Tornados are some of nature’s most destructive storms. A tornado can demolish buildings, destroy vehicles, upend machinery, and cause immense devastation along its path. Businesses must have a disaster preparedness plan to protect their staff, business assets, and facility in the face of Mother Nature’s wrath.
Tornados and Businesses: Surprising Statistics
Every year, tornados wreak havoc across the United States. In an average year, around 1,000 tornadoes are reported across the nation. However, some years see many more. In 2004, the US saw almost 2,000 tornados and in 2019 saw over 1,500. While these storms’ most visible toll might be on residences, businesses are destroyed, as well. Tornados cost tens of millions of dollars in structural damage, lost merchandise, business equipment, and human lives.
Below, we’ve highlighted the number of tornados reported by NOAA in the US from January 2000 until January 2023, including fatalities (the blue line).
- Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, Illinois, Iowa, Tennessee, Georgia, Kentucky, Nebraska, Louisiana, Missouri, and Colorado lead the nation in the number and intensity of tornados.
- On average, a tornado causes $2.5 million in damage.
- In 2021, tornados caused $229 million in damage across the US.
- The most damage recorded from a tornado was in 1896 when a storm struck St. Louis, causing $5.36 billion in damage (adjusted for inflation).
- The Joplin tornado of 2011 caused $3.71 billion in damage, killing 158 people, destroying 4,000 buildings, including two hospitals, and affecting another 4,000. This storm was part of a large outbreak in May of that year that killed 178 people and caused $7 billion in damage.
- An F5 tornado struck Moore, OK in 2013, causing $2 billion in damage, killing 24 people, destroying two schools, and leveling 300 homes.
- Only 54% of organizations have a documented, company-wide disaster preparedness plan.
- Around 40% of businesses fail to reopen after a natural disaster.
The best protection against a tornado is taking a proactive stance by developing a disaster preparedness plan before storms are forecast.
Preparing Your Business: Developing and Implementing a Company-wide Disaster Preparedness Plan
The first step to weathering a tornado and coming out the other side is to develop a disaster preparedness plan. Without such a strategy, you’re essentially flying blind. Having a plan in place and then ensuring that your staff understands it and their roles within it are vital to survival. Below, we’ll explore everything you need to know to create and implement a plan.
The first step in developing any plan is to conduct an assessment. The same applies to disaster preparedness planning. In this instance, it’s important to assess your facility’s liabilities.
- Are you located in a state that’s at higher risk for tornados?
- What is the history of tornadic activity in your area?
- What’s the average strength/severity of the storms in your area?
- If a tornado does strike, what are your facility’s primary vulnerabilities? These will be tied to specific things, such as site elevation and exposure, type of construction (steel vs. preformed concrete, for instance), and more. A full site analysis and report will provide invaluable information about the risks to your employees, facility, and business assets.
- How many employees are on-site on average?
Once your assessment is complete, it’s time to begin planning.
Draft Your Disaster Preparedness Plan
Every business is unique, which means every disaster preparedness plan will vary. Below, we’ll explore what you should do in broad outlines, but it’s important to customize this to your specific situation, including the site location, facility type, number and location of employees, and more.
Planning to Protect Your People
Your staff are the most important assets to protect during a tornado. Everything else can be repaired or replaced through insurance. Loss of life cannot be mitigated. Protecting employees requires several specific steps:
- Identity safe areas within the facility for all employees. In general, these should be small, windowless rooms close to the center of the structure. Bathrooms, storerooms/stockrooms, breakrooms – these are some of the better options.
- If your facility has multiple floors, create an action plan that allows employees to get from the highest floor to the lowest floor (a basement, if possible). If they cannot reach safety on the lowest floor, identify safe areas in which they can shelter on their current floor.
- Create a plan for any employees who might be outside. Where can they shelter during the storm? Should they attempt to reach the basement, or should they shelter in place? Employees who cannot reach shelter should locate a low-lying area, such as a ditch, and lie down flat while protecting their heads and necks.
- Identify critical employees and define their roles and responsibilities during and after a disaster. For instance, key IT staff might be responsible for ensuring ongoing IT functionality during a disaster.
- Conduct regular drills with your employees to reinforce the steps each must take in the face of a tornado. All staff members should know their safety areas and the procedures they should follow in case of a storm.
- Have a plan to monitor emergency notifications and provide warnings to employees, customers, clients, and anyone else on the premises in the event of a storm. This could be something as simple as having a designated employee announce it over the PA system, or it could be as complex as designating an individual employee per department to provide emergency notifications to coworkers.
- Stock your facility with emergency supply kits for employees. These kits should include first-aid supplies, clean water, nonperishable food, batteries, flashlights, and other items necessary for survival. Store them in designated shelter areas throughout your facility. Create a plan to check supply kits regularly, discarding and replacing any items that might have gone out of date.
- Put your plan into writing and distribute it throughout the business. Your strategy should be well-documented, understandable, and available to all employees. Post evacuation routes on the walls within your business per OSHA requirements.
Planning to Protect Your Facility
Wind is the single largest threat during a tornado. The strongest storms can have sustained wind speeds of over 200 miles per hour. They can flatten walls, collapse ceilings, flip vehicles, and more. They can also turn small objects into deadly missiles. Facility maintenance is a critical step in preparing for a tornado.
- Identify potential threats around your facility’s exterior in the event of a tornado. Check for anything that could become an airborne missile during a tornado.
- Create a strategy to reduce or remove items that could become threats during a storm, such as decorative landscaping elements (small plant pots), lumber/building supplies, debris, tools, etc.
- Create a plan and name employees responsible for regularly walking the facility’s grounds to identify and then remediate potential threats.
In addition to ensuring that your facility’s grounds are free of potential threats, it’s also important to assess the structure itself. Determine if your facility was built to current wind mitigation standards. If it was not, invest in remodeling to better prevent damage from wind, including:
- Replacing or retrofitting entry and overhead doors
- Strapping and bracing the roof
- Adding/replacing new fasteners, anchors, ties, etc.
- Building a safe room/safe area for tornado protection
If your facility is not yet built, it’s important to work with an architect/designer who understands modern wind mitigation requirements and knows the right products to use to safeguard your property and your people. It’s always more affordable to harden your building during the design and construction process than it is to retrofit it later.
Of course, we’re speaking of just the physical infrastructure here. However, you must also take steps to protect less tangible assets. For instance, how will you safeguard proprietary information and customer data during an emergency? How will you protect vital hardcopy business documents in the event of a tornado? How will you ensure access to that information if your servers are damaged, or your business is without power for a prolonged period? These should be part of your assessment and planning process just as much as protecting your employees.
Check Your Insurance
Weathering a tornado is only half the battle. While it’s hoped that you will emerge unscathed, there is a significant chance that you will suffer physical damage to the structure or business assets, and even to your employees’ health and safety. Make sure that your business is insured.
In most instances, tornados do not require specific coverage – unlike hurricanes and floods. The insurance industry classifies tornadoes as windstorms, which are usually “covered perils” in most commercial insurance policies. However, having coverage may not provide the protection and peace of mind you need. It’s more about the amount of coverage.
All business owners should verify that their business carries more than the bare minimum in coverage. If your business is in an area with a strong risk of a serious tornado, your policy should compensate you in the case of a total loss. Note that “Tornado Alley”, the infamous corridor that runs across the midsection of North America, is expanding and moving further eastward, so historical risks should be balanced with our changing climate.
Keep an Eye on the Weather
The best defense against a natural disaster like tornados and other severe storms is vigilance. How can a business owner manage that and still operate a successful business? While it can be a balancing act, weather information is widely available today. You can locate weather-related information from:
- Cable/satellite weather forecasts
- Local news stations
- Local AM and FM radio stations
- Weather radio
- Specialized smartphone apps from NOAA, The Weather Channel, and more, including state-sponsored apps
- Monitor the Emergency Alert System (EAS), as well as NOAA Weather Radio (both can be monitored by analog and digital means)
Depending on your business’s makeup, you may need to install weather apps on your smartphone that will alert you if a tornado warning or watch is issued for your area. Installing a dedicated weather radio in a central office that’s always populated is another option. It may even make sense to designate a few employees to be responsible for monitoring the weather situation and making management aware of potential threats.
Know the Difference between Watches and Warnings
In your quest for disaster preparedness, make sure you and your staff understand the difference between watches and warnings.
Tornado Watch – A tornado watch simply means that weather conditions are favorable for the formation of tornados. This can include the presence of strong thunderstorms with some degree of rotation and high winds.
Tornado Warning – A tornado warning means that a funnel cloud has been sighted within a specific area. Anyone within that area should seek shelter immediately and remain in place until the warning has been lifted
Both watches and warnings are time sensitive and designed to evolve as the threat level changes. Watches may turn into warnings, but they may simply be lifted if the weather does not intensify.
Moving Forward: Creating an Effective Disaster Preparedness Plan
Don’t forget that your disaster preparedness plan should be a living document. It must be updated as the business grows. Make regular reviews and updates part of your routine to ensure it’s always up-to-date and accurate.
Proactive action is the key to minimizing risk to your business from severe weather, including tornados. Working with a disaster recovery company like Mooring helps ensure that you have expert assistance and guidance throughout the entire process, from your initial assessment to rebuilding after a natural disaster.