Parenting: Thunderstorm Safety

"Murph" the meteorologist says thunderstorm dangers include more than just lightning.

"Murph" the meteorologist says thunderstorm season means lesson time for the kids.
April 5, 2012 8:02:29 AM PDT
Last week, I talked about the importance of talking to your kids about lightning safety as we move toward thunderstorm season. This week, I'm encouraging you to extend the discussion to additional threats posed by thunderstorms.

When a thunderstorm looms, winds can also be a significant problem. So-called "straight-line winds" can push-out ahead of a storm, forcing forward as heavy rain plunges to the surface beneath the storm cloud. The strong updraft of rising air, a typical component of a severe storm, can also be accompanied by what we call "microbursts" of falling air that pound the ground with tremendous force.

In both cases, the winds can be strong enough to knock down trees, branches, and drop power lines, as well as send other sorts of debris flying through the air. One point to get across to your kids is that these serious winds can precede the arrival of the storm by several minutes or more. So, along with lightning, wind is also a good reason to get indoors as soon as you hear thunder.

Getting inside ahead of the storm also gives your kids time to prepare. The safest place to be during a thunderstorm is on the lower floor of a building or home, away from windows and on the side of the structure opposite from the direction the storm is approaching. The upper floors of a home are more susceptible to falling trees and flying debris.

Most storms move from west to east or from southwest to northeast, so it's easy to discuss with your children ahead of time which side of your home faces east and is therefore the safest side of the house during most storms. As a storm passes, they should stay away from windows, plumbing and electrical outlets, hard-wired phones and anything that's plugged into the wall.

If there's a Severe Thunderstorm Warning issued, it's also a good idea to crouch along an interior wall and shield oneself from the potential of shattering glass. It is actually one of the more common ways people are injured when a storm damages a building. You can use a blanket or a sofa cushion for protection.

Of course, severe thunderstorms almost always produce those straight-line winds I mentioned earlier, but can also occasionally produce a tornado. In the event of a tornado threat, it's best to be in a building's basement, again, on the east side of the room.

Blankets and seat cushions are still a good idea for protection, as well as crawling under a table. An interior closet on a lower floor is also a decent hide-out if time or logistics make the underground option impractical.

Tornadoes are not common in our area with only about a half-dozen reported per year, most of them small and short-lived. This should be emphasized to your younger children, who you may find breaking into a cold sweat while discussing weather safety issues. At the same time, in those rare occasions when twisters do strike, it's the more informed people who have thought the situation through ahead of time who usually have the easiest time avoiding injury.

Most storms occur during the afternoon and evening, exactly the time when kids are often outdoors playing or practicing with their sports teams. They aren't always tuned into the news during this time, either. But here's a clue you can give your kids for detecting severe storms even if they are unaware of any warnings being issued. Severe storms sometimes produce an odd, green hue in the clouds above. This is a slight effect and only slightly noticeable, but it is kind of weird and in my experience, does draw one's attention.

This hue is usually accompanied by an increase in wind. What's happening is that sunlight is being refracted by ice suspended in the cloud by a strong updraft of rising air, filtering out most of the other colors. Since the ice is a sign of a potentially strong storm, so is the green color.

From a distance, a strong storm will feature a towering cumulus cloud that sometimes grows so tall its top is sheared flat by the jetstream winds. Any tall cloud with a flat top can mean trouble's on the way.

Finally, while all thunderstorms tend to produce clouds with dark grey bottoms, a strong, more dangerous storm will also take on a round, rotating shape near the base. The formation is called a "wall cloud" because it resembles a curved wall descending down from the more jumbled cloud structure above. Any rotation your kids detect in an approaching cloud mass is a sign of trouble.

What's nice about these storm tips is that they sometimes occur before the storm has reached full strength and can give you and your children an early head start toward the safety of home before the trouble starts.

For more information on thunderstorms and dozens of other weather topics, check-out my Action News Weather Class channel on I've written roughly 150 short articles on various topics, many of them originally posed by school students and viewers.
---David Murphy

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