Tornados - seek shelter versus shelter-in-place

By William Bullock Sr., emergency manager, DLA Installation Support at Richmond

PRINT  |  E-MAIL

On March 21 Defense Supply Center Richmond, Virginia, conducted a tornado response exercise.  During the exercise, the installation’s mass notification system disseminated the message, seek shelter.” Post-exercise comments provided by participants indicated there was some degree of confusion with respect to the meaning of seek shelter,” which is different from shelter-in-placeor lockdown instructions. In order to clarify differences between these terms, installation support personnel are taking this opportunity to define the terms for the DSCR workforce.

Seek sheltermeans to immediately look for or “seek” a protected place to stay until the emergency has subsided. Shelter-in-placemeans to take immediate shelter within the building or area you already occupy, rather than to evacuate to another area. Lockdown means to remain in the area or building in which you are located, locking all doors and windows in order to barricade or block entry to the room, building or facility where people are attempting to remain safe.       

Although locations used for the aforementioned three messages can be similar or entirely different, it is important to understand that seek shelter is synonymous with tornado season.  Every year, Virginia is susceptible to have severe thunderstorms. These severe storms can produce tornados, which are short-lived, but very destructive. Understanding commands received via mass notification can be the difference between life and death. 

During a tornado, flying debris is one of the greatest dangers and it is best to avoid any room with windows that debris could potentially break. The best location to “seek shelter” is an enclosed, windowless area in the center of a building or the sturdiest part of a building. Interior stairwells are also usually good places to take shelter. 

Here are some facts versus myths regarding tornados published by The Weather Channel’s Weather Underground website:

A common tornado myth is that opening windows will equalize the pressure in your house or office, in order to prevent damage.  The reality is if a tornado is going to pass close enough to inflict damage on your location, there is nothing you can do to minimize it, thus making any effort to mitigate damage is a risk to your life.  

One of the worst myths is to taking shelter under an overpass.  Sheltering under an overpass is one of the most dangerous things you can do when a tornado is approaching.  The reason has to do with the way the tornado's winds could potentially interact with the bridge structure.  At the very least, taking shelter under an overpass puts you at a higher elevation with no protection from flying debris and high winds.

Seeking shelter in a ditch on the side of the road during a tornado would be safer than sheltering under an overpass.  When sheltering in a ditch, employees need to be aware of the potential for flash flooding.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration urges individuals to drive away from tornados, if they can safely do so. According to NOAA, on average, tornadoes move at 35 - 45 miles per hour so driving away should be the first course of action if you encounter a tornado while in a vehicle.

Should employees have more questions about appropriate tornado responses, they can access the Ready.gov website.