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Shortcuts: How to survive a tornado

By Paul Sussman for CNN
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(CNN) -- On Thursday a tornado hit North London, damaging 150 homes and injuring six people, one seriously. In a world where extreme weather events seem to be happening with increasing frequency, we offer some tips on what to do if a tornado comes knocking at your front door (before ripping it off its hinges and whirling it hundreds of feet into the air, along with your roof, windows, car and pet dog).

Don't be too paranoid

Although the North London tornado made dramatic headlines, and sparked a slew of alarmist articles about psychotic killer winds tearing apart people's homes, the chances of actually encountering a tornado, let alone being injured or killed by one, are fairly low (the word tornado comes from the Latin "tonare" meaning "to thunder"). For most of the world's population death by disease, hunger, violence, car accident or snake bite remain far more likely than dismemberment at the hands of a violently rotating column of air suspended off the bottom of a giant cumulonimbus cloud.

Having said that...

Tornadoes are enormously powerful and destructive meteorological events, and those who live in areas that are prone to them -- most notably the so-called Tornado Alley in the U.S., which experiences almost 1000 tornadoes annually -- have every reason to feel alarmed. An F-5 tornado (tornadoes are measured on the Fujita, or F scale, with 5 being the most intense level) can produce winds of up to 318 miles per hour, easily strong enough to lift an entire house off its foundations. The Tri-State Tornado of 1925 killed 695 people in Missouri, Illinois and Indiana, while only two weeks ago eight people were killed and 20 injured when a tornado hit a mobile-home park in Columbus, North Carolina. So by all means make jokes about Dorothy and Toto, but at the same time be prepared.

Watch out for storms

Tornadoes form out of severe thunderstorms. If you live in a tornado-prone area the onset of such a storms should sound a warning that a tornado might be heading your way, especially if accompanied by a deep green or black sky and fast moving clouds (debris falling from the sky is another fairly sure sign that something bad is about to happen). While the traditional image of a tornado is of a vast rotating funnel of cloud connecting sky and earth, not all tornadoes manifest themselves in this way (they can, for instance, be hidden within heavy rain), so the absence of a cloud funnel does not necessarily mean the absence of a tornado. Conversely, of course, not every storm harbors a tornado, so there's no need to dive whimpering under the bed every time you see a cloud.

Get inside

Outside is probably the worst place you can be when a tornado hits (except possibly on the roof of a tower block strapped into a hang-glider). If you sense a tornado is approaching, get inside as quickly as possible. If that is not feasible -- you're on a country ramble, for instance, or conducting a botanical study miles from the nearest building -- then try to lie flat down in a ditch or other depressed area that will offer some protection from high winds, at the same time covering your head against flying debris (if you do seek shelter in a ditch, however, be aware of flood waters from heavy rains). If you are in a car, get out. Quickly.

Get downstairs, or into the bath

The safest place to be in a tornado is underground (miners and moles have never figured highly in tornado fatality statistics). Many people in tornado-prone areas have invested in specialized subterranean storm shelters. If you don't have such a shelter, however, the next best place to be is the basement, preferably underneath a large table to protect against falling debris. If you don't have a basement either, try to take shelter in an inner hallway, or else an internal room with no windows. Bizarrely bathtubs are one of the safest places to be in the event of a tornado striking because they are generally well anchored to the floor, and offer all-around protection against whirling objects.

Have an emergency plan

While a daily tornado drill in which you and your family rehearse jumping out of bed, sprinting into the basement and covering yourself with mattresses is probably overdoing things somewhat, it is worth having a vague idea of where you would go and what you might need to take with you should a tornado ever strike. As well as adhering to the points outlined above, the Red Cross also recommends that you assemble a "disaster supplies kit" containing, among other items, a first aid box, a radio, a torch and some bottled water.

Buy some popcorn and watch "Twister"

While not exactly in the Citizen Kane league, this Hollywood blockbuster about "storm chasers" contains spectacular visual effects, allowing you to experience the full monstrous force of a tornado without the attendant danger of having your head torn off and sent bouncing down the road like a tumbleweed. The film's twin taglines -- "The Dark Side of Nature" and "Don't Breathe. Don't Look Back" -- give you a fair idea of what's in store.


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The awesome destructive force of a tornado in full flight.

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