Get Out Alive: How to survive a tornado

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. (April 27, 2015)-- All month long, FOX59 is preparing you and your family to get out of dangerous situations alive. Springtime brings skies primed for severe weather and deadly tornadoes. The violent column of winds can kill, but you can get out of a tornado alive.

Tornadoes are monsters, destined to damage and poised to kill.

"It looked like a bomb had just went off," said one survivor.

"All of us are screaming, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, you've got to help us," said Michael Gardner, a tornado survivor.

Gardner and other teens huddled in the basement of a church during a tornado in Kokomo a year and a half ago. Winds pushed a car into a basement and trapped Melody Vandergriff's head under the car. Still, she got out alive.

"I'm here. I'm alive. And, I shouldn't be. And God's good," Vandergriff said.

The fury of a twister is familiar to Hoosiers.

Two EF-2 tornadoes with winds up to 135 miles per hour tore through Kokomo in November of 2013. Luckily, nobody died. But in March of the year before an EF-4 tornado with winds hitting 175 miles per hour decimated southern Indiana. Henryville was ground zero. That storm killed eleven.

You can get out of a tornado alive.

But we wanted to feel the force for ourselves, taking a trip to The University of Michigan and their sub-sonic wind tunnel in the Department of Aerospace Engineering.

"The top speed in the wind tunnel is about 170 miles per hour," said Chris Cartier, Senior Engineering Technician at The University of Michigan.

Rarely do people get to go inside, but we are.  Chris Cartier cranked up the wind to see how much FOX59's Kendall Downing could withstand.

A huge motor turns a fan ten feet in diameter, drawing air through the tunnel that is longer than a football field.

First, we fired up the tunnel.

Then FOX59's Kendall Downing got suited up.

By winds at 30 miles per hour, his clothes were tight on his body. By 50 miles per hour, it got worse. Breathing became difficult. He held on for winds of 75 miles per hour before telling crews to cut the tunnel off.

"I can't imagine going through a situation where you're exposed to that. It's just terrifying," Downing said.

He withstood the weakest type of tornado. Meteorologist Dr. Frank Marsik said it's imperative that you never get trapped in the storm, meaning put the cell phone away. If you can see the tornado, pictures aren't worth your life, he said.

"They should've been thinking about that long ago," said Marsik.

Tornado winds rotate counter-clockwise, and a tornado's direction is unpredictable.

"You've really got to stay aware of where that tornado is moving, because initially you could be staying away from it, and all of a sudden it could start turning toward you," he said.

Marsik recommends three critical tips to get out of a tornado alive.

  • Get as low as you possibly can. If that's inside, it means a basement or the lowest level of your home. If you're outside, get in a ditch and cover your head. If you're in a mobile home, get out and find shelter elsewhere.
  • Stay away from windows or doors. Flying debris can kill. Make sure you take shelter in an interior room.
  • Practice your plan. Make sure children in the home know where to go when a tornado threatens.

And while it may seem like our weather gets wilder. Marsik said it's not so.

He credits better warning systems and even social media with helping to get the word out, sooner.

"We have a lot more eyes on the sky for people to be seeing these tornadoes, so it isn't necessarily we've got more. We have a lot more eyes and better ways to see it," he said.