the Emergency Operations Center the first time we turned on the sirens because we had a warning of a tornado headed our way," said Keith Stammer Joplin Emergency Manager. "We had a lady call up upset because we had scared her by turning on the sirens and she could look off to the west and the skies were still clear.”

Joplin Emergency Manager Keith Stammer was in Joplin on that May evening in 2011 when those clear skies turned into an EF-5 tornado.

The sirens were sounding, but still 161 people were killed.

"I was surprised by the number of people who told me they didn’t even know we were under a tornado watch," said Stammer. "So when the sirens went off they didn’t know what to expect.”

A NOAA survey after the storm showed a majority of people did not immediately seek shelter that day and scientists have been trying to figure out since why.

Stammer believes most people go through a checklist of seven things before they decide whether or not to find a safe place.

“There are at least seven steps people go through mentally when they are confronted with danger," said Stammer. "They have to receive the warning, understand it, believe it, personalize it, confirm it, decide to act and act appropriately.”

We spend the most time looking for confirmation. Using weather apps, television, social media, friends and family, or even looking outside we look at four to nine different sources before we decide to act. That takes three to seven minutes.

And with an average tornado warning time of ten minutes, that could mean the difference between life and death. Social scientists say it takes certain people longer to process… and find shelter.

“Demographic characteristics like poverty, no car, female head of household with children, undereducated," said David Johnson, a social scientist.

Here are some things we can do to make a faster decision. Listen to the daily weathercast and watch for signs of changing weather.

“Weather is not an exact science," said Johnson. "We can’t tell you that a tornado is going to drop on your head, but it doesn’t have too. If it’s close enough it’s going to give you all kinds of havoc anyway.”

Have a way to get early warning, like one of our weather apps. Do not rely just on sirens, those are meant for people outdoors, and some counties don’t even have them. Have your shelter plan ready to go, including a storm kit and practice the plan with your family, so you can Survive the Storm.