Trying to cope when a tornado threatens

Although the path of a tornado is fast and furious, early warning and information on what to do during the storm can save lives during its devastation. When tornadoes touched down in Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, and Ontario last Friday, people in communities with a good warning system were able to cope better than were people in towns where the warning was not widely known, said one disaster relief worker in Ohio.

Cleanup from last week's tragedy continues. Earlier this week President Reagan declared 12 counties in Pennsylvania and four in Ohio as disaster areas, making them eligible for federal disaster relief. The storms caused at least $250 million in damage. Seventy-four people were killed, more than 700 injured, and 1,700 buildings were destroyed. And an estimated 7,000 people were left homeless.

In Canada, 12 people were killed, as many as 500 were injured, and thousands were left homeless. Both the Ontario provincial cabinet and the Canadian government are expected to provide relief. Damage is estimated at $100 million in Canadian dollars ($73 million US).

Predicting tornadoes has not been easy for scientists, because their catastrophic fury lasts so short a time. Tornado warnings were given in the devastated areas less than an hour before the storms struck, according to some reports.

``Unfortunately, Pennsylvania, New York, and Ohio people have virtually no experience with twisters,'' adds Samuel H. Schiff of the Insurance Information Institute. ``In Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas, people have a better grip on what should be done. When warnings are given, they have a better handle of how to take cover.'' Those states make up a ``tornado alley,'' where the bulk of twisters occurs each year.

Mr. Schiff's institute puts out a pamphlet of what to do before, during, and after a tornado.

``If you are at home, seek shelter in the basement or the central part of the household on the lowest floor,'' Schiff says. He also recommends hiding under a staircase or under heavy furniture.

At work, head for an inner hallway on the lowest floor. School districts should have a safe spot in their buildings for children. Stay away from windows, he says.

A spokesman for the National Weather Service says that opening a window will make little difference in the damage a structure sustains in a tornado.

Schiff also warns people not try to go out and search for relatives. Try not to panic, he cautions. People should never attempt to outrun a twister in an automobile, he emphasizes. They should instead pull over, find an area lower than the road, and then get as close to the ground as possible.

He also points out that mobile homes, in which an estimated 10 million Americans live, are easily devastated by tornadoes.

``It doesn't discriminate. It picks everything up,'' says Schiff. A number of states, particularly in the South and Midwest, have passed laws requiring ``tie-downs,'' which help anchor the mobile homes.

Tie-downs ``are definitely effective'' in cutting down damage from wind, says Richard Wettergreen of Foremost Insurance Company, one of the nation's largest insurers of mobile homes. Anchoring can protect a trailer from gales winds ranging up to 90 miles an hour. But when it comes to tornados, the tie downs are not of much use. -- 30 --

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