On December 10, 2021, my hometown of Dawson Springs, Kentucky, was hit by one of the deadliest tornado outbreaks in U.S. history. It’s estimated that 75% of the town was destroyed in just 10 minutes by an EF4 tornado, which killed 14 people out of a population of just 2,500. I live about an hour away, and our home was narrowly missed by a separate, EF3 tornado that spun out of the same system. We had roofing shingles in the yard and a power outage that lasted most of a week but were otherwise sparred serious damage, as were my relatives who still live around Dawson. But we did learn a thing or two about tornado safety and being prepared for the worst.

I know people who were injured in the storm, a few who died, and many who lost their homes. What I saw during cleanup efforts in the days after the storm fundamentally changed my perspective on many things. Some of the preparations we’d taken ahead of December 10 kept us comfortable in the aftermath, when the power was out and we were on our own. I’m glad I had at least some of the tools and experience needed to help a few people in need. But I’m even more thankful that my ignorance—and even dismissiveness—of a tornado’s power didn’t get my family killed. Yeah, we’ve always had tornados around here, but they had admittedly been a curiosity of mine prior to December 10, and I never took watches and warnings or tornado safety advice too seriously. That has changed.    

I’m not about to frame myself as an expert on tornados or recovery efforts. But I’ve seen people lose everything, and I know what the chaos in a small town looks like in the days after a storm. I can promise you, being prepared is better than hoping for the best. These days, when they’re talking about tornado chances on TV—which happens a lot this time of year—these are the 6 keys things I’m thinking about.

Tornado Safety Rule No. 1: Survive the Storm

First and foremost, make sure you have a safe place to go if a tornado touches down. Limitless Production / Adobe Stock

Some of the homes in Dawson Springs had basements, and many residents rushed to gather neighbors and relatives into those basements just before the storm hit. That saved lives. Other people had to seek cover wherever they could find it, in bathtubs, hallways, and bedrooms. CNN interviewed a resident who wrapped her two young children in her arms in her bed. They were thrown some 200 feet from their house in what she described as “a millisecond,” but they miraculously survived.

When the storms hit, we were at my hunting camp, in a metal-sided shop house built on a slab, and I’d parked my truck inside the garage. When the warnings came, we sheltered there, because it’s all we had. After seeing the ruins of full-sized pickups like mine tossed into trees and shop houses rendered into splinters, I realized just how vulnerable we were.

We invested in an above-ground steel storm shelter immediately that spring, and it’s anchored into the concrete slab with massive lag bolts and rated to withstand an EF5 tornado. The installer assured me that if our shop house was hit by a tornado, the slab and that shelter would be the only thing left standing.

If you have space for a storm shelter, either above ground or below, consider investing in one. If not, don’t be shy about talking to a friend or neighbor who does have one, or a basement, so you and your family have a safe place to hole up until after the storm has passed. I promise, nobody in Dawson Springs would tease you for taking the extra tornado safety precaution.

Tornado Safety Requires Communication

An American flag stand amidst the aftermath of the December 2021 EF4 tornado in Dawson Springs, Kentucky. Will Brantley

We have a portable NOAA weather radio that stays plugged into the wall and will also run on batteries. Such radios are inexpensive, and I consider them mandatory, since, when programmed, they can sound tornado warning alarms loud enough to wake the house.

As you’d expect, cell phone and landline service were both cut within seconds in much of the area. But we’re used to spotty phone service around here anyway, and so we’ve long used the WiFi calling feature on our phones to make day-to-day calls. And thankfully, we’d recently upgraded to fiber-optic internet (a service that’s unfortunately still not available in many rural areas). Because those fiber optic lines were underground and the service center was intact, we had internet access as long as we had power—which meant we could make calls, watch the news on television, and keep up with the radar on our phones.

Of course, that did no good outside the range of our WiFi router. It took about two days for emergency service to be established with mobile cellular stations in the disaster area, and even when it was, the service was spotty at best. Texts worked better than calls. The point is: Understand what services may be lost in a tornado and make the best plan you can for how you’ll communicate and stay updated after a storm.

Keep the Power On After a Tornado

A good generator is one of the most important tools you can own for country living. Small units, like my Yamaha EF2000i inverter generator, are perfect for running power tools, lights, and a few small appliances, including sensitive electronics. They’re also portable, quiet, and fuel efficient.

But a small inverter generator doesn’t have enough juice to keep you comfortable during an extended power outage. We experience frequent outages around here anyway, and so we’d already had our home wired by a licensed electrician with an auxiliary power transfer switch.

He also built us a custom locking power cord to connect to a Yamaha EF7200D industrial-sized generator. When the power goes out, turning it back on is as easy as plugging the cord into the transfer switch outlet, starting the generator, and then flipping the auxiliary switch.  

The Yamaha EF7200D or similar generator will power everything you need to get by comfortably after a storm. Yamaha

Standard generators like the 7200D are heavier (though most are on wheels) and louder than inverter generators, but you can get way more power for the money, and they still are somewhat portable, unlike a true permanent, standby generator. They’re surprisingly economical, too. Our 7200 costs less new than a 3000-watt inverter generator, but it’ll power everything in our house including the well pump, HVAC system, freezers, water heater, and stove.  

But it won’t run it all at once. It’s critical to learn how to use your generator and “game” your circuit breakers ahead of an emergency. For example, running multiple lights, fans, small appliances, and the HVAC all at once generally isn’t a problem with the 7200. But if I know if we’re going to be taking showers—which calls for hot water and the well pump, both of which require higher voltage—I turn the water heater on long enough to heat a full tank, shut off the HVAC temporarily, and avoid running water to keep the well pump from kicking on while the tank is heating. Once we have hot water, I turn off the water heater breaker, but ensure the pump is on, so that everyone can then take a fast shower before the water in the tank cools.

Generators don’t do any good if you don’t have fuel, or if they won’t start when you need them. I run both of my generators for several minutes at least once per month. I use non-ethanol gasoline, treated with fuel stabilizer, in them exclusively. I change the oil and inspect the air filters and spark plugs in them annually. I keep at least 15 gallons of fuel handy at all times, and after three months, I burn that fuel in my pickup, 4-wheeler, lawnmower, or boat and replace it with fresh fuel.

Though we realistically only need our big generator on rare occasions, we ran it for days on end following December 10, and I had it plugged in and ready ahead of time that night. Earlier that afternoon, long before it started raining, I started it and ran it for a while, just to be sure it was warmed up and ready. That night, the storms roared through and the power went out. When things quieted, I turned on my flashlight, started the generator with one pull, and flipped the transfer switch. The lights, TV, and internet came on. At that apocalyptic moment, the comfort that came from knowing we were OK and also had heat, hot water, and working appliances was indescribable. The 7200 has a 7-gallon fuel tank and will run all night on a fill-up just before bed.

Check the Tornado Bug-Out Gear

It was 70 degrees the afternoon of December 10. The next morning, after the tornados passed, it was downright frigid. The instability caused by an exchange of warm and cold air is, after all, what causes tornados.

I saw many people who lost everything and were left with nothing to wear but the clothes on their backs, and whatever they could find in the wreckage. We didn’t keep tornado safety bug-out bags back then, but we do now. We have backpacks ready to go with clothing including good insulated gear, rain gear, socks, boots, underwear, towels, and toiletries, along with some basic supplies like bottled water, first aid kit, basic medicines, glasses and contact lenses, flashlights, a camp stove, a few dehydrated meals, cooking gear, tools, firearms, and ammunition.

Gas Up the Chainsaws

The Stihl MS180 is not a big saw, but a pair of them was all the author needed to help with cleanup after a tornado. Stihl

A sharp and reliable chainsaw is high on my list of must-have tools—and one I used for days on end while helping with clean-up efforts in Dawson Springs. My go-to saws for that were a pair of Stihl MS180s. These are small saws, with 16-inch bars, but most of the immediate clean-up work following a tornado is clearing large limbs and treetops out of roadways and driveways, so that vehicles can get through. It can be delicate work, too; I cut trees that were draped over cars, tangled in fences, and wrapped in downed powerlines. I knew the potential for hitting an obstruction and getting a kick-back were high, so that’s one reason why I preferred the smaller saws. Also, when you’re cutting smaller stuff for hours on end, you’re less fatigued by a smaller, lighter saw. If your chain is sharp, you can still handle larger logs in a pinch, too.

Having two saws of the same size allowed me to carry a couple extra chains that would work for either saw. When one of them ran out of fuel or bar oil, I simply swapped and ran the other while the first cooled. It’s important that you understand and accept the risk of running a saw in these conditions if you plan to do so, and make sure you have the proper safety gear ahead of time.

Tornado Safely Relies on People Having the Right Attitude

Following a natural disaster, there’s an assumption that the authorities will be along soon to help. The reality is, in a small country town, you’ll probably be depending on yourself and your neighbors for a long time before the officials get there. Police, fire fighters, the National Guard, FEMA, the governor, and even the president all visited Dawson Springs in the days after December 10. But minutes after the storm, long before any authorities arrived, locals laced up shoes, grabbed headlamps, and started helping their neighbors. There are stories of injured people being carried to the school—which served as a makeshift hospital that night—in tractor buckets.

When I showed up with chainsaws and some supplies for donation in my truck, I first went to one of the local churches, where I knew a high-school friend of mine had been helping organize some relief efforts. I asked him where I could help, and he pointed out across the town, rubble and downed trees as far as we could see. “There’s nobody running things here, man,” he said. “You know your way around. Go find somebody who needs help. There are plenty of them.”   

Just a few of many homes destroyed in the Dawson Springs, KY, tornado. Will Brantley

And so, that’s what we did. My wife and I parked at the city park, grabbed the chainsaws and our packs with supplies, and we started walking. We cut trees out of roads and driveways as we went, watching overhead for hazards and praying that the power lines we were stepping around were indeed dead. When we encountered people, which actually wasn’t often, we asked if they were OK, and if they needed help cutting up trees. Many of them did. 

One day, we cut the top out of a huge maple that had fallen on a green minivan. After we cleared the limbs away, a guy drove up the road on a skid steer and pushed the trunk out of the way. He was from Pennsylvania, and had loaded his machine and driven through the night to help people in a little town that he’d never seen.

Maybe it was a foolhardy approach, clearing downed trees in a situation where there was no phone service, and where first responders were undoubtedly tied up elsewhere. I suppose, from a liability standpoint, I should even recommend that you don’t do such a thing, and leave it to the professionals instead. But then again, the professionals can’t be everywhere. It’s ultimately your call. But standing shoulder-to-shoulder with self-reliant strangers, who didn’t show up for money or to promote a cause or to do anything other than to help their fellow man, was one of the few good things I saw in the aftermath of the tornado.

Rebuilding After a Tornado

Years later, I’d like to tell you that Dawson Springs is rebuilt and thriving, but that wouldn’t be true. No doubt, some nice homes have gone up in areas where the previous ones were destroyed. But the city park, a former centerpiece of the town that was once lined with towering oaks and hickories, and alive with a pool and ballfields and playgrounds, still looks like a big, vacant field with mangled tree stumps, empty concrete slabs, and a few piles of bricks from the old dugouts. In a small town where many of the residents lived below the poverty line, a number of homes were uninsured and so may never be replaced.

The truth is, it’s impossible to “be ready” for something like that. Being prepared is as good as you can get.