Before heading out this travel season, make sure you have a plan and know what to do if you encounter severe weather.
By Chris Dougherty
During the past year, it’s become very clear that natural disasters can happen at any time and with little warning. Entire communities can be damaged or destroyed, as was the case in Brimfield, Massachusetts, on June 1, 2011. What began as a beautiful summer-like day ended up in tragedy as an EF-3 tornado destroyed the Village Green Family Campground, and one camper lost her life.
This year started with a February tornado outbreak, with 57 reported tornadoes, ranging from EF-0 to EF-4. On February 29, 2012, the Bennett Springs RV Park in Missouri was among the hardest hit when tornadoes ripped through the area. (Village Green was scheduled to reopen May 1, 2012, and Bennett Springs commenced its trout season this spring.)
Floods, thunderstorms, tornadoes, hurricanes, snowstorms, and earthquakes can be dangerous whenever and wherever they happen, and the only real protection we have when we’re at home is preparedness. The same goes when we’re traveling by RV.
It’s easy to forget the world we live in as we relax during our travels, but ignoring a dangerous weather situation can have devastating results. Fortunately, it’s relatively easy and inexpensive to prepare for emergencies, and a little bit of planning can save your life.
When you fly on an airplane, the crew reviews emergency procedures before every departure, with a flight attendant or the captain providing information about where the exits are, how to find them in an emergency, and how to buckle your seatbelt. When you go to a hotel, there’s usually a card on the door directing you to the nearest exits. In schools, firefighters teach kids about Exit Drills In The Home (E.D.I.T.H.), Stay Low and Go, and to make sure the home has working smoke detectors and fire extinguishers. We should pay as much attention when using our motorhomes, not only for fire safety but for weather-related emergency situations as well.
We all know about thunderstorms, so why worry about them? All thunderstorms are dangerous. According to the National Weather Service (NWS), 1,800 thunderstorms occur at any moment around the world. That’s 16 million each year, and 100,000 in the United States alone!
Thunderstorms can produce the following:
Lightning — This natural phenomenon causes nearly 60 fatalities and 400 injuries each year, and accounts for more than $1 billion in insured losses each year. Lightning occurs with all thunderstorms and is directly related to the sound of the thunder. Remember, if you are outdoors and can hear thunder, you are in danger of being struck by lightning.
Tornadoes — Twisters cause an average of 60 to 65 fatalities each year and 1,500 injuries. Winds in excess of 200 mph are common with tornadoes, which also carry a large amount of debris.
Straight-line winds — The straight-line winds, resulting from downdraft bursts, can exceed 125 mph and can be just as destructive as a tornado.
Flash floods and flooding — Believe it or not, flash flooding is the number one killer associated with thunderstorms. Flash floods can occur with little warning and are especially hazardous in low-lying areas.
Hail — These ice stones cause more than $1 billion in damage each year. Hail can be as large as 5 inches in diameter, fall at speeds of up to 100 mph, and do extensive damage to a motorhome’s roof, awning, etc. Following a hailstorm, inspect your motorhome for damage and quickly make the necessary repairs to avoid water damage from leaks.
Thunderstorms occur primarily in the spring and summer and are the result of moist, unstable air colliding with a cold front, warm front, sea breezes, mountains, or the sun’s heat, which results in lift. Moisture is drawn upward into the atmosphere, sometimes as high as 12 miles. As it cools, it condenses and freezes, and when the weight of the frozen moisture overcomes the updraft, it falls. When the super-cooled liquid water particles (snow, ice pellets, and ice crystals) rub against each other near the freezing line in the atmosphere, the friction produces an electrical charge. When opposite charges meet, lightning results. The thunder is the sound of super-heated air expanding away from the lightning at the speed of sound.
The weather event that is probably the most feared is the tornado. Tornadoes are usually the result of super-cell thunderstorms. Tornadoes are violently rotating columns of air extending from a cloud to the ground and may appear nearly transparent until dust and debris are picked up, or a cloud forms within the tornado funnel. The average tornado moves southwest to northeast at approximately 30 mph. But it can move in any direction, and can, without warning, change direction, come to a standstill, or move at up to 70 mph. A tornado begins as a horizontal spinning current of air before a thunderstorm forms. As the thunderstorm develops, the rising air, or updraft, flips the horizontally spinning air vertical, and, if strong enough, will form a tornado.
Tornadoes are rated using the Enhanced Fujita (EF) scale, based on 3-second wind gusts. The scale ranges from EF-0 (65-85 mph) to EF-5 (more than 200 mph). Often a tornado isn’t rated until after the storm has passed and the damage can be studied. Tornadoes can last a brief time or remain active for more than an hour, and they can travel great distances.
Floods And Flash Floods
As noted, the number one storm-related killer is flash flooding. Flash floods occur rapidly, generally within six hours after the storm, and are usually the result of heavy rainfall. But they also can be caused by ice jams, levee or dam failures, etc. This is different from a flood, which occurs more slowly (more than six hours) and is the result of abnormally high water flow.
According to the NWS, more than half of all flood-related deaths occur when a vehicle is driven into the floodwaters. If you see water crossing the roadway, don’t drive into it; turn around.
Be especially vigilant in low-lying campgrounds, such as those along rivers and creeks. In a flash-flood situation, you could find yourself in trouble very quickly.
Who Is Most At Risk?
The NWS has determined, statistically, those who are at the greatest risk during the various weather conditions caused by thunderstorms. During tornadoes, it is people who are in mobile homes and RVs or those who are outdoors. Lightning is most dangerous for people who are outdoors when a storm approaches, or anyone who stays outdoors when thunderstorms are nearby. It need not be raining for lightning to strike. People who are in the greatest peril of flash floods are those who walk or drive through floodwaters. And those most at risk from being injured by large hail are those who are caught outdoors.
Hurricanes, snowstorms, earthquakes, and tsunamis are other types of natural disasters of which people should be aware. In the cases of snow events and hurricanes, typically plenty of warning is given before these storms hit, allowing people to be prepared and get out of harm’s way. In hurricane-prone areas, evacuation routes are designated and should be followed. Do not stay in your motorhome if you can’t move it. Rather, get to a shelter or evacuate. On a more positive note, in the event of an evacuation, a motorhome is a great vehicle to have. You can go anywhere away from the path of the storm and have everything with you that you would need for a prolonged period of living away from your stationary home.
Earthquakes and tsunamis happen largely without warning, although tsunamis are more predictable now than in the past. In the event of a tsunami warning in a coastal area, get to higher ground as quickly as you can.
As we learned on September 11, 2001, disasters of great magnitude can be the result of mankind and not nature. These types of incidents also frequently happen without warning.
Watches And Warnings
Whether using a weather radio or listening to broadcast TV or radio, you often will hear the words “watches” and “warnings” attached to a weather event. The differences between the two are simple, but the action you should take is the same. A watch (severe thunderstorm, tornado, tropical storm, hurricane, etc.) means that the type of weather associated with the watch is possible in and close to the viewing or listening area. A warning, on the other hand, indicates that the weather conditions are occurring or are imminent.
In the event of a watch, be prepared to act if conditions worsen or a warning is issued. Keep an eye on the sky, watch for threatening weather, and take cover as necessary.
What You Can Do
Being prepared is the best thing anyone can do prior to an emergency. If you know where to go and what to do before a disaster strikes, you’ll be able to react quickly, which could save your life.
As motorhome travelers, we venture into areas we may not be familiar with, so it can be hard to know where to go in the event of an emergency. Campground owners should be able to advise you on emergency procedures when you check in. Questions you should ask the campground owner and yourself include the following:
- Where is the nearest storm shelter? The campground may or may not have a storm or tornado shelter. If it does, know how to get there. If not, consider your other options. Your motorhome is not the place to be in a tornado or flood event.
- What county am I in? Where’s the nearest city? What’s the address here? Do you use 9-1-1 for emergencies? For those who work in emergency services, this is called situational awareness. Know where you are and how to get out of the area. Knowing the name of the county is important if watches or warnings are issued, since these are assigned by county.
- What local radio and TV stations should I watch or listen to if there’s an emergency? Most campgrounds give you a list of their cable stations, but try to find out about over-the-air broadcasting as well so you can keep track of the local weather information.
- Do I have what I need if I am cut off from civilization for a while? Is there enough food, water, medications, and clothing for everyone in the motorhome? Will there be a source of heat and shelter?
One of the most important pieces of equipment to have as a motorhome traveler is an all-hazards (weather) radio with Specific Area Message Encoding (S.A.M.E.) technology. Used for NWS announcements, the S.A.M.E. system also is employed by the Emergency Alert System (EAS), which is what you see on your TV or hear on the radio. According to the NWS, “NWR (NOAA Weather Radio) S.A.M.E. provides, in a digital format, specific, timely information on the nature and location of a threat to the safety of those most immediately at risk from severe weather or other hazards. Its greatest value is to significantly improve the automatic selection and distribution of messages about events that threaten people and/or property.” More information about S.A.M.E. can be found at www.nws.noaa.gov/nwr/nwrsame.htm.
A number of styles, makes, and models of weather radios are available. However, newer portable, travel-friendly models, such as the Midland HH54VP2, are ideal for RVers. These radios are relatively simple to program and operate, and they can be programmed to issue alerts only for the area that you are in (by county name). This feature is particularly nice for motorhome owners, as is the radios’ portability, since they are easy to take along on adventures away from the RV.
The only caveat is that S.A.M.E. radios MUST be programmed for the area you are currently in and changed when you move. In the case of the Midland HH54VP2, it does have a travel scan mode that will find the strongest signal and lock on to it. Any of the radios can be left in an “all area” mode, which will allow them to alarm when any S.A.M.E. signal or alert is received. Again, however, a local weather radio channel must be selected, and adequate reception must exist. An option with some radios, such as the Midland WR-120, is that they can be installed in the RV with an external antenna for better reception and wired to work off the coach batteries.
There are two other things you will need with your S.A.M.E. radio. First, you have to know where you are. S.A.M.E. codes are listed by county or parish. A county map, available on most state Web sites, can help with this, or just ask the campground folks. Second is a list of S.A.M.E. codes for the areas in which you’re traveling. These can be found on the NWS Web site, or simply by doing a Google search for S.A.M.E. codes. The instructions that came with your radio will show you how to program it. Again, I can’t stress how important it is to properly program and reprogram the radio. If it isn’t tuned to a local channel, or doesn’t have the proper S.A.M.E. codes, it won’t alert you.
The National Weather Service has created Thunderstorms, Tornadoes, Lightning … A Preparedness Guide that includes all types of information about these weather conditions and how to be ready in the event of severe weather. Visit www.nws.noaa.gov/om/severeweather/resources/ttl6-10.pdf to download the guide.
Commercial Mobile Alert Systems
New this year is the Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS). The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), in cooperation with most wireless cell phone carriers, will begin to broadcast emergency alerts via cell phones that are capable of receiving them. “[The system] will send geographically targeted, text-like Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEAs) to the public. WEAs will relay Presidential, AMBER, and Imminent Threat alerts [such as tornadoes] to mobile phones using cell broadcast technology,” according to a FEMA press release. “Most CMAS/WEA alerts will be issued by NOAA’s National Weather Service (NWS). The NWS can send weather-related alerts to any region in the country. CMAS will be used by the NWS only for the most imminent and severe weather conditions (e.g., tornado warnings).”
You can find out more about this system by visiting the FEMA CMAS site at www.fema.gov/emergency/ipaws/cmas.shtm.
Internet Weather Resources
In today’s technologically advanced world, few of us are without Internet access all the time thanks to our smartphones, which can be a valuable tool for emergency preparedness.
As an example, Accuweather has a great app for the BlackBerry phone that I have tested extensively. It updates frequently and provides quick access to forecasts, radar images, and warnings. The app will send an alert to the phone if it receives watches and warnings, assuming correct programming and adequate Internet access. The app also is available for Apple and Android devices.
A number of computer applications are available as well and will sound an alert in the event of a watch or warning. These include Interwarn, The Weather Channel, Weather Underground, and Accuweather.
Of course, the NWS, the National Severe Storms Lab in Oklahoma, NASA, and others have weather resources available online, but they may not have the warning alert capability of the solutions mentioned above.
The potential for severe weather or an emergency always exists, so it’s important to be prepared. Make sure that wherever you are, you have a plan and know where to go if severe weather strikes or threatens. Postpone activities if thunderstorms are forecast, and consider altering your plans to accommodate the weather. Monitor the weather and look for signs of deteriorating weather conditions, lightning, thunder, wind, etc. Have your weather/S.A.M.E. radio with you all the time, and have it programmed properly. When severe weather is imminent, don’t wait! Get to a safe place. If you see lightning or hear thunder, go inside. If you can’t get into a substantial building, find shelter in a hard-topped metal vehicle, close all the windows, and stay there until 30 minutes after the last rumble of thunder. Also, if you hear thunder, don’t use a corded phone. Cordless and wireless phones are fine, though. Don’t use plumbing during a thunderstorm.
Motorhoming is a fantastic way to travel and is a great adventure. With a little planning, you can be prepared should a weather disaster strike, and, it is hoped, avoid becoming a victim of its fury.
Additional Online Resources
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration — www. noaa.gov
National Weather Service — www.nws.noaa.gov
Federal Emergency Management Agency — www.ready.gov
Storm Alert Inc. — www.interwarn.com
AccuWeather — www.accuweather.com
Weather Underground — www.wunderground.com
Midland Radio Corporation — www.midlandradio.com/Weather-Radio.2FY
How Far Away Is Lightning?
Count the number of seconds between a flash of lightning and the sound of the resulting thunder.
Divide the number by 5 to determine the distance in miles to the lightning strike.
Remember, if you are outdoors and can hear the thunder, you are in danger of being hit by lightning.
Source: National Weather Service
Tornado Fiction And Fact
FICTION: Lakes, rivers, and mountains protect areas from tornadoes.
FACT: No geographic location is safe from tornadoes. A tornado near Yellowstone National Park left a path of destruction up and down a 10,000 foot mountain.
FICTION: A tornado causes buildings to “explode” as the tornado passes overhead.
FACT: Violent winds and debris slamming into buildings cause the most structural damage.
FICTION: Open windows before a tornado approaches to equalize pressure and minimize damage.
FACT: Virtually all buildings leak. Leave the windows closed. Take shelter immediately. An underground shelter, basement or safe room are the safest places. If none of those options are available, go to a windowless interior room or hallway.
FICTION: Highway overpasses provide safe shelter from tornadoes.
FACT: The area under a highway overpass is very dangerous in a tornado. If you are in a vehicle, you should immediately seek shelter in a sturdy building. As a last resort, you can either: stay in the car with the seat belt on. Put your head down below the windows, covering with your hands and a blanket if possible, OR if you can safely get noticeably lower than the level of the roadway, exit your car and lie in that area, covering your head with your hands. Your choice should be driven by your specific circumstances.
FICTION: It is safe to take shelter in the bathroom, hallway, or closet of a mobile home.
FACT: Mobile homes are not safe during tornadoes! Abandon your mobile home to seek shelter in a sturdy building immediately. If you live in a mobile home, ensure you have a plan in place that identifies the closest sturdy buildings.
Source: National Weather Service
Lightning Fiction And Fact
FICTION: If it is not raining, then there is no danger from lightning.
FACT: Lightning often strikes outside of heavy rain and may occur as far as 10 miles away from any rainfall. This is especially true in the western United States where thunderstorms sometimes produce very little rain.
FICTION: The rubber soles of shoes or rubber tires on a car will protect you from being struck by lightning.
FACT: Rubber-soled shoes and rubber tires provide NO protection from lightning. The steel frame of a hard-topped vehicle provides increased protection if you are not touching metal. Although you may be injured if lightning strikes your car, you are much safer inside a vehicle than outside.
FICTION: People struck by lightning should not be touched because they carry an electrical charge.
FACT: Lightning-strike victims carry no electrical charge and should be helped immediately. Anyone who has been hit by lightning requires immediate professional medical care. Call 9-1-1 and begin CPR immediately if the person has stopped breathing. Use an Automatic External Defibrillator if one is available. Contact your local American Red Cross chapter for information on CPR and first aid classes.
FICTION: “Heat lightning” occurs after very hot summer days and poses no threat.
FACT: “Heat lightning” is a term used to describe lightning from a thunderstorm too far away for the thunder to be heard.
Source: National Weather Service