It was a dark and stormy night... Oh wait, that’s not how this story begins. It was actually a rather normal spring day, and we were in Missouri. It had been a rough spring. Our chase vehicle was still at the repair shop in North Dakota and we were experiencing multiple problems with our Tourmaster (probably because we were driving it more than usual). We had just gotten our air brake system fixed for over 80$0 when our EGR unit went belly-up, and started spewing water from the radiator.
Anyone who owns a Tourmaster knows that if something goes wrong, continuing to drive it could cause massive (and expensive) damage that cause the installed safety features cause it to shut off. We had just been able to get to a reasonably priced RV park in Liberty, Missouri when it refused to go any farther. In fact, when we turned on the ignition, an alarm would sound, and half a minute later, the engine would shut off. We were stuck until we could have the problem properly diagnosed and repaired.
That is the backstory to our frame of mind, as well as why we were in a bit of a panic on May 26, 2016, when the tornado sirens went off. Hopefully, you are entertained by our adventure and can learn from our mistakes.
Having the Hometown Advantage
Normally, being stuck in an RV park without any means of transportation would be extremely inconvenient. Fortunately, we were within walking distance of a grocery store, gas station, and a few restaurants. We also had the hometown advantage. By that I mean we had both grown up in the area, and our families lived nearby.
The real benefit, however, came when a couple offered to loan us their spare car while we were getting things handled with the RV. The power steering had gone out, which made it more than a bit difficult to drive, but it did provide a sense of freedom. It was extremely generous, and it made us realize how helpless we actually were without having a separate vehicle. It was instrumental in how the rest of the day played out.
May 26, 2016
My husband has always been a weather buff and his hobby has saved the day on more than one occasion. On this day, I was diligently working on my computer at the dining table and he was seated across from me. “Huh, looks like we may have some storms moving in,” he said. “Do you think it’ll get bad? Any wind involved?” I asked.
There is a lot that I can tolerate, and I’ve even gotten used to the rock and sway of the RV on particularly windy occasions, but I’ve always been concerned about being in our Tourmaster during a major storm. Having lived in the Midwest most of my life, there isn’t one person that I know that hasn’t been touched by seasonal storm damage in one way or another, whether it is a tornado, straight line winds, massive hail, or ice. People in trailer parks seem to be more susceptible to injury and property damage than most due in part to the less substantial structures and the flatter than most terrain. In fact, residents of mobile homes are recommended to evacuate as soon as possible when there is an oncoming storm, since their home offers so little protection. I have to believe the same goes for RV parks.
The Sirens Go Off
An hour or so later, my husband said, “Do you hear that? Are those sirens?” We shut off the overhead fan and listened intently. “I think those are the tornado sirens in Kansas City.” He immediately called his dad, who lives in K.C. and suggested he find shelter in his basement. “Is it coming this way?” I asked, already putting on my shoes. “I’m not sure. I’m going to go out and look,” he replied.
As I watched from the dining room window, the group of neighbors gathering outside to look at the sky increased. There seemed to be a general lack of knowledge about where to go in the park if we needed to evacuate and seek shelter. That’s when the Liberty tornado sirens went off.
Although they are commonly referred to as tornado sirens, they are actually outdoor warning sirens. Sirens are usually sounded when trained public safety storm spotters observe cloud rotation indicative of a lowering funnel cloud or the National Weather Service observes conditions on the radar indicating that a tornado has, or is likely to develop. They may also sound if straight line winds around 80-mph or very large and damaging hail is expected.
As a side note, if you are planning to stay in a campground during storm season, it is a good idea to ask the office where the best place is to take shelter; sometimes it is a cement bathhouse on the property. At one park in Minot, North Dakota, we were advised that the nearest shelter was at a school a few miles away. Obviously, in a dangerous storm, you wouldn’t want to be driving a few miles to find safety. If we hadn’t inquired, we wouldn’t have been able to investigate better options before we needed them.
Typically, this is when people with basements, storm cellars, or other underground shelters retreat to them with a radio, smartphone, or computer in hand to stay safe and up-to-date on the conditions.
We made an impromptu, verbal plan. My husband Jonathan was going to round up our two cats and our 90-plus-pound lab, while I was to grab our yorkie and both of our laptops. Everything was to go into the car and we would drive to safety, hoping that our home was still standing when we we got back.
When we returned to the campground, it was like a ghost town. There wasn’t a soul in sight and most of the chase cars were gone, as their owners had fled. Unfortunately, plans aren’t always as easily executed as they are thought up. In this case, one of our cats was missing, so we hoped that he found a safe place to hide, and took off with our other three pets.
Know Your Area
Fortunately, we were very familiar with the area and Jonathan was able to quickly get us to a hill where “storm chasers” and first responders were parked. We figured that, if they thought it was safe there, it probably was for us too. From there, we watched the clouds until the siren stopped and the other cars on the hill drove away.
With a feeling of relief, we decided to stop by the grocery store and grab ingredients for dinner. Jonathan went in and I remained in the car to keep an eye on our furry friends. Although they usually get along fairly well, I knew that they were all a bit stressed from the ordeal and I didn’t want to take any chances. I intended to watch the weather on an app from my phone, but it was then that I realized that it was nearly dead and I had left the car charger in the RV.
By the time Jonathan returned, it was pouring and visibility was down to nothing. We wiped the windshield and two front windows and waited for the rain to let up. We then headed back to the RV park to find out cat and survey the damage.
Just as we pulled out of the parking lot, the skies opened up again and the rain poured down. That was when we discovered that, along with the power steering, the de-fogging fan did not work either. Now with five bodies in the car, the humidity of the storm, and the lack of adequate ventilation, the windshield was becoming opaque. That’s when we went through a huge puddle that all but took what little visibility we still had left.
Jonathan said, “Open your window, quick!” He couldn’t see well enough to even pull over. When I opened my window, I realized that I probably should have spent part of the time I was grabbing jackets and vitamins putting the computers in their bags. With them sitting on my lap and the water shooting in, it could have become a real problem.
We Learn from Our Mistakes
We pulled up to our RV, which was right where we left it, without a tree on top and no water damage inside. After about an hour, I thought to ask Jonathan if he had checked the engine compartment for Sam. Anyone with a Tourmaster knows the engine can be accessed from the back door, underneath, and from a hatch in the back bathroom. The cats occasionally crawl in there from underneath. We opened the hatch and called his name and there he was, safe and sound.
It was at that point that we replayed the day and realized how ill-prepared we were for emergencies, not just storms, but any emergencies. For example, if we had to evacuate due to a fire, carbon monoxide, or any other threat, we probably would act and react about like we did that day. We decided to plan ahead.
Have Essentials Packed Ahead of Time
When we lived in a house, we had a couple bags of essentials ready just in case. We decided to prepare a bag of evacuation essentials that is easy to grab in an emergency. We began keeping our computers properly stowed in their bags when we weren’t using them, which reduced the risk of them suffering any other damage. We also planned to keep a few extra power cords with our emergency kit, so finding ourselves in an emergency with a discharged phone would never be an issue.
Gather All Members of the Group Ahead of Time
When there is any chance of inclement weather, as well as when you are planning to relocate, gather all of your pets early. Put them in their carrier if need be. If they require a leash, make sure you have it on hand.
It’s Always Best to Wait It Out
Typically, we try to avoid tornado alley during the stormy season. Unfortunately, you don’t always know where bad weather will strike. Obviously on that day, we were relieved to have weathered the storm safely. With the downpour that we found ourselves driving through,however, it would have been much better to have waited it out
We got really lucky. Missouri, as well as other states in “tornado alley,” have seen more than their fair share of devastating storm damage. When the weather gets rough, a parked RV is safer than one driving down the road, but it still leaves a lot to be desired. Establish emergency plans ahead of time, have a bag of essentials packed, and always pay attention to the weather. You can never be too prepared.