RV Weather Safety
April 20, 2022
RV Weather Safety
RV Weather SafetyOne thing that can ruin a camping trip is bad weather. A question that came up at the Dutchmen office recently was what do you do at a camp ground when there is severe weather? As someone that started their college studies in meteorology and has been storm chasing across the great plans for 10 days I felt embarrassed that I didn’t know the answer. So let’s answer that now. The first thing to address is……
Supplies and Knowledge
Before you leave for any trip you should plan ahead and prepare for all possible weather situations. Give someone you know like a family member or close friend your itinerary so they know where you will be, and check in with them regularly. There are the basics like flashlights, batteries, a first aid kit, canned goods, and water, but other helpful items that will be discussed in more detail later are helmets, whistles, an air horn, and hard sole shoes. Michael Lewis, Warning Coordination Meteorologist at the National Weather Service for Northern Indiana says it is also important to have work gloves, trash bags, rain ponchos, and basic tools in case you come in contact with debris on the road. If you are able to clear the debris it could also help first responders get to the hardest hit areas faster. An item that is must have is an NOAA weather radio. When you are on the road there are Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) that will go off on your phone in the case of tornado warnings, flash flood warnings, and Amber Alerts. Check your phone settings and notifications to make sure you have this is turned on.
NOAA Weather Radio https://www.weather.gov/nwr/
Before you leave for your camping trip be sure to know what county you will be staying in. James Spann Chief Meteorologist at WBAB in Birmingham, AL recommends following a couple local TV stations on Facebook. “When stations cut into broadcast TV for storms, most local stations will also stream that on their websites and Facebook page.” If you are driving on the road and hit weather, be sure to listen to a local radio station. While I was on my storm chasing trip local radio stations did an excellent job of giving updates and reports of weather conditions and instructing people what do is while on the road driving. I was really surprised by how long they cut into their regular programming for all the updates.
Call ahead to the camp ground where you are staying and see if they have a storm shelter. For most camp grounds this could be a bath house, or some other solid structure on site. If your camp ground doesn’t have a storm shelter come up with a plan as to where you should go. Get in touch with local law enforcement, a chamber of commerce or visitor center and find out where the local storm shelter and recovery centers are. It is also a good ideal to know what roads, interstates, or businesses are around you. “Most TV meteorologist do a pretty good job of talking to travelers that aren’t necessarily from the area. I try to help them with interstate exit numbers and references like that they can understand. I like to use points of reference like BBQ joints and Wal-marts and things like that, “said Spann.
Since some RVs don’t have a TV, your phone and its apps are valuable tools in preparing for bad weather. Spann recommends having a radar app on your phone so that you able to track the path of the storm. Lewis recommends the FEMA app (https://www.fema.gov/about/news-multimedia/mobile-app-text-messages) that can be personized to your needs, and also the American Red Cross app (https://www.redcross.org/get-help/how-to-prepare-for-emergencies/mobile-apps.html). You can also use your phone to stream local stations broadcast on their website or on their Facebook page as mentioned earlier. “The National Weather Service has 122 offices across the country and our mobile site (https://mobile.weather.gov/#typeLocation) can give you the most update information for your location,” says Lewis. Both Lewis and Spann highly recommend the Storm Prediction Center website (https://www.spc.noaa.gov/) because they will issue forecast 3-5 days out for the possibility of severe weather. They have 5 risk categories starting from low to dangerous: marginal (MRGL), slight (SLGT), enhanced (ENH), moderate (MDT), and high (HIGH). “The Storm Prediction Center is a great tool because you can look ahead and, if necessary, change your plans or relocate to avoid severe weather”, said Spann.
Watches and warnings are issued to let the public know about severe weather. Watches are issued for entire counties when weather conditions are right for possible severe weather. Watches are issued 6-8 hour groupings or longer depending on the type of weather, before the event is forecasted to pass through an area. When weather watches are issued you should be prepared to take action if need be. Review your action plan and, keep an eye on developing weather in your area. Warnings are issued when severe weather is expected to cause imminent danger to life and property and it is time to seek shelter. Thanks to advancement in radar technology warnings are now issued in what meteorologists call polygons. Warnings are issued based on the path of the storm, so affect parts of a county instead of the whole county like a watch. For example, Dutchmen RV is located is Goshen, Indiana which is in the southern part of Elkhart county. If a severe weather warning was issued, the polygon warning box may only be for the northern part of Elkhart County along the toll road, and not affect Goshen, may still be getting heavy.
Severe thunderstorm watches are issued when conditions are favorable for storms to produce large hail or damaging wind. A severe thunder storm warning is issued when large hail or damaging winds are occurring or will shortly at a location. “Most of the damage in severe thunder storms come from damaging winds which can cause flying debris,” said Lewis. “RVs are not built to the same standards as brick and mortar houses, they are also high profile so there is a chance that can move when parked or be blown over when there are strong winds,” Lewis continued. “That is why it is so important to know where to shelter ahead of time.” If you are on the road during a storm and don’t feel comfortable driving or the winds are really strong, get off the road and get into a building like a gas station/truck stop or retail store and just stay put until the storm passes.
A flood watch is when conditions are favorable for flooding; it mean a possibility of flooding, not that one is occurring. A flood warning is issued when a flood is imminent or occurring. If you are in a flood prone area move immediately to high ground. When you are at a camp ground next to a river or other body of water and know it is prone to flooding try to get a camp site that is on high ground. If you are driving and see running water on the road turn around and don’t drown. “It doesn’t take much water (about 12 inches) to a push a vehicle off the road and you don’t know what is under that flood water, many roads could be washed out,” said Spann. More people die in flooding events than tornados because we have more flooding events and most of those deaths happen in cars when people try to drive through the water.
A tornado watch is issued when thunderstorms are capable of producing tornadoes. A tornado warning is issued when one has been spotted or indicated on radar. If you are on the road and you see a tornado coming, whatever you might think, do not take cover under an overpass. “Thanks to a video from the early 1990s people to this day still believe that taking shelter under an overpass is a good idea. If you do park under an overpass it’s going to create a wind tunnel, which could lift your vehicle off the ground and if there are other vehicles this will congest roads and impact recovery efforts from first responders” said Lewis. If you are driving and see a tornado and can’t get to a substantial shelter the best thing to do pull over to the side road, get out of your vehicle, get to the lowest point and lay flat on the ground covering your head and neck area. At one point during my storm chasing trip we drove by a large open field with cows in it. About half an hour later we drove by the same field and noticed all the cows in the field had moved to a ditch. Even the cows knew that something was going on and they needed to get to the lowest part of the field. Worst case scenario; if you can’t pull over on the road and get to ditch stay in your vehicle with your seat belt on, keys in the ignition and the engine on. If your vehicle is air lifted or stuck by debris it might set off the air bags and give you some protection.
One thing that bothers Spann when it comes to tornado safety is the dependency on sirens. “Many people to this day will not seek shelter until they hear the siren and by than it may be too late to get your shelter spot safely.” Lewis agrees, “Sirens are meant to alert people who are outside and will go off the whole county. If you are in a building you may not hear the sirens at all, that is why I can’t stress enough that you seek shelter when a warning is issued.” Another thing that bothers Spann is the lack of helmet use. “Unfortunately most people who die in tornadoes die from blunt force trauma to the skull, head, and neck region. A helmet will protect this vital area and it can be as simple as a bike helmet.” He then adds “Another thing is a lot of people bleed to death in open fields and first responders couldn’t find them. You might be injured and can’t force air through a whistle or vocalize that you are in need of help. You can squeeze the button on an air horn and first responders will hear it from a mile away.” Spann mentioned a whistle which is something I keep in the area of my home where I take shelter; that way if I am trapped under debris and can’t get out on my own I can blow the whistle and someone will find me.
Hurricanes and Tropical Storms
Hurricanes and tropical storms happen along the Atlantic coastline and the Gulf of Mexico. A watch is issued when sustained winds of 39 to 73 mph for tropical storms, and 74 mph or higher for hurricanes are possible. Unlike tornado and storm watches on land, tropical storm and hurricane watches over a specified coastal area. Watches for these types of storms are issued 48 hours in advance of the anticipated onset of the storm so as to allow for evacuation if necessary. A warning is issued when sustained winds of 39 to 73 mph for tropical storms and 74 mph or higher for hurricanes expected somewhere within a specified coastal area. Warnings are issued 36 hours in advance of the anticipated on of the storm, again, for evacuation purposes. These storms are tracked weeks in advance so you have time to change plans and reroute your trip, or cancel it all together. If you are camping along the coast the best thing to do is pack up and leave; never try to weather a tropical storm or hurricane in your camper. Contact local law enforcement and see what the best evacuation route is to take. Storm surge causes flooding and is the most dangerous part of these storms. Hurricanes and tropical storms will also have flying debris from the wind, and produce tornadoes as well.
Even though technology has have given us advance warning of severe weather and saved countless lives, eyewitness information is still the best reporting when to comes to storms. “Radar and technology are good but it still doesn’t tell us what is happening on the ground. We can see rotation on radar so we issue a tornado warning but don’t actually if there is a tornado on the ground without the help of spotters, “says Lewis. Lewis encourages everyone who travels in an RV full time to become a trained weather spotter. “From about February to June all 122 National Weather Service offices offer Sky Warn Storm Spotter training.” Lewis recommends taking your initial two hour class through the National Weather Service in person, and refresh your training yearly through online courses. “The science of how storms form hasn’t changed but it’s good to review to refresh your memory,” said Lewis. Certification is good for three years and if you find yourself camping frequently in a certain part of the country it would be a good idea to take a course that is specific to that area so that you are more familiar with the type of storms and weather that occurs.
Be prepared; know before you go. A little planning can save a wonderful camping from turning into a nightmare. Carrying the right supplies, that you will hopefully never have use can help in avoiding disaster and keep you safe. In the end your travel trailer, fifth wheel and vehicle can all be replaced or repaired and is covered by insurance. Your life, however, cannot.
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