Friday, March 3, 2017

Warning! Warning! Tornado! How to Protect Patrons

Two summers ago, I held a teen program at the local administration building to decorate cupcakes. It was all going well, until my phone beeped. It was a Tornado Watch notification. Suddenly, I was responsible for twelve lives and I realized -- I wasn't trained for this.

Wind whipped through the trees and rain pounded our windows so hard that water was seeping in through the seams. We happened to have a janitor nearby, who kept mopping up the floor. Hail even made an entrance for a brief time. Ten minutes in, a grandfather came bursting through the door, saying there's a tornado coming, and took his two granddaughters home.

At that point, I was trying to make a plan for what I would do if the watch upgraded to a warning. Where would I take the kids? I knew that being near windows was the last place we wanted to be (and we had a wall of windows on both sides of our room), but I didn't even know if the building I was in had a basement nor how to get there. I had to leave the program (luckily, we hired a cake decorator, so no one noticed) to go investigate and learned we didn't have access to the lower floor. Now what? Thankfully, the storm cleared up before the end of our program. We didn't get the tornado, but we had a microburst that left damage around the area. Trees and limbs had fallen, hail left damage on cars, and power lines were down. Parents had a difficult time trying to get back to get their kids but most importantly, no one was hurt, especially the teens in my care. 

But I'll never forget that day and how unprepared I felt. It is rare for a tornado to come through our state, though we get plenty of warnings during the summer/fall tornado season. But I realized that was no excuse for me not having a safety plan in place, in case we do get a tornado warning. So, I did some research afterwards, and I thought I'd share it in this article.

Tornado Warning Signs

  • Mobile Alerts

Many cell phone networks partner with the national weather service to automatically send you emergency alerts that include life threatening weather. You can also sign up with any weather website to get mobile alerts, emails or phone calls for all types of weather. Tornadoes aren't always predictable, but at least you'll be in the know if your area gets a tornado watch (it is possible) or warning (it is in your area, take cover).

  • Large Hail
  • Dark, Often Greenish Sky
  • Loud Roar, Similar to a Freight Train
  • Large, Dark, Low-Lying Cloud (particularly if rotating)

Any of these above signs may happen, or none of them. Tornadoes can be stationary or move up to 70 mph. (The average is 30 mph) If you have a tornado watch in your area, you'll want to be on a lookout for these signs.

What to Do

The Storm Prediction Center has tips they give to school administrators that can work for libraries, too. There is no guarantee place of safety if a tornado comes through, but there are precautions you can take:

  • Go Low

Move patrons to your lowest level. However, note that time might be of the essence, so if the basement is too far (you might have 2/3 minutes, you might have no warning at all), find closer places you can direct them.

  • Avoid Windows, Use Walls

Keep patrons away from windows. The more interior they can get, the better. Closets and hallways are good places, especially if there is no time to go lower. 

  • Flying Debris is Deadly

Instruct patrons to crouch low and cover the back of their head. Going under tables and covering up with any handy material (Rug mat? Cloth? Coats?) may also help protect from debris.

  • No Power

Be prepared that you may lose power, so your electronic announcement system may not work. Have another plan in place for how you will notify patrons.

  • Avoid Large Rooms

If you are in a location with a gymnasium or lunch room, avoid these areas. The lack of roof support make these places a poor shelter.

  • Look for Rooms with NO Heavy Objects Above, If Possible

Pay attention to what is above you. This might be a moot point since libraries have heavy bookshelves throughout, but if you have a section of the library which is below offices, that would be safest place to go if a tornado rips through your building.

  • Plan for All Patrons.

Have a plan in place for disable patrons, parents with kids strapped into strollers...

  • Know Your County/Parish

Do you know what county/parish your library is in? Make sure you know it ahead of time so you can easily follow weather bulletins. You might also want to print out a map of the area if you are unfamiliar and keep it handy in your safety location.

  • Survey Your Building

If you are hosting a program in an unfamiliar location, arrive early to investigate. Where is the lowest part of the building? Where are all exits? How do you get to the bathroom? All the necessities so you are prepared in case you get that alert to take cover.

Please Share!

Does your library have a tornado safety plan? If so, please share in the comments below.


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