Keeping Babies Safe During a Tornado

I’m a bit of a weather nerd and I live in the American midwest where the weather is hostile to human habitation year round. It’s been brought to my attention that a lot of parents don’t know what to do with their baby and little ones when there’s a tornado warning, or what the difference between watches and warning are. In this post I will give a brief run down on warnings vs watches, what you should do to prepare, when you should take action, and what to do afterwards.

Tornadoes can happen anywhere the atmospheric ingredients are available. Tornados can hit cities with skyscrapers, in valleys, they can cross rivers, spin up on the coasts of lakes and oceans, and even drop down in LA. Though I call those delightful little rural farmhouses dotting the Grant Woodian landscape “tornado bait”, my own downtown apartment is just as likely to be hit by a tornado.

When to Shelter

A tornado watch means that the ingredients for making a tornado are available and you should keep yourself aware of the weather during that time. A tornado warning is when a tornado is on the ground, either radar indicated or spotted by a trained spotter. When there is a warning for your area, you need to take shelter. Don’t rely on outdoor sirens, often people indoors cannot hear them and sometimes they don’t go off in time or at all. You can check to make sure your phone will notify you of weather alerts or, preferably, get yourself a weather radio. These are like your own personal siren, once you bring one home, it will make friends with your smoke and carbon monoxide detectors. Most importantly it will get your attention and not accidently be set to “do not disturb” like your phone might.

I want to emphasize that you should not wait until you can “see” a tornado to take a warning seriously. The majority of tornados are invisible due to being rain-wrapped and/or because they are occuring at night, or simply because of the terrain you live in. But it’s not just tornados that you should be aware of: severe thunderstorms with strong winds can produce as much damage as a tornado, large hail can do double damage by richoting off surfaces to make multiple impacts (including the windows you’re gaping at it from), and flash floods are even more dangerous than tornados, mostly because people aren’t taking the risk seriously. If you are advised to take shelter, do it even if there isn’t a tornado warning, metrologists don’t make recommendations to shelter lightly.

Where to Shelter

You should take shelter either in a purpose built storm shelter or in the lowest part of your home (or the building you live in) and/or the most interior room. Do not remain in a trailer or a camper. Trailer parks and campgrounds generally provide storm shelters, its a good idea to find out where they are and how long it will take for you to get to one in an emergency, possibly in the dark with hail, strong winds, and debris in the road– before there is an emergency. For sheltering at home, in my area, its usually a basement, under the stairs, or on the lowest floor of a stairwell in a building.

Don’t stay in a vehicle and don’t try to out-drive a tornado (even if your truck is real big and real fast, a traffic jam’ll and/or hail will keep you from getting very far). Do not shelter under an overpass (under an elevated bridge) because the winds being funneled under the girders make them even faster than they are outside. A culvert is the better bet, but even then, flash flooding poses a risk.

If you have an infant, get their car seat out of the car when you see that your area is under a tornado watch, or due for potentially severe thunderstorms. Put the car seat in the shelter area and if there is a warning or call to shelter, put your baby in the car seat and buckle them up as if you were going to drive with them. Car seats, unlike your arms or a baby carrier, are specifically designed to protect a baby from high speed impacts. Older babies and children (and adults, tbh) will be safer wearing a helmet, it will protect from impact as well as debris far better than arms or hands (or textbooks, like I was taught during school tornado drills) alone.

In the Shelter

You’ll want to stock your shelter area with a basic emergency kit:

  • first aid + family medications
  • a binder or folder with family IDs + medical conditions
  • flashlight
  • portable radio
  • power banks for electronics
  • disposable diapers
  • back up feeding supplies for baby
  • baby carrier
  • bottled water
  • MREs for adults
  • food for pets
  • kennel or pet carrier, leash, etc
  • changes of clothes
  • sturdy shoes
  • outerwear
  • helmets
  • car seat
  • special storm shelter activities for children; something comforting and practical, like sleeping bags with their favorite character on them

Some of these items, like the jackets, shoes, helmets, and car seat can be gathered when there’s a watch announced. But if you need to leave home to go to a shelter, have a “go-bag” on-hand to grab on your way out. If you don’t have something ready when there is a tornado warning for your area, it’s more important to get to the shelter as quickly as possible.

If you rely on pumped milk, beware that if the power is out for an extended time, your stored milk may be unusable and you won’t be able to plug in a breast pump to get more and you won’t be able to store any extra– please don’t be discouraged, I just want you to be prepared. You will want disposable diapers, even if you are using cloth or doing EC, because if the power is out or if there is damage to your home, you will not have the facilities to properly clean cloth diapers and the disruption will cause problem for you and your baby to communicate the need for toileting. Again- no discouragement, just preparation.

If your area is hit by a tornado, the sidewalks and streets will be a total mess. If it occurs at night, it will be a dark mess. You want sturdy footwear to protect your feet. With this in mind, you should also have the quickest and most secure infant carrier you can get because a stroller/pram is absolutely useless when the sidewalks and streets are a mess.

I recommend that you provide special shelter-only activities or items for older children. And that you as a family practice tornado warning drills at home so that you can all get safer quicker. Gamifying it can make it less stressful for children and a little competition to see who can get to the shelter with helmets on quickest helps everyone. Bonus points for helping siblings.

Can’t Forget the Fur Babies

If you have pets that won’t give you a discount face lift for trying, getting them into their carrier or kennel in the shelter area. You know your pet’s temperament best, but if you have unpredictable little humans and a storm-triggered pet, it is probably best for the pet to be in their kennel. Be sure that the kennels have identification on them and I also recommend microchipping pets. If they get separated from your family, the first thing a vet or an animal shelter will do is scan for the chip and be able to contact you.

To review:

The watch is when to get ready, the warning is when to take shelter. Don’t rely on outdoor sirens if you are indoors. Have the car seat in the shelter area and buckle baby into it until the warning expires. Have older kids put on helmets (and you should model this behavior yourself because helmets save lives, y’all) and try to make the experience of sitting in the shelter as fun as possible under the circumstances.

Worst case scenario

I hope that none of you experience this but if a tornado hits your town or your home: make sure that it is safe for you to to leave the shelter area both weatherwise and structural-wise. Check to make sure everyone is okay. If someone is unconcious but not in immediate danger from building collaspe, etc, wait until first responders can help move them. And stay weather aware in case another storm is heading for your area.

Take your supplies with you when you leave. Make sure everyone has on their shoes or boots, keeps on their helmets, and even if you transfer baby to the carrier, keep the carseat with you so that you will have it available in case you need to travel by vehicle. Tip: a back carry is safer over uneven surfaces because you can better see where you’re walking.

Other considerations:

If you have an old home with asbestos, lead paint, etc (which is fine when left undisturbed and inaccessible) you may want to have some masks available, in case damage to the home causes particulates in the air as you are coming out of the shelter.

You may be able to use a generator for your home or business.. Even if the municipal power goes out, you will have back up to keep lights on, phones charged, fridge running but you still need to be weather aware and have the generator ready and fueled up.

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