Tornadoes and travel: How to stay safe inside an airport or hotel
By Ashley Williams, AccuWeather staff writer
Imagine settling into your hotel room to kick off a relaxing vacation when the manager announces an imminent tornado threat to the area.
Similarly, how would you handle the potential chaos when tornado sirens wail at a busy airport, as you’re surrounded by thousands of other worried travelers?
Millions of people explore the United States during the warmer seasons, which increases the likelihood of encountering severe weather.
When a tornado threatens to disrupt travel plans, it can be a harrowing situation.
This can be especially true for those who have never experienced these destructive and often deadly acts of nature.
In 2013 and 2014, Denver International Airport (DEN), the largest commercial airport in North America, had to implement its tornado safety plan to protect its passengers and employees.
“We had a tornado touch down between two active runways one of those years,” said Heath Montgomery, Denver International Airport's media relations director.
Most people living in tornado-prone areas know exactly what to do and where to go in order to better their chances of survival.
These emergency plans may not help while traveling hundreds of miles away from home, however.
A tornado can happen anywhere in the country; strikes have occurred in every U.S. state, according to the National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI).
Travelers visiting Tornado and Dixie alleys may want to be particularly alert as tornado season heads into its peak months of May and June.
A Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) spokesperson advised reviewing the tornado safety plan with hotel management and staff upon check-in.
Possible hotel safety procedures may include seeking shelter in a basement or an area on lower levels away from windows and doors.
Some hotels may not have a tornado emergency plan in place, which means guests may be left to protect themselves.
If the hotel does not have a basement or other designated meeting area, the National Weather Service (NWS) advises guests to “seek shelter in interior bathrooms and closets near the center of the building,” while making sure to remain covered with pillows, blankets and even mattresses.
Steven Drenning-Blalock, a traveler who visited Missouri in 2008 during a tornado warning, said his hotel offered the following advice: Stay away from windows, move to a hallway or bathroom, duck and cover and inform management of any injuries or damaged property.
According to the NWS, hotel guests should only take cover in hallways that do not have doors and windows on either end.
This is because during a tornado, open hallways can become wind tunnels and send dangerous debris flying.
Travelers might also want to be aware of how to prepare for a potential emergency while inside of an airport.
In addition to Denver’s key travel hub, some other U.S. airports, including Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport and Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City, are equipped with tornado safety measures.
Denver International Airport’s size of 53 square miles – larger than the island of Manhattan, New York – means it has unique property concerns when it comes to tornado preparedness.
“If there is a warning for concourses and the terminal, which is the most serious level, all of our employees would be working to get people sheltered immediately and we do that in designated tornado shelters,” Montgomery said.
Tornado shelter signs throughout the airport direct passengers to areas of safety, which include stairwells, windowless interior hallways and basements.
Passengers may be advised to leave their bags behind and find immediate shelter if a tornado is a direct threat.
“There’s an army of 35,000 employees ready to help you find shelter very quickly, so if you just remain alert and follow instructions; that’s really the best thing you can do,” Montgomery said.
“Be aware of your surroundings, be aware of severe weather, follow severe weather alert information on your smartphone… there are a lot of different things you can do to be proactive and ready,” he said.
For more safety and preparedness tips, visit AccuWeather.com/Ready.
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