Severe Weather on a Skoolie

Mike and I are no strangers to severe weather. We grew up in Florida where afternoon thunderstorms are the norm during the spring, summer, fall…we get a brief break during “winter”. So we have a lot of experience with different types of severe weather and that combined with my general paranoia and need for backup plans and research means that we have safety plans in place for a lot of different weather situations. Let me just say that bad weather never used to bother me. Buuuuuuuut, bad weather on the bus is a totally different story. It feels like there is so little between you and nature. It really can be quite unnerving. Plus, you know, loud and leaky.

So, what do we do if we get caught in bad weather while on the bus?

First of all, we stay very well informed about the weather and what it’s looking like over the next few days. I run two separate apps on my phone- Weather Underground for its easy to use interface (it’s great for every day weather checking) and the National Weather Service’s app which has more detailed information (it has all the information from NOAA [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration])- that run continuously. Both of them are tied to my GPS location so they update as I move and they both send alerts if anything pops up. We are also planning on getting a weather radio. They are fairly cheap and are available from a variety of places and as long as they have the NOAA stations are great things to have. Those will also alert you if some weather hazard pops up in your area.

If we are on the road, and we have the ability to, it’s always a safer idea to just avoid the problem area. Skoolies and RVs are not great shelters in severe weather so the absolute safest option is to avoid severe weather all together. If we can’t avoid severe weather here is what we do:

Let’s move from least serious to OH MY GOD DOOM IS UPON US.

It’s raining. There’s a storm. It begins to hail. Hail is no big deal. Basically, just pull over, out on the hazards, and wait it out. I can’t even begin to imagine what size the hail would have to be to seriously damage the metal of the roof of the bus. Now, hail can precede larger weather events (like tornadoes) so that is something to consider depending on what’s going on with the forecast.

But let’s say that something more serious happens, like a lightning storm. Lightning can be incredibly dangerous. And trust me, I know. Florida is the lightning capital of the USA and we lead the nation in lightning related deaths (go Florida!). There is a lot of cloud-to-ground lightning that occurs during our large afternoon thunderstorms. Luckily for all skoolie people (and school children), school buses make a great Faraday Cage which basically means that if a bolt of lightning should hit the bus, the electricity will disperse along the outside of the bus before discharging into the ground and will leave the interior of the bus and it’s passengers unharmed provided you are not touching any metal inside the bus. What you want to do is pull over, put the windows up (if you can get to them), and put your hands in your lap and wait for the all clear. We would also need to tuck our feet up off the floor since the floor in the driver’s area is just bare metal. We also would need to move closer together to prevent touching the metal instrument panel next to the driver, the bar for the door, or the dash all of which are metal on our bus. It is actually safer to be inside the bus than outside in a lightning storm.

Ok, so those are fairly minor problems. Let’s jump to a hurricane. Hurricanes ain’t no big thing really. I have been through quite a few hurricanes. In fact, my senior year of high school started a month and half late because we had 3 hurricanes roll through back to back to back. They can do a LOT of damage but the instructions for how to deal with one are easy. First, if there is an evacuation order in place FOLLOW IT. Get out of dodge. Staying puts you and the emergency personnel that may have to rescue your stranded ass in a lot of danger. Hurricanes are not things to screw around with. If the experts are saying it’s severe enough to warrant an evacuation order don’t take the risk and stay. So we would follow any evacuation order. If there is no order we would either pack up the bus and leave anyway or we would tarp the bus, put it in the field at my mom’s house where there are no trees to fall/drop big limbs on it, and wait the storm out with relatives or friends.

That’s all great but what about the more sudden weather hazards? The ones where you don’t always get a lot of warning before shit hits the fan.

Flash floods. I think flash floods are one of the more underrated weather hazards. They are more deadly than any other severe weather hazard. Seriously, flash floods kill more people per year than any other weather hazard and a lot of those deaths involve cars. Part of what makes them so dangerous is that whatever causes the flood doesn’t have to happen anywhere near you. It can be sunny and beautiful and miles away something can happen that sends water rushing to you. Flash floods can wash out roads and cause mud slides. 6 inches of rapidly moving water can sweep a person away, 1 foot can sweep away a car, and about 2 feet of water can sweep away a semi-truck. There is not a lot of information out there on exactly what to do if you’re in a skoolie/school bus but I figure it’s in between a car and a semi and probably closer to a semi. First of all, do not drive on flooded roadways. At all. Stop, turn around, and either find an alternate route or wait for the flood waters to recede. It can be incredibly difficult to tell how deep the water is and you can get stuck. Plus, you can’t always tell what is underneath the water. The flood could have swept out the road (and then you’re in a pickle) or there could have never been a road there to begin with and you could find yourself in a lake, ditch, or other very deep thing of water. There is some contention about what to do if you get caught by a flash flood in terms of staying put or getting out of your car. For truckers, it’s generally advised to stay in the truck since it takes so much water to move a semi and I feel like the situation on a skoolie would be more similar to a semi-truck than to a regular car. Regardless, if the water is not moving and you can safely get out and get to higher ground that’s the best option. If you get stuck  in the water and it sweeps you away you want to float downstream with your feet leading the way (this helps protect the head, neck, and chest). You want to go over any obstacles in your, definitely don’t go under. Once you’re under the water it becomes far too easy to get trapped under something and then you drown. And drowning is not a good way to go. I almost drowned once and do not want to repeat that experience.

Ok, so flash floods are scary but what about the scariest of all scary weather phenomena? That’s right- tornadoes.

I am terrified of tornadoes and have been since I was a little kid. I blame my mom- she loved Twister and that movie is terrifying to a little kid. Also Dante’s Peak with the acid and the grandma. Just no. It took me years to realize that the acid rain/lake situation they have is not at all even remotely the same thing as regular acid rain- but really, tornadoes are horrifying. I regularly have tornado based nightmares and one particularly memorable nightmare involved 3 simultaneous tornadoes that destroyed my college and started a zombie apocalypse. I was always under the impression that Florida didn’t really have to deal with tornadoes like the “tornado belt” or “tornado alley” but as it turns out we do have more tornadoes on average per year than any other state they are just small. I’m not sure if a big tornado have ever hit the state. Every once in a while we’d get a tornado warning and my dad’s little town has a siren after a small one touched down and damaged a barn but I’ve never heard it go off in any situation other than a test. Regardless, right now we are in the DFW (the Dallas-Fort Worth area) and that is in the tornado belt and it’s been a fairly active season and our sirens have gone off 4 times so far. We are an hour away from Canton, TX where that big EF-4 tornado went through last week that caused a lot of damage and killed people. Tornadoes have been on my mind a lot lately.

As of right now, our plan is to bug out. I keep a really close eye on the weather forecasts and if “tornado” is mentioned I REALLY start paying attention on where the storm is moving and how it’s developing. Mike is at the local university here (getting that degree!) and he has his own office (sort of…he shares with a couple of other grad students) which is an interior room with no windows. It’s in a big strong building but, most importantly, his building has an underground storm shelter. So we pack everything up that we might need like laptops, snacks, stuff for Finn and head out to his office. We hang out and play video games and when/if the sirens sound we head downstairs to the shelter and wait it out.

But, very soon, we will be on the move and what do we do then? Without our beautiful underground storm shelter? Well, we’ve got a few different plans in place depending on the situation. I really like having safety plans in place. They make me feel much more comfortable because, at heart, I’m a worrier. I have a very hard time letting go and going with the flow. It’s not that I like planning things so much as I get very very anxious very easily. So while we’re on the road the first thing is knowing what the weather will look like where we’re headed. If there is a severe weather threat and we can avoid the area that would be the first option. Just remove ourselves from the situation entirely. While we’re on the road we do frequently have the flexibility to alter our route, stay in one place a little longer, etc. I also like to know where we could go in a weather situation. If we’re at a camp ground- what do the campground bathrooms look like (they are frequently concrete building and the most structurally sound buildings at a campground), what do the hosts say, and what buildings are nearby that would have better shelter like hospitals, stores, office buildings, etc. Same deal if we’re hanging out at a truck stop. But let’s say we’re stuck on the road, we cannot get to somewhere safe, and a tornado is bearing down on us. So basically a hell on earth situation for me and one that I hope never ever happens. At this point we have 3 options and all of them suck. First, we can attempt to outrun it which is dicey at the very best. Tornadoes can change speed and direction with little to no warning especially to Mike and I’s untrained eyes. There is a good chance we could end up inadvertently driving ourselves right into the tornado. Plus, we are quite slow with a top speed of 58 mph- 59 mph if we’re lucky- and that just seems…too slow especially if there’s anything that may slow us down further like traffic, road conditions, hail, if we’re towing our car or not, there are a lot of factors in that scenario. Generally speaking, attempting to flat out outrun a tornado is not recommended. Ok. So now we’re left with 2 options- stay in the bus or bail. My inclination is to bail if at all possible. Tornadoes can very easily pick up all sorts of stuff and fling it around. Stuff like semi-trucks, RVs, and school buses. And if that were to happen we are basically in a missile with no airbags and a very large windshield we cannot get below. None of the guidelines for staying in a car (seat belt on, scooted below window level, something covering head, neck, and chest, surrounded by airbags) apply in our bus. For us to get below window level (which you would want to do to get out of the way of the wind and debris) we’d have to be lying on the floor in the body of the bus and then we are unsecured. If there is a ditch or depression or something other dip where we can get below ground level that’s where I would go. Lie flat and cover my head and neck and hope and pray. Getting below ground level helps protect from the debris in the wind and lying flat helps reduce the suction/pressure and reduces the chance of getting carried off by the tornado. Or so the experts say. Really though. Getting suck in a tornado in a vehicle is an incredibly dangerous situation no matter what option you choose. It’s a lot of evaluating the specifics of the situation and making an educated guess on what if the “safest” option.

The one thing we would not do is seek shelter under a bridge or overpass. It sounds counter-intuitive because it seems like such a great idea. They’re big concrete structures. They should be totally safe options but they are not. They are actually incredibly dangerous places to be in a tornado because they basically create a wind tunnel that funnels all of the wind and debris right at you. This is like the one thing that all of the experts and safety people agree on. Additionally, it also increases the risk to any motorist stuck behind you if you are impeding the flow of traffic and increases the chances of causing an accident which would make a shitty situation even worse. This whole myth started in 1991 when a film crew was filming something and got caught by a tornado. They took shelter under a bridge/overpass, filmed the whole thing, survived, and released the footage. In reality, they got incredibly lucky. The tornado didn’t pass directly over them and they were subjects to fairly mild winds. So yeah. No bridge or overpass.

I’ll include my links for the different resources I’ve found in the event that you want to do more reading. I am no safety expert, this is just what I’ve read and the plans that we have put in place that make us feel more comfortable with some of the different situations we may be faced with.


Flash Flood:

Flash Floods: What Truckers Should Know


Tornado Safety Tips for Truck Drivers

The Truck Driver’s Guide to Tornado Survival

Want a more concise breakdown or just to see my lovely face? We did a video on this too!

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