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Ask A Native Midwesterner: How To Hide From A Tornado

Beware the funnel cloud.
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Beware the funnel cloud. Drew Buckley/Shutterstock

New York City faces an unusual meteorological proposition: The threat of an "isolated" tornado, not one but two evenings running. Twisters don't come 'round these parts all that often—"weatherdude" Dennis Mersereau counts three in Manhattan between 2005 and 2019—but last night, some of you watched in horror as your phones blared actual TORNADO WARNINGS for our metropolis (particularly Staten Island).

"Take shelter now!!!!" the weather gods living inside your phone commanded you, and as you looked around your cramped sixth-floor walk-up, basically just one room punctuated by the occasional window, you may have wondered: Where, though? Do I climb inside my kitchen bathtub, or will I be pelted by the contents of my falling cabinets? Would it be safer to flee for the subway, or can the tornado get me underground?

These are all reasonable questions to ask in a city where most people probably lack access to a storm cellar and also have never seen a cyclone in their GD lives. Unfortunately, I come from the very same swath of heartland states currently being absolutely wrecked by devastating tornadoes. I spent a generous chunk of my childhood cowering in various basements as the sky turned green and sirens screamed, and while I have never treasured these memories, at least they can maybe be useful to you now. And so, let us take a break from our regularly scheduled programming to Ask a Native Midwesterner: How in the heck do you hide from a tornado?

Sorry, who is "Tornado"?
If you have totally tuned out of the news cycle, and find yourself unfamiliar with the basic premise of this article, here is your tl;dr: A tornado is a spinning air funnel that shoots down from dark, heavy thunderstorm clouds. Often, it will be accompanied by bad omens, such as a sky that goes all green like it's about to be sick, and big hail stones. Once it touches down, a powerful chaos vortex may blast away everything in its path, sometimes pulling roofs off buildings, scattering cars, and picking up any stray people just to toss them in the air. I am being as casual about this as I can due to longstanding terror, but make no mistake: Tornadoes are terrifying, and as evidenced by the current situation in the Midwest, very dangerous.

Get inside!!!
The worst place to be during a tornado: Outside, in the middle of an open field, with nothing at all to prevent that cyclone from sucking you up and carrying you away. You want to seek out the sturdiest possible shelter—look for brick, reinforced concrete, very few windows—and get as low to the ground as you possibly can. The Office of Emergency Management advises against buildings with "with wide-span roofs, such as auditoriums, cafeterias, large hallways, or shopping malls." Whatever form of shelter you choose, you want it to be rooted to the ground: Automobiles, for example, cannot shield you from the vortex. The vortex will eat your car for breakfast. If you're driving when disaster strikes, and you're in NYC, your best bet is probably to abandon your vehicle and flee for the nearest building, because chances are there's something close by. If not, you can tuck into a ditch and lie face-down with your hands over your neck, or duck down on the floor of your car with the doors closed.

Anywhere but NYC, I would advise those of you who are unlucky enough to find yourselves outside and exposed to flatten yourselves to the ground, but the airborne debris risk is simply too high in our crowded and trash-strewn city. While the OEM warns against taking cover under an overpass or bridge, spokesperson Omar Bourne says that an underground subway station can do in a pinch: "The general tornado message is usually to take shelter indoors," he told Gothamist. "If you are in a subway, or close to a subway, and you can't get indoors, that's a good option as well."

Realistically, basement or a storm cellar is where you want to be, so maybe today is finally the day you introduce yourself to that guy with the troll collection who occupies your building's illegal subterranean apartment, or text your elusive super about basement access.

Regardless, you're going to want to keep an ear tuned to the radio or an eye on your TV/phone, so you know if and when it's time to activate Tornado Protocol. For those of you who can't burrow all the way underground, the Office of Emergency Management advises you to get to the lowest possible point in your building, even if that's a hallway, and/or, to hole up in a small interior room, ideally one without windows. Sturdy pieces of furniture can also provide cover in a pinch. Bottom line, the OEM commands: "Put as many walls between you and the outside as possible."

Shelter. In. Place.
Once you have settled upon your hiding spot, the best thing to do, space permitting, is to hunker in the middle of the room: Putting space between yourself and corners minimizes your risk of getting walloped by debris. If I were you, I would get on elbows and knees with my head down, covering my neck with my linked hands, because that's what I've always been made to do as a human living with seasonal tornadoes. But while you shelter in place, you want to remove as many debris risks from your immediate vicinity as possible: Do not lurk in a doorway (that's earthquakes), and for the love of all that is weather, STAY AWAY FROM THE WINDOWS.

Yes, I acknowledge that all of this amounts to a tall order in a city fond of glass high-rises and unaccustomed to this particular brand of nature's wrath. Just remember: Central hallways, avoid glass, get as low as you can go. I myself will be stripping my bathroom of all moveable items—goodbye, shower curtain and shelves of toiletries—and cowering in my bathtub, yowling cat corralled under my hunched body, thankful for once that the minuscule space shares not a single wall with the outside world.

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