Tornado Alley—I grew up in the Kansas City, Missouri area and am very familiar with spring storms, what to look for, and what to do—in a house. One of the things that concerned me most about living in an RV was surviving tornados and strong straight way winds. Fortunately, as a fulltime RVer, we can often plan our locations to avoid the worst of the seasonal weather. Unfortunately, however, as the climate seems to be changing, our ability to predict has decreased. In the last nine months, we’ve dealt with four close calls from Minnesota to Missouri.When the storm passed, we surveyed the damage. The lot across the highway from the truck stop had been full of trailers for sale, some flatbed and others cargo trailers. Several of them had been tossed by the wind. Several ended up in the highway on top of each other. Others could be seen caught in some trees in a ravine about 75-yards away. We felt very lucky to have missed the worst of what we later discovered had been an EF-2 tornado with wind speeds of up to 155-mph.
Our most recent experience was in early March, 2017; we were expecting what was predicted as a severe storm. The wind had been gusting at between 25 and 40-mph for several days and there was a cold front coming. To avoid driving in the wind, which is an adventure all its own in a high profile vehicle, we parked at a truck stop to wait out the storm. The plan was to take cover within the truck stop, which had a full basement, if the weather turned ugly.
The storm was predicted to produce lightning and heavy rain, high winds, and possibly hail. By 7pm, we were in a tornado watch. Apparently, tornado watches and warnings mean different things in different areas. In Missouri, a tornado watch is issued by the National Weather Service (N.W.S.) when the conditions are conducive to the development of a funnel cloud. A warning is issued when cloud rotation that could develop a tornado is observed. By 7:30pm, the emergency alarms on our phones went off; we were in a tornado warning.
Jonathan—my partner in crime, former meteorology student, and amateur storm chaser—went outside to check out the conditions while I packed our computer bags so we could vacate. When he returned, he informed me that the truck stop had lost power and that they had locked all of the doors. We were on our own.
For the next ten-plus minutes, we were pretty concerned. A tornado was reported on the ground and headed our way. There were no ditches in running distance. We pulled in the slide-outs in an attempt to minimize wind resistance and turned on the hazard lights. Then we ducked between the refrigerator and bathroom door. I’m not saying this was even a good idea; in those moments we were acting entirely on instinct. This was the first storm we had been in that we actually thought there was a chance we would flip. Those were ten of the longest minutes I’ve experienced.
Be Aware of Local Weather Conditions
There are multiple weather apps for the phone and websites for the computer that can help you stay informed about local weather conditions while you travel. Personally, we use “Storm” which is an evolution of “Weather Underground”. It provides information about precipitation, temperature, and local wind velocity.
Familiarize Yourself with the Area
When you’re traveling, it’s important to know where the nearest storm shelters are so you can take cover if necessary. This helps determine how early you should seek shelter. One park we lived in during the summer of 2015 gave us directions to a haven over two miles away. It was fine if we had plenty of notice, but for an urgent sprint it was a bit of a distance. In our situation, we should have inquired what the emergency protocol was.
Getting a good understanding of your area also helps you determine which way to face the RV to minimize impact. When storm winds are coming from the east, you don’t necessarily want them to hit you broadside. It’s best if you face into them.
Prepare the RV
This is a tricky one because suggestions seem to vary depending on the specifics of the circumstances. Although having the jacks down would seem to stabilize your RV in heavy wind, unless they are on five-plus inches of wood, they can easily conduct nearby lightning strikes directly into your space.
Being plugged into shore power is another potential avenue for a lightning surge to destroy your electronics but having the RV generator going can actually attract lightning. Plus, some sources suggest that being in the RV at all could put you at risk, as most are made of fiberglass which make them poor conductors of electricity contrary to the faraday cage effect provided by other vehicles. However, running from the relative shelter of your rig across an open lot to another building seems even more dangerous. Perhaps the best bet is to secure the RV and vacate early.Since your motorhome is built to withstand 70mph headwinds (as it is driving down the road), it seems logical to put it into transportation mode with jacks up, slide-outs in, and windows closed. I would also suggest that you secure cabinets as you would for driving. If time is limited, seek shelter with the knowledge that property can be replaced.Have a Bug Out Bag Packed
Going back for one last thing is liable to be the death of me. As I packed our computers, phones, and power cords for each, I hesitated to grab my glasses and to wonder if I should pack daily medication just in case. It was at that point that I remembered my intention from last year to have a bug out bag packed for just this sort of occasion. This would have some of our essentials in a ready to grab location to avoid the last minute panic.In Conclusion
In retrospect, we should have evacuated the RV at the first indication of a tornado (or severe weather of any type) in the area. The truck stop was the safest location. There were no nearby ditches to duck into and if what occurred across the highway is any indication, had we retreated down the hill, we could have easily been crushed by a trailer. We got lucky.