Mitigating damage to homes during severe weather and how you can stay safe during severe weather
Updated: Jun 8
Looking at the numbers
A survey completed in 2009 showed that 50% of the general public were unaware of the warning systems used in their community. 30% of those surveyed expected first responders to meet their needs in the first 72 hours after a man-made or natural disaster impacted their community. The other 70% surveyed said that they relied on family members or neighbors to help in the event of a man-made or natural disaster. However, even with these statistics, the most startling statistic taken from this survey conducted in 2009 is that over 40% of the general public in the United States believes that a man-made or natural disaster will never strike their community. Unfortunately, that is very untrue, and today I will discuss what weather watches and warnings are, and how you can stay safe during a severe weather event whether you are inside or outside.
Types of weather watches and warnings and why they matter
In this section, I will discuss the following; Hazardous Weather Outlooks, Significant Weather Advisories, Severe Thunderstorm Watches, and Warnings, Tornado Watches, and Warnings.
If you are unfamiliar with severe weather terms, you may have never heard of a Hazardous Weather Outlook and that is completely okay. A Hazardous Weather Outlook is an outlook released by a local NWS WFO (National Weather Service Warning Forecast Office) that states the potential risks for your area in the
coming days. The risks discussed in these outlooks can range from Thunderstorms to fog or winter precipitation and so on. If you see a Hazardous Weather Outlook mentioning risks for your area it does not always mean the worse thing possible will happen. Regardless, you should look at these from time to time. Especially when severe weather is expected. You can find these by going to Weather.gov and entering your zip code.
Now that you know what a Hazardous Weather Outlook is, we can move onto what a Significant Weather Advisory is. A Significant Weather Advisory is issued for thunderstorms that do not reach severe limits but still need to be watched. Why is this type of advisory important? Some storms may not produce hail or damaging winds, but rather a significant amount of lightning or heavy rain which can pose a threat to human life.
Since heavy precipitation and lighting do not make a storm severe, this is where the Significant Weather Advisory comes into play. A Significant Weather Advisory can also be issued for thunderstorms that produce less than 58mph wind gusts or a thunderstorm producing less than 1 inch of hail.
Now that we have discussed what a Hazardous Weather Outlook and Significant Weather Advisory is, we can discuss the meaning and importance of a Severe Thunderstorm Watch and Warning. Severe Thunderstorm Watches originate from the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, OK. When the Storm Prediction Center is considering issuing a Severe Thunderstorm Watch, they will release a mesoscale discussion (short-term weather forecast) talking
about the potential for severe weather in the next couple of hours. In an MD (mesoscale discussion) the Storm Prediction Center will also discuss the chance for a Watch being issued in the next few hours. However, before the Watch is issued, the Storm Prediction Center will also work with the Local WFO to determine what counties should be included. Once a Severe Thunderstorm Watch has been issued, the Watch can last anywhere from 4-8 hours, unless extended.
When a Severe Thunderstorm Watch is issued, it does not mean severe weather is occurring, but rather that severe weather is expected in the next couple of hours because the atmosphere is prime for it. When a Severe Thunderstorm Watch is issued for your county, you should immediately put your severe weather safety plan into place in the event of severe thunderstorms in the next couple of hours. If you do not have a plan, that's okay. You will learn how to create one in this blog.
Severe Thunderstorm Warnings are issued by your local WFO when either a thunderstorm is producing over 58mph wind gusts or is producing hail above 1 inch in diameter. As stated above, a severe thunderstorm means that severe weather is occurring at that very moment. These warnings are not county-based like a Severe Thunderstorm Watch but rather based on the direction at which the storm is moving. If a Severe Thunderstorm Warning is issued for your area, you need to act immediately. Get yourself inside a sturdy building if possible. Then go to the most central and lowest part
of that building. This way if an object is projected into the air and hits the building you will be in the most interior and lowest part of said building, reducing the chance for you to become injured. After a severe thunderstorm has passed, be sure to stay up-to-date as to what is happening around you in the event of more severe storms later on.
Just like Severe Thunderstorm Watches, a Tornado Watch is issued by the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, OK. A Tornado Watch means that the atmosphere is prime for tornadoes in the next couple of hours. It does not mean that a tornado is occurring. When a Tornado Watch is issued for your area, you should immediately put your severe weather safety plan into place.
Tornado Warnings, on the other hand, are issued by your local WFO. A Tornado Warning is only issued when either a tornado has been confirmed by a storm spotter, chaser, Emergency Management Official, Law Enforcement, or Firefighter. Tornado Warnings can also be issued by a WFO if radar presentation shows a tornado on-going in an area. When a Tornado Warning is issued for your area, do not wait to act. Do not wait to see the tornado. Most
tornadoes, especially in the Southeast, will be shrouded in rain. Which can lead to false security because you can not see the tornado and might not act because of that. With this in mind, you need to act immediately as a tornado could already be on the ground doing damage and you may only have a few minutes to react. You can react by going
to the lowest most center part of the building that you are in and putting as many walls in between you and the outside. Put a bicycle helmet or something sturdy over your head to protect your brain as well as something over your neck to protect your neck. Do not hide anywhere near glass or windows as they can become projectiles in a tornado and fatally injure you. Do not open windows. They will not help you in any way possible besides allowing debris to come into the house more
easily. After the tornado has passed, assess the damage around you if there is any. Local and long distance calls will be routed differently after a major storm and may become overwhelmed. This is why you need to have an out-of-state contact. This way you can let somebody know that you are fine and they can reach your family, especially if your family is in the same area as you. If you are able to get out of your house or building without any assistance, immediately see if your surrounding neighbors are fine. Taking action after a tornado can and has saved lives.
How to protect your house during a flash flood
No matter where you live, flash flooding, or a flood event will affect you at some point in your life. Flash flooding in particular is the #1 killer in natural disasters because people do not take them seriously. I have covered flash flooding in a separate blog so I will mainly be focusing on how you can protect your home during a flash flooding
event. The first step to protecting your house is to find out how high a flash flood could get in your area if one were to occur. Your insurance agent will be able to provide you with this information. If for some reason they are unable to, you should seek out a floodplains manager in your county. You can also find information about historic floods by using archived data. Once you have
obtained this information, you should do some research and gather information on how many times your community has flooded in the past 100 years. When it comes to mitigating the damages done to your house by a flash flood, we need to look first at the appliances in your house. All of the appliances in your house should be 2 inches higher than the predicted flood zone based on the information gathered either from your
insurance agent or floodplains manager. However, if you are unable to do this step you can do other tasks to help lessen the damages to your appliances. The first alternative is to move your appliances to the second floor if possible. If this is not practical for you, you can also put sandbags around all of the doors leading into the house and inside the house. Next, we'll talk about elevating your wall plugs. This may sound expensive, but I can promise you if a flood
occurs and the wall plugs receive damage, it will be much more expensive to replace the flooded wall plugs. When you are repositioning your wall plugs, you should keep in mind the information gathered about the flood zone in your area as you will want to position them well above the flood zone. Lastly, being aware that a flood is occurring or is about to, could save your house as you will have an ample amount of time to place sandbags around your home.
Protecting your home from severe winds
No matter where you live, severe weather related to tornadoes or straight-line winds will affect you on a yearly basis. In this section, I will discuss ways to better protect your home in the event of a tornado or damaging straight-line winds. One way we can mitigate damage to a house is by doing a technique called "hardening". The idea behind hardening a house or business is to reinforce the connecting parts of a house,
thus creating a continuous load path. To be able to have this continuous load path, you will have to reinforce and connect the roof to the upper walls, the upper walls to the lower walls, the lower walls to the main floor, and finally, the main floor to the foundation. When you are doing this, consider using galvanized steel clips (sometimes called hurricane ties). The clips can be purchased at Lowes for 98 cents. The plates can be nailed directly onto the wooden frame joints.
Galvanized steel clips should not be
attached to the plywood sheathing, but rather be attached to the studs and rafters. By doing this you strengthen the connections. A garage door can sometimes be the deciding factor as to whether a building receives marginal or heavy damage during a severe weather event when the garage is introduced to high profile winds. Multiple studies have shown that the roof can stay intact and not be damaged if the garage door does not break. However, these studies also show that if the garage door has a weak point and gives in the roof is more likely to become damaged. This happens mostly because of internal pressurization and suction which destroys the
garage door and then allows the violent winds to destroy the walls and roofs inside the house. A way to prevent this from happening to your house is by obtaining a wind-resistant garage door with a rating of at least 100mph (EF-1 range) if not higher depending on where you live. Next, let's talk about roof designs. What's better, Gable, or Hip? Personally, I believe that Hip designs are much better for a home when it comes to talking about protecting the roof of a house
during severe weather events. If you have a Gable roof design, the roof is more likely to act as a sail as the roof catches the wind on the windward sides and results in uplift loads eventually forcing the roof to breach. On the other hand, Hip
roof designs are more aerodynamic and stronger. Unlike a Gable roof design, the Hip roof design does not have sharp edges, which allows severe winds to flow around the roof more easily. This results in less uplift and less of a chance of the roof breaching. Finally, some other ways to mitigate damage to your house during severe weather events is by cutting down trees that are not healthy as they may come down on your house during a severe weather event. You may love that big
tree in front of your house, but is it worth having it come down on to your house and causing catastrophic damage? Consider anchoring sheds and other buildings near you. This way when you do encounter severe winds, they will stay in place, rather than become a projectile.
Protecting your home during a power outage
Tornadoes, straight-line wind storms, earthquakes, snowstorms, ice storms, wildfires, and etc can all cause a power outage as they have the ability to bring down powerlines and destroy transformers. So how can you protect your home during a power outage? A generator may seem like the answer, but there are other things you need to do as well to protect the
electronics in your home. Have you ever heard of a UPS? No, not United Parcel Service, but rather an Uninterruptible Power Source? In the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, UPS's were commonly used on computers so that when the power went out, the computer did not crash and allowed the user to have at most 2 hours of operating time. If you have a smart home or any kind of electronics drawing high voltages you should highly think about getting a UPS so that way when the power goes out you can manually shut down those electronics and potentially save the circuits in the electronics from being damaged during a power outage, surge, or spike.
How to stay weather aware before, during, and after a severe weather event
The brilliant minds at the Storm Prediction Center in Norman, OK, work hard every day to keep the public informed on possible severe weather days in the United States. If severe weather is forecasted for your area, check the Storm Prediction Center’s website days before the event. This way you will have a good grasp on the potential for severe weather in the coming days. Make sure to check back continuously throughout the day or days leading up to the severe weather
event in case the SPC changes their outlooks. The SPC has outlooks that go as far out as 8 days. The SPC also goes into great detail about what you can expect days leading up to and the day of severe weather. As I discussed above, you should also look at the Hazardous Weather Outlook released by your local NWS WFO. This way you can get a sense as to what could happen in your area as opposed to a regional discussion. Alternatively, you should also listen to your local news station as they will also talk about the potential for severe weather days leading up to and the day of.
Now that you know where you can get information about severe weather days leading up to an event, you should make a plan in the event of a natural disaster or man-made disaster occurring in your area. First, you must understand how you will receive a warning in the event of a disaster. One of the best ways to receive information when a watch or warning is issued is by having a NOAA Weather Radio. You can find a Midland Weather Radio at your local Walmart, Lowes, Bass Pro Shop, Home
Depot, and so on. But what if you are outdoors and want to stay updated about severe weather? Midland also makes a hand crank weather radio for those who love to explore. These hand crank radios might also be a good thing to have in the event of a power outage. This way you can stay up to date in the event of more storms forming. Midland Weather Radios start around $25 for the pocket version and then $30 for the
WR-120, which is a weather radio that can be placed in your home. This radio has a wall-charger and also a place to put batteries in the event of a power outage. Some people may be scared by that price point and if you are, do what I did and that's go on Facebook Marketplace and buy a used Midland Weather Radio. I was able to buy a brand new Midland Weather Radio for $15 on Facebook Marketplace last year and this Midland Weather Radio has woken me up when severe weather was occurring late at night. Lastly, the reason why I believe you should specifically buy a Midland Weather
Radio, whether it's the base version or portable version is because I have been using Midland products for the past 5 years. My portable weather radio has seen some real abuse, including a crack on the LCD screen, however, it still works flawlessly 5 years later and most likely will last for the next 10 years. Another way of receiving watches and warnings is by having WEA (Wireless Emergency Alerts) activated on your phone.
However, I would not suggest relying on this option. My experience with WEA's has been quite negative. I have never once received a WEA for a Severe Thunderstorm/Tornado Warning. The only time I did receive a WEA was when the president was testing his alerts. This is why you should sign up for a text-based alert system from your city or county. Norman, OK, has a text-based alert system called "Alert Norman." Once you have signed up, you will start receiving alerts not just for severe weather, but other alerts that may impact human life. However, once again, even though this is a great option if
telecommunication systems are destroyed by powerful winds, you will not receive a WEA or text-based alert. This is why it is incredibly important to be weather aware on severe weather days. Now that you know of a few different ways to receive watches and warnings, let's talk about shelter. Do you have a shelter in the event of a severe
weather event? If not, you need to do some research and find out where you can go during a severe weather event. In most cases, unless you know of a shelter nearby or have a storm shelter, your shelter will be your own home. If this in fact is true, then in the event of a Severe Thunderstorm/Tornado Warning being issued for your area, you should seek shelter in the most interior part of your house away from windows. By doing this, it puts you in the most protected part of the house
and you are less likely to be injured by glass breaking near the windows. If possible, you should also get to the lowest part of your house, this way you have more of a chance of surviving. Once you have done this, you should cover your neck and your head with something sturdy to protect yourself from flying debris. All of this applies to someone who is living in a house that is not a mobile
home. If you live in a mobile home, you must act spontaneously during a Severe Thunderstorm/Tornado and leave the mobile home. Mobile homes will not survive a tornado impact or in some cases even a straight-line wind event. This is why you must have a shelter in mind that is sturdy before a severe weather event occurs. This way you know how much time you need to take to
abandon your mobile home and get to that shelter. If you are outdoors during any type of severe weather event, whether it be a hail storm or tornado, DO NOT hide under a bridge. In 1991, a video showing a tornado passing to the East of civilians hiding under a bridge, made people believe that overpasses can save your life in a tornado. However, that is very much a myth. If you use an
overpass as a shelter during a tornado, you will experience much more violent winds because when a tornado passes directly over an overpass the overpass acts as a wind-tunnel and increases the motion of the vortices. Along with that, the tornado will most likely be carrying debris that will be flung directly at you while you are taking refuge. During the 1999 Moore F5, a mother and her son took refuge under an overpass.
Unfortunately, the mother was sucked out from the overpass and found a mile away unresponsive. You also may think that it's a good idea to hide your vehicle under an overpass during a hail storm. This is once again a very bad idea. By stopping your vehicle under an overpass during a hail storm you are creating a lot of hazards. One of these hazards could include somebody not realizing you are stopped and then slamming into the back of your vehicle, which could
cause a huge pileup. It is also illegal to block a road during severe weather events. You can help reduce damage to your vehicle from hail storms by being aware of your surroundings and not traveling during severe weather. Lastly, I want to stress the importance of an EPK or otherwise known as an Emergency Preparedness Kit. You should have an EPK ready in the event of a disaster. An EPK usually consists of at least one gallon of clean water per person, that will last at least 3 days. You should also include non-perishable food items in your EPK, this way if you are without power for multiple days, you can still have food to eat. Your EPK should also include a battery or hand-crank Midland Weather Radio so that you can stay up-to-date on possible severe weather events in the future as well as information that may be important to you. Next, your EPK should include an LED flashlight along with an extensive first aid kit. Please do not cheap out on a first aid kit. Do your research and buy one that will be able to help you address trauma wounds at the very least. Consider buying a whistle as this will help responders
get to you sooner in the event that you are trapped. After this, you should also get small moist towels so that way you can wipe off dirt or any other things that you may have been exposed to. A good wrench or pliers can go a long way in a natural or man-made disaster. By having a wrench, this will allow you to turn off utilities that may still be on after a disaster. Have a map of your city. If the disaster is extreme, you may not be able to get an idea as to where you are without one. Finally, have a cellphone with multiple chargers. This way you can keep your family or out-of-state contact up-to-date as to what is
occurring. With all of that said, this may be very overwhelming for you. And if so, I have an app just for you. "Hello Harbor" is a brand new company that focuses on emergency preparedness. When you first launch harbor, you will be asked to give your ZIP Code. Once you have done this, the app determines what disasters you are most likely to see in your area. From here the app will give you tasks to perform weekly. This could include buying a case of water or just checking to make sure that your batteries in your smoke alarm are still active. So instead of purchasing everything at once, the app
helps you purchase supplies for your EPK on a weekly basis while also teaching you new things, such as CPR and how to purify water.
About the writer: Michael Thornton is a recent Emergency Management graduate at Rose State College with a certificate in Emergency Planning & Preparedness. He has a background in meteorological studies and is a NOAA Weather-Ready Nation ambassador who works with individuals, businesses, and governments to create more disaster-resilient communities.