What your congregation can do to keep safe during a tornado
When a tornado hits, it can cause extensive damage and devastation. For example, a tree went through St. John’s and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Caruthersville, Missouri, during a tornado in 2006, rendering it unusable; fortunately, there were no casualties.
Paul Stephens, Vice President of Marketing and Risk Management Services for Church Insurance, says that because it was a small church with a small membership, the church leaders opted not to rebuild and instead joined with another parish about five miles away.
Keeping people safe
While there are some preparations you can make to reduce damage to structures, tornado preparedness mostly centers on what you should do to keep people safe. Churches have a shorter “length of exposure” than schools, Paul says. “Church meets on Sunday, so that period is the length of exposure. It’s different for schools, which operate five days a week, 10 to 12 hours a day.”
Even though the length of exposure is reduced for churches, both churches and schools should be prepared for the possibility of a tornado. As Paul says, “They can come up quickly, and once they’re in the area, you don’t know how much time you’ve got to get to safety.”
Tornadoes can occur at any time, but the peak season is spring and summer. If you don’t have a tornado preparedness plan in place, now is the time to put one together.
3 Steps: Monitor, Shelter, Communicate
Paul suggests that churches and schools appoint someone to monitor the weather and be on the lookout for possible tornado conditions. “The weather monitor would be responsible for alerting leaders to the possibility of having to take shelter. Most of the time, you hear a tornado siren, but you shouldn’t rely on that exclusively,” he says.
The weather monitor should also track the situation while the group shelters in place, using a smartphone, iPad or battery-powered radio, and let the group know when it is safe to leave the designated place of shelter.
Both churches and schools should determine the location that will act as a safe shelter for individuals on the property in case a tornado hits.
“It might be the basement or the undercroft,” says Paul. “They should store supplies, such as a flashlight, first aid kit, blankets and water, in the safe space.” He also recommends that churches store some non-perishable food items in the space as well because, “if they get trapped, they could be there for a while.”
If you don’t have access to an underground space, shelter in an interior room, hallway or closet without windows.
Both internal and external communication should be considered, Paul says. “In a small church, everyone will know what’s happening, but on a bigger campus, you should have a procedure in place to communicate with everyone present to tell them that they should get to the shelter.”
Churches should also have a plan to reach out for help after the event. “It could be that the building has been hit, but it could also be more minor. For instance, if there are electrical wires down in the yard, emergency services should be called.”
With disaster preparedness planning, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Church leaders should determine what works best for their particular situation.
The damage a tornado causes depends on the severity of the storm and whether the structure is directly in its path. “Tornadoes can cause a total loss of the building, but it could also be that the wind just peels away siding or roofshingles,” says John Webster, Assistant Vice President of Property Claims, Church Insurance.
John says that churches can attempt to mitigate secondary tornado damage by preparing roofs and windows to withstand high winds. For example, there is a hurricane-nailing technique that can be applied to shingles that supposedly allows them to survive winds of up to 100 miles-per-hour. But he cautions that such tactics won’t completely protect against a catastrophic storm.
Mike Marino, Vice President, Claims, for Church Insurance, points out that “making structural changes or reinforcing structure can be fairly expensive.” When doing repairs or building new structures, you might find that there “may be code changes to reinforce the building.”
John adds that “a lot depends on where and how a tornado hits. There’s no way to completely protect the building if it’s in the direct path of a tornado. So Mike says to focus on taking the necessary steps to protect yourself and others. Don’t take the warnings lightly. Act fast after a warning and take the proper steps.