04/27/2012 06:18 pm ET Updated Jun 27, 2012

Tornado Threatening? Seek Shelter Immediately -- and Don't Use Your Head

Living in the southern edge of "Tornado Alley," I take these "weather phenomena" seriously and anytime a tornado watch is declared for our area, we keep a close eye on the Weather Channel -- and on those dark, threatening clouds.

When the "watch" changes to a "warning," we prepare to take immediate shelter in a hopefully safe part of the house.

Regrettably, unless one has a solid underground shelter, there is hardly anything that will completely protect a person, or a family, when a powerful tornado takes direct aim at one's home.

Already this year, and last year, tornadoes have claimed a devastating toll in our country.

According to National Public Radio (NPR), "Tornadoes killed more than 500 people in the U.S. last year -- the highest number in decades. Already this year, 63 people have died, and the tornado season doesn't hit its peak until June."

Listening to NPR this morning, those words caught my attention.

I became even more interested -- intrigued -- when I heard the following:

But tornadoes don't have to be as deadly. Experts say some deaths could be prevented if people would do one more thing when taking cover: wear a helmet. It's a message safety advocates are preaching, but that message hasn't resonated with federal officials just yet.

NPR then gave the example of what happened to one Alabama family when, on April 27, 2011, a tornado "swallowed up" Jonathan Stewart's neighborhood in Pleasant Grove, Ala.

Stewart had come home just minutes before the tornado struck and he, his wife, his adult daughter and 8-year-old son, Noah, sought shelter in a tiny shower stall.


It didn't take long for him to feel the house shift and become weightless -- and then an explosion.

"I remember being sucked out of the house, and it was not being blown about, it was not walls blowing around. It was like a vacuum, and it sucked us out," Stewart says.

In an instant, Stewart's family was gone. Lisa, his wife, peered up into the swirling sea of debris and saw her son, Noah, floating above her -- high above her, Lisa says: "I actually saw him up in the air, stuck up in it, being tossed around as high as the power lines."

Noah was twisting, churning, flying through the air, held up high by the tornado's angry winds.

The wind suddenly stopped and 8-year-old Noah came down, head first.

I have a young grandson also living in Tornado Alley. My heart stops just listening to such a story.

But guess what, this story has a good ending.

While Noah had some injuries and was taken to Children's Hospital in Birmingham, he survived.

"In pictures taken that night, Noah's face appears fine, with just a few scratches; his parents, however, look beaten up," says NPR.

The reason for this miracle? "Noah had on a baseball helmet -- the kind used in Little League with a strap and face guard. He was the only member of his family wearing protective headgear that night."

Dr. Mark Baker, who was working in the emergency room that night says that most of the 60 children treated for storm-related injuries suffered some sort of head trauma.

Again, NPR:

"Children's heads are relatively large compared to the rest of their body. So during a tornado, where they're thrown by the wind or an object is thrown into them or a building collapses, it is most frequently the head that is injured," [Baker] says.

Baker says because of Noah's helmet, his injuries weren't more severe. Doctors at Children's Hospital realized they needed to do more. They partnered with a local television meteorologist to produce a PSA to tell parents that helmets help save lives during tornadoes.

Other safety advocates are also urging children to wear helmets as part of tornado preparedness.

I, along with -- I am sure -- many other people, have never considered the use of helmets to protect at least our young ones.

NPR suggests that one reason such may not have occurred to many is that the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention has been silent on this topic.

Amazingly, while the CDC urges motorcyclists and bicyclists to wear helmets it recommends "people use their hands to protect their heads" when a tornado is bearing down.

NPR has tried for three months to interview someone from the CDC, "but the agency would only e-mail a statement, which said: 'The scientific evidence from helmet use during tornadoes is inadequate to make a recommendation.'"

I agree with Russ Fine, at the Injury Control Research Center (ICRC) at the University of Alabama in Birmingham, who says: "I think their silence is deafening, and I'm embarrassed for them -- terribly embarrassed for them."

Fine's team at the ICRC has completed a scientific report that finds that "many tornado deaths around the region last year could have been prevented if people had worn helmets." He doesn't understand why the CDC hasn't embraced the research.

As with everything else it is not expected that the CDC will change its stand anytime soon.

But ultimately it is up to us, the people, to accept, embrace, a safety measure when we see one.

This is one such measure that is so obvious, so readily available, so easy to use, so relatively cheap and so effective, that I hope that anyone who reads this and lives in an area prone to tornadoes will use helmets to protect at least the children.

Know where those helmets are, so that when a tornado threatens you can take them immediately to your shelter.

As Fine says: "Will it 100 percent absolutely, positively save your life? Probably not. But it's a whole lot better than having no helmet on, and that's a no-brainer."


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