What to do when confronted with sudden severe weather


By Russ and Tiña De Maris

Photo: finchlake2000 on flickr.com

A rapid change in the weather can sometimes catch you by surprise. And as a fulltimer in your RV 24/7 you will have to deal with extreme weather patterns – you can’t just leave the rig in a storage lot and go home to your firmly planted house. But that doesn’t mean you have to throw caution to the wind and carry on. There are steps you can take to reduce the risk of damage due to high winds and inclement weather.

A big motorhome may look invincible, and being up above the road-hugging level of a four-cylinder coupe, the view is great. But don’t let the view from the rig make you cocky. Weather is no respecter of height or size. A sudden blast of sheer wind can move your motorhome right off the road or whip your trailer into a frenzy of unexpected motion.

The best defense against weather-related RV accidents is keeping a weather-eye open. If you see a cloud that looks a bit ominous, it’s time to get more information. Turn off the satellite radio and tune in the local AM radio. Local stations — especially those that don’t play a “canned” imported format — can warn you of impending problems. This is particularly true in areas where tornadoes frequent. [Editor: Here’s a severe weather alert radio from NOAA at Amazon.com.]

Sure you’ve seen the neat action movies where the fearless storm chaser outruns the oncoming tornado. But whipping a fifth wheel or motorhome towing a trailer around in order to “make a run for it” isn’t a likely scenario. If you actually see a twister heading your way, your best “out” isn’t likely to try and outrun it. Both the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the National Weather Service recommend getting out of the vehicle and taking shelter in a building. If there isn’t one in reach, things are a little less clear.

The old standard was: Get out of your vehicle and lie down in a ditch. The American Red Cross says they don’t support that advice anymore, unless the ditch is “noticeably lower than the level of the roadway.” Not a deep ditch nearby? “Stay in the [vehicle] with the seat belt on. Put your head down below the windows, covering with your hands and a blanket if possible.” But beware: The agency says this is a “last resort.”

One thing that has shown up: Don’t climb under an overpass. Tornado winds have a way of funneling high winds and debris right under such constructs, and if you get in the way of the debris the outcome isn’t pretty.

In any event, if your rig is parked somewhere and there’s a danger of a tornado, do your best to take shelter elsewhere. While your rig can provide a measure of protection, even if you’re seat belted in, being tossed around inside a rolling coach can have fatal consequences.

But not all storms have the terrifying reality of a tornado. Sudden rainstorms are far more likely, and again, your rig is not Noah’s ark. The key to safety is to slow down, get out of the fast lane, and illuminate your rig by turning on your lights. If it gets too tough to see, then by all means, pull off the roadway as far as possible, and now TURN OFF your lights. That way, the guy behind you who doesn’t have enough sense to pull off won’t see your tail lights, think you know where you’re going, and plow right into your rig while you’re parked. The same holds true in a dust storm: Don’t try and punch through one of these devils – If you can’t see, you can’t drive. Pull it off the roadway, douse the lights, and wait it out.

If you’re not familiar with driving in desert country, beware the danger of flooded washes. In rain country, streams and rivers run all the time. In the desert, a wash runs only when there’s rain, and so road builders don’t handle them by sticking a bridge over them, they simply build the road through the wash. If you encounter water over the roadway in desert country, DON’T drive through it. Six inches of water can easily float any vehicle off the road, and every year dozens die in vehicles caught in flash floods. Drive through a “posted” wash in Arizona and need a rescue? The “Arizona Stupid Motorist Law” ensures you’ll pay for the cost of your rescue — or your estate will.

Lightning storms? You may have heard the old saw that the rubber tires of your car will insulate you against damage. Sorry, but that’s an old wives’ tale. Automobiles, by their metallic construction, act as an electrical cage, causing lightning strikes to roll off the car in a generally harmless fashion. BUT many RVs are fiberglass constructs — the lightning may just as soon blast a hole right through it.

If you’re on the road and lightning threatens, pull over and park, avoiding the tallest trees and utility poles. Close windows and sit with hands in laps.

Common sense may be your first line of defense in dealing with what Mother Nature can dish out. Just because your rig is big doesn’t mean a whit compared to the forces that weather can generate.

Here’s an article that lists some emergency weather services.