Tornado & Waterspout Safety

Tornadoes, waterspouts and funnel clouds are relatively rare occurrences in our region, but they do happen, and we need to be prepared if they do.

Weather forecasting science is not perfect, and some tornadoes do occur without a tornado warning. In Trinidad and Tobago, unlike the United States, radar capabilities limit our ability to detect tornadoes. In addition, there is no centralized area for issuing a tornado warning to the population. Hence, your best option is to stay aware of the latest weather forecasts and there is no substitute for staying alert to the sky.

Besides an obviously visible tornado, here are some things to look and listen for, from NOAA NWS Storm Prediction Center:

  1. Strong, persistent rotation in the cloud base.
  2. Whirling dust or debris on the ground under a cloud base — tornadoes sometimes have no funnel!
  3. Hail or heavy rain followed by either dead calm or a fast, intense wind shift. Many tornadoes are wrapped in heavy precipitation and can’t be seen.
  4. Day or night – Loud, continuous roar or rumble, which doesn’t fade in a few seconds like thunder.
  5. Night – Small, bright, blue-green to white flashes at ground level near a thunderstorm (as opposed to silvery lightning up in the clouds). These mean power lines are being snapped by the very strong wind, maybe a tornado.
  6. Night – Persistent lowering from the cloud base, illuminated or silhouetted by lightning – especially if it is on the ground or there is a blue-green-white power flash underneath.

If you spot a funnel cloud, head indoors to the lowest level of the nearest building, into a center room away from windows and doors. While some funnel clouds may never materialize into a tornado, gusty winds may still occur and can be hazardous.

Tornado Safety Tips

A tornado is a violently rotating column of air extending from the base of a thunderstorm down to the ground. Tornadoes are capable of completely destroying well-made structures, uprooting trees, and hurling objects through the air like deadly missiles. Tornadoes can occur at any time of day or night and at any time of the year. The following are tips adapted from the United States National Weather Service.

Before a Tornado

  • Be alert of your surroundings and the weather forecast: Trinidad and Tobago’s radar does not allow for the monitoring of wind velocities and other radar detected features that would allow a meteorologist to issue advanced tornado warnings. In addition, there is no centralized medium for tornado warnings to be expediently disseminated to the public for warnings to be utilized in a short time frame. Hence, your greatest tool will be to be alert and aware of your surroundings as well as keep up to date on weather forecasts issued by your local meteorological services and offices.
  • Sign Up for Notifications: If you live in an area where such alerts exist, know how your community sends warnings. Again, thankfully, we live in an area where tornadoes are relatively infrequent, so alerts such as outdoor sirens are not needed. However, media and smartphones can be used to alert residents of severe storms capable of producing tornadoes.
  • Create a Communications Plan: Have a family plan that includes an emergency meeting place and related information. Pick a safe room in your homes, such as a basement, storm cellar, or an interior room on the lowest floor with no windows.
  • Practice Your Plan: Conduct a family severe thunderstorm drill so everyone knows what to do if a tornado or funnel cloud is approaching. Don’t forget pets if time allows.
  • Prepare Your Home: Consider having your safe room reinforced.
  • Help Your Neighbor: Encourage your loved ones to prepare for the possibility of tornadoes. Take CPR training so you can help if someone is hurt.

During a Tornado

  • In a house with no basement, a dorm, or an apartment: Avoid windows. Go to the lowest floor, small center room (like a bathroom or closet), under a stairwell, or in an interior hallway with no windows. Crouch as low as possible to the floor, facing down; and cover your head with your hands. A bathtub may offer a shell of partial protection. Even in an interior room, you should cover yourself with some sort of thick padding (mattress, blankets, etc.), to protect against falling debris in case the roof and ceiling fail. A helmet can offer some protection against head injury.
  • In an office building, hospital, nursing home or skyscraper: Go directly to an enclosed, windowless area in the center of the building — away from glass and on the lowest floor possible. Then, crouch down and cover your head. Interior stairwells are usually good places to take shelter, and if not crowded, allow you to get to a lower level quickly. Stay off the elevators; you could be trapped in them if the power is lost.
  • In a mobile home: Get out! Even if your home is tied down, it is not as safe as an underground shelter or permanent, sturdy building. Go to one of those shelters, or to a nearby permanent structure, using your tornado evacuation plan. Most tornadoes can destroy even tied-down mobile homes; it is best not to play the low odds that yours will make it. 
  • At school: Follow the drill! Go to the interior hall or windowless room in an orderly way as you are told. Crouch low, head down and protect the back of your head with your arms. Stay away from windows and large open rooms like gyms and auditoriums.
  • In a car or truck: Vehicles are extremely risky in a tornado. There is no safe option when caught in a tornado in a car, just slightly less-dangerous ones. If the tornado is visible, far away, and the traffic is light, you may be able to drive out of its path by moving at right angles to the tornado. Seek shelter in a sturdy building, or underground if possible. If you are caught by extreme winds or flying debris, park the car as quickly and safely as possible — out of the traffic lanes. Stay in the car with the seat belt on. Put your head down below the windows; cover your head with your hands and a blanket, coat, or other cushions if possible. If you can safely get noticeably lower than the level of the roadway, leave your car and lie in that area, covering your head with your hands. Avoid seeking shelter under bridges, which can create deadly traffic hazards while offering little protection against flying debris.
  • In the open outdoors: If possible, seek shelter in a sturdy building. If not, lie flat and face-down on low ground, protecting the back of your head with your arms. Get as far away from trees and cars as you can; they may be blown onto you in a tornado. 
  • In a shopping mall or large store: Do not panic. Watch for others. Move as quickly as possible to an interior bathroom, storage room or other small enclosed areas, away from windows.
  • In a church or theater: Do not panic. If possible, move quickly but orderly to an interior bathroom or hallway, away from windows. Crouch face-down and protect your head with your arms. If there is no time to do that, get under the seats or pews, protecting your head with your arms or hands.

After a Tornado

  • Stay Informed: Continue to listen to local news to stay updated about weather conditions.
  • Contact Your Family and Loved Ones: Let your family and close friends know that you’re okay so they can help spread the word. Text messages or social media are more reliable forms of communication than phone calls.
  • Assess the Damage: After the threat for tornadoes has ended, check to see if your property has been damaged. When walking through storm damage, wear long pants, a long-sleeved shirt, and sturdy shoes. Contact local authorities if you see power lines down. Stay out of damaged buildings.
  • Help Your Neighbor: If you come across people that are injured and you are properly trained, provide first aid to victims if needed until emergency response teams arrive.

Waterspout Safety Tips

Waterspouts are similar to tornadoes over water. Waterspouts are generally broken into two categories: fair weather waterspouts and tornadic waterspouts.

Tornadic waterspouts are simply tornadoes that form over water or move from land to water. They have the same characteristics as a land tornado. They are associated with severe thunderstorms and are often accompanied by high winds and seas, large hail, and frequent dangerous lightning.

Fair weather waterspouts are usually less dangerous phenomena. The term fair weather comes from the fact that this type of waterspout forms during fair and relatively calm weather. Tornadic waterspouts develop downward in a thunderstorm while a fair-weather waterspout begins to develop on the surface of the water and works its way upward. By the time the funnel is visible, a fair-weather waterspout is near maturity.

Before a Waterspout

  • Listen to the radio or to TV newscasts for local news and threats.
  • Keep a distress radio beacon, preferably one that is auto-activated in the water, on board your boat or in your car in case of emergencies.
  • Know the warning signs for waterspouts, according to NOAA: “a line of cumulus clouds with dark, flat bases;” thunderstorms; or a dark spot on the surface of the water, which is the first stage of waterspout and where the vortex touches down from the cloud line.

During or if a Waterspout is sighted

  • If you see a waterspout, never attempt to navigate toward it or through it. Instead, move at a 90-degree angle away from where the swirling motion of the waterspout appears to be happening.
  • A waterspout can last up to an hour but typically is over within 10 to 20 minutes, so waiting it out from a distance is safe.
  • If you’re in a boat and a waterspout appears to be headed directly for you, take down any sails, close hatches, and, if possible, get below deck. Diving overboard may keep you from flying debris, but it may also put you at risk of other factors, like hypothermia.
  • If the waterspout comes ashore, it can turn into a tornado. In that event, familiarize yourself with tornado preparedness above.

After a Waterspout

  • If a waterspout causes your boat to capsize, a representative from the U.S. Coast Guard recommends, above all else, staying with your boat. If you can climb on top of the hull to reduce the amount of time spent in potentially cold waters.
  • A mayday call can be placed on your radio, through your emergency beacon should help search-and-rescue locate your boat.

Emergency Numbers

Disaster Management Hotlines & Other Emergency Hotlines for Emergency Services
Disaster Management Hotlines & Other Emergency Hotlines for Emergency Services

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