As April wears on we are getting deeper into the heart of severe weather season in the state of Texas. This state is no stranger to violent weather systems causing scores of fatalities. In 2015, 24 Texans perished during the Memorial Day Floods, while 11 lost their lives in tornadoes on December 26th (8 in Garland alone). 

The best way to stay safe when dangerous weather threatens is to be weather aware and have a plan in place long before a storm occurs. 

How to Know when Severe Weather is Possible
Some reliable places to get forecasts from are your local National Weather Service Office, media outlets, and the Storm Prediction Center. The SPC releases forecasts with hatched risk areas 7 days in advance of storm systems. 

An example of the Day 1 Outlook from the April 27, 2011 Super Outbreak which left 348 dead in the Southeast. 

Probability of severe hazard with associated risk area. 

The risk areas are General Thunderstorm, Marginal, Slight, Enhanced, Moderate, and High. They ascend by severity with each having probabilities of tornadoes, hail, and severe wind associated with them. 

Taking just a couple minutes to read the Storm Prediction Center's forecast for the day is a great way to know what type of severe weather can be expected not only in your area, but across the United States. 

The Day 1 outlook is updated several times throughout the day. 


When Severe Weather is Forecast for Your Area
The National Weather Service is in charge of issuing both watches and warnings. A watch is issued when conditions are favorable for severe weather to occur. Those effected should be aware of potentially hazardous weather conditions. A warning is issued when severe weather is imminent or ongoing. Immediate action should be taken by those in the warning area. 

You need to have a way to receive warnings. Do not rely on sirens as you may not be able to hear them or they could be damaged by the storm. Many cell phones will receive weather alerts and there are also third party applications which will send you warnings, but again, communication towers can be damaged during storms. The most reliable way to receive warnings is a Midland NOAA Weather Radio. It will alert you whenever warnings are issued, which is useful when severe weather threatens in the middle of the night. 

Tornado or Severe Wind Event
Texas sees more tornadoes than any other state in the US. In the event of a tornado or severe winds, all of the watches and warnings in the world won't do you any good if you don't have a safety plan in place long before the storm impacts you. If you don't have a storm shelter or safe room, you need to know where the sturdiest part of your house is located, preferably an interior room on the lowest floor with no windows. It's a good idea to practice tornado drills periodically with your family.

Tornado outside of Bennington, Kansas. Image credit: Jason Weingart

Signs of an approaching tornado include dark, often greenish clouds – a phenomenon caused by hail, a wall cloud – an isolated lowering of the base of a thunderstorm, a cloud of debris, a funnel cloud – a visible rotating extension of the cloud base, and a roaring noise- comparable to a waterfall or passing train. 

Mobile homes are not safe during tornadoes or other severe winds. Do not seek shelter in a hallway or bathroom of a mobile home. If you have access to a sturdy shelter or a vehicle, abandon your mobile home immediately. Go to the nearest sturdy building or shelter immediately.  Do not wait to take action until you see the tornado.

If you are caught outdoors, seek shelter in a nearby basement, storm shelter or sturdy building. If you cannot quickly walk to a shelter, get into a vehicle and drive to the closest sturdy building. If you see the tornado while driving, and it is not noticeably moving to the left or right, it is likely moving towards you. If flying debris occurs while you are driving, pull over and park. Now you have the following options as a last resort: Stay in the car with the seat belt on. Put your head down below the windows and cover your head with your arms. If you can safely get noticeably lower than the level of the roadway, exit your car and lie in that area, covering your head with your hands. Your choice should be driven by your specific circumstances.

DO NOT SEEK SHELTER UNDER HIGHWAY OVERPASSES. This can clog roadways, not allowing other drivers to escape the tornado. Studies have shown that wind speeds can actually increase under these structures. People have been killed attempting to take shelter in this way. 

Between 2005 and 2014, 20 people were killed in Texas by lightning, ranking it the second deadliest state for lightning fatalities. Hundreds of others suffered permanent neurological
disabilities. Many of these tragedies can be avoided with a few simple precautions. 

Lightning strikes the ground in Salado, Texas. Image credit: Savannah Williams

Lightning can strike over 10 miles from its parent thunderstorm. When storms are forecast for your area, consider postponing outdoor activities that can put you in a dangerous situation. If it takes less than 30 seconds to hear thunder after seeing the flash, lightning is close enough to pose a threat. After the storm ends, wait 30 minutes before resuming outdoor activities. 

Fully enclosed buildings with wiring and plumbing provide the best protection. Avoid plumbing and corded appliances. Sheds, picnic shelters, tents or covered porches do NOT protect you from lightning. If a sturdy building is not nearby, get into a hard-topped metal vehicle and close all the windows. 

If no shelter is available avoid open areas. Try not to be the tallest object in the area. Stay away from isolated tall trees, towers or utility poles. Lightning tends to strike the taller objects in an area. Stay away from metal conductors such as wires, fences or railroad tracks. Metal does not attract lightning, but lightning can travel long distances through it.

If you are with a group of people, spread out. While this actually increases the chance that someone might get struck, it tends to prevent multiple casualties and increases the
chances that someone could help if a person is struck. Lightning victims do not carry an electrical charge. They are safe to touch and will likely need urgent medical attention. If possible, move them from the area. Lightning can and does strike twice. Cardiac arrest is the immediate cause of death for those who die. Some deaths can be prevented if the victim receives the proper first aid immediately Call 9-1-1 and begin first aid. Do not delay CPR if the person is unresponsive or not breathing. Use an Automatic External Defibrillator if one is available.

Recent hail events in North Texas and San Antonio caused an estimated $1 billion in damages.  Although it is rare, people have been killed by large hail stones after sustaining head injuries. Several people are injured by large hail stones each year in the U.S.
Some thunderstorms can produce hail that can reach the size of baseballs, softballs, or grapefruit!  

Hail core near Throckmorton, Texas. Notice the green glow indicative of the presence of ice.
Image credit: Jason Weingart

If a severe storm is producing large hail stones, seek a sturdy shelter and stay away from windows. If you are in your vehicle before the hail storm starts, get out of it and go to a sturdy shelter. Glass windows in vehicles can easily be smashed by large hail stones. If you can’t get out of your vehicle, come to a stop and cover your head with your arms and hands. 

Again, DO NOT SEEK SHELTER UNDER HIGHWAY OVERPASSES during a storm. There could be an approaching tornado behind or embedded in all of that hail and rain!

The Texas Hill Country is located in the heart of Flood Alley. Flooding is the number one weather related killer, causing more deaths annually than tornadoes, lightning and hail combined. Information on Texas floods can be found here.

Flash flooding in Taylor, Texas during the Memorial Day Floods of 2015. Image credit : Jason Weingart 

Before a flood occurs, you should know if your home is in a flood zone. Maps are available to help you understand your risk. You should also have supplies to last you 3 days, should you become stranded in your home due to flooding. The Red Cross has a comprehensive flood preparation list here

Listen to area radio and television stations and a NOAA Weather Radio for possible flood warnings and reports of flooding in progress or other critical information from the National Weather Service. Be prepared to evacuate at a moment’s notice. Have important belongings packed and ready to go. When a flood or flash flood warning is issued for your area, head for higher ground and stay there. 

Stay away from floodwaters. Displaced wildlife and sewage can be present in floods. If you come upon a flooded road while driving, turn around and go a different way. If you are caught on a flooded road and waters are rising rapidly around you, get out of the car quickly and move to higher ground. Cars can be swept away by six inches or more of moving water. Be especially cautious at night when it is harder to recognize flood danger.

Walls of water as high as 15 feet can occur during flash floods. A map of closed low water crossings in Central Texas is available here

Everything is bigger in Texas, including our storms. But with some education and preparation you can keep you and your family safe from these hazards.