Talking to Your Kids About Natural Disasters

All these tornadoes lately!  Not to mention floods, earthquakes, nuclear meltdowns and blizzards (had to throw that in for my family up in North Dakota). The end-of-the-world folks have to be buzzing.

Usually I try to shield my kids from disaster stories. But on Friday our family happened to dine within sight of the TVs above a restaurant bar, and my 7-year-old spent the meal avidly reading news headlines about the horrible storms and tornadoes in the South. At that point the death toll was in the 200s; now it’s at 345.

He had a million and one questions. The trickiest for me to answer was why people didn’t go somewhere safe when they heard the sirens? 

My standard parent lines about not everyone having a basement didn’t hold up well after he learned (thanks, CNN Headline News!) that some of the people were out shopping. Did they ignore the sirens? Well, yeah.  Pretty much every adult out there has done that at least once.  You go to Target for a couple of things, you hear the sirens go off … are you going to let yourself be herded into a storeroom?  Or get your stuff and try to make it home before the storm really hits?

After hearing about the Lowe’s store in North Carolina where a hundred people were shepherded to a corner of the steel-frame store where they survived a tornado a couple of weeks ago, I started thinking about emergency preparedness. 

A random and unscientific survey revealed that when a warning siren goes off, most of my friends with young kids hunker down in the basement, closet or bathroom, trying to keep the kids safe and set a good example. But some keep right on shopping – as one friend said she did at Target on Good Friday, even while a tornado was destroying C Concourse at Lambert Field (in case you haven’t seen the YouTube video from the closed circuit cameras, it’s posted here).

On the other end of the safety spectrum, another friend told me shoppers at the Galleria were escorted into a shelter for an hour and a half during the storm.  Maybe going a bit overboard on the time length, but from an insurance/lawsuit standpoint, better safe than sorry.

In some ways, tornadoes are good entertainment. There’s the Omnimax film Tornado Alley at the Saint Louis Science Center, with its catchy tagline “Prepare to be blown away.” Heck, when we were in St. Paul a couple of weeks ago we braved a fake twister in a fake basement, complete with falling tree and power outage, at the Minnesota Historical Society.  And who doesn’t love seeing a close-up storm-chaser video?

By contrast, cooling your heels in the basement for an hour only to have the storm blow over is definitely NOT exciting. There might be a bit of adrenalin at the start, but it quickly ebbs. After a few false alarms, it’s a drag to disrupt kids’ routines. (If it feels like the warnings always come at suppertime or bedtime, you’re right − according to FEMA, most tornadoes hit between 3 and 9 p.m.).

Missouri marked Severe Weather Awareness Week back in March with a statewide tornado drill.  Don’t remember it?  Probably you ignored it – I know I did, because I was right in the middle of listening to a motivational speaker at a networking event. True, we were in an unfamiliar restaurant surrounded by plate-glass windows, but we knew it was just a test, right?

The tornado season runs around here runs from March to May, though twisters aren’t limited by dates on the calendar. FEMA has St. Louis marked as a high-risk area, so in theory all of us should have a plan for where to go and what to do in case of a tornado.

My son’s school did tornado drills back in March. This week, they spent time doing earthquake drills and fire drills. Parents are encouraged to repeat them at home.

We all know it’s a good idea … and yet most of us don’t. Well-meaning agencies like FEMA put together extremely detailed resources like this one, where you can click on a natural disaster, technological failing, or terrorism threat to find out the best way to prepare. The city of St. Louis even offers free consultations to help families set up fire preparedness plans, along with home fire safety evaluations and free long-life smoke detectors.  

Maybe it's time to help them do their job of protecting us!

By Amy De La Hunt, Health Blogger for SmartParenting

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Amy De La Hunt is a journalist and editor who lives in the St. Louis metro area and works across the country as a writer, copy editor, project manager and editorial consultant on everything from fiction books to monthly magazines to blog posts. When she's not chauffeuring her teenage sons to activities, Amy is an enthusiastic amateur cook, landscaper, Latin dancer and traveler. Follow Amy on Instagram @amy_in_words

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