In 2017, Oak Grove, Missouri was devastated by a tornado that tore through most of the town.

Four hundred yards wide and moving 152 mph, the storm damaged 483 houses and 12 commercial buildings. Additionally, 12 non-threatening injuries were reported. Residents were thankful, yet amazed that no fatalities occurred.

Amoriah Blackston, executive assistant at the Health Care Collaborative (HCC) of Rural Missouri and citizen of Oak Grove, was part of the relief effort after the storm passed. Raised in a faith-based home that valued community service and advocacy, Blackston has spent her youth and career dedicated to helping those in need. When the tornado hit her own community, Blackston was one of several community members who were at the forefront assisting residents.

“Right when the tornado hit, I remember it affected several students of our youth group. They needed a place to stay that night. Everything had been damaged. They didn’t think ahead, necessarily, as far as having an emergency bag ready,” Blackston said. Because of her experience, she recommends that an emergency bag contain a pair of closed-toe shoes, flashlights, blankets, a power pack that charges cell phones, cash, and emergency numbers.

Blackston, who was in Oak Grove when the tornado struck, recalls what she and her family did to stay safe, “We all went downstairs as soon as the sirens went off.” Like many others, her household did not have an emergency bag prepared, but the few seconds her husband spared to grab work boots and spare cash made a difference. “If those items were already downstairs, that would have definitely been the safer route. We would have only had to focus on getting the kids downstairs.” Blackston and her husband were hosting two children at the time.

According to Missouri Storm Aware, tornadoes are responsible for an average of 70 fatalities and 1,500 injuries in the United States per year. Of the 25 deadliest tornadoes in U.S. history, five of them touched down in Missouri. Individuals can easily find themselves in the middle of a storm with little to no warning, so it is important to know what to do to stay safe. Tornadoes strike anywhere – at home, at work, at the grocery store, on the highway. For this reason, emergency preparedness for all situations is the best way to maintain safety. Missouri Storm Aware outlines tips for all these situations, and includes tips for those with functional limitations.

If an individual is in a wheelchair, they should seek shelter in an interior room of their house (such as a closet or hallway) and use whatever they can – including their hands – to cover their head. An individual who is confined to a chair or a bed and is without assistance may protect themselves from flying debris by covering up with blankets and pillows.

When a person is outside and a tornado is approaching, they should immediately seek shelter. If that isn’t possible, laying flat a ditch or a gully with arms covering the head is the next best option.

Jim Kramper, National Weather Service meteorologist states, “Your chance of survival goes up tenfold if you’re in a basement.” When a tornado strikes at home, experts such as Kramper suggest seeking shelter in the basement and under the stairwell, if there is one. “That way, if debris comes flying in you’ve got stairs overhead, enclosed on one side, and you’ve got a pretty good chance of being safe.” If the house has no basement, Kramper recommends the bathroom or closet, as they are fully enclosed and more likely to prevent someone from being struck by flying debris. An individual should put as many walls between them and the tornado as possible. Furthermore, a storm radio should accompany an individual to wherever they seek shelter so that they may keep track of updates.

For those who live in mobile homes, which are highly susceptible to being destroyed, Kramper suggests designating a separate place of shelter ahead of time. An individual should seek out this shelter before they decide to move into a mobile home, and must have access to it 24 hours a day. Additionally, time out how long it takes to get to the shelter to ensure it is viable. If a tornado is fast approaching and an individual does not have time to reach their appointed shelter, they must get out of their mobile home and find the nearest ditch or low spot in which to take cover.

Should an individual find themselves in the midst of a tornado while in a public place, such as a school or church, go to the building’s designated emergency safe area for customers and employees. Ask someone who works there what their disaster plan is and follow accordingly.

Finally, if an individual is faced with a tornado while driving, they must pull over and seek shelter immediately. If there is none around, lying flat in a ditch or low spot with the head covered is the best course of action. It’s important to remember to lie as far away as possible from cars and trees, as they can fall or be thrown on a person during a storm.

Preparation — before the storm hits — is key and a disaster supply kit may save lives. Weather Underground recommends this list:

● Water, one gallon of water per person per day, for drinking and sanitation

● Food, at least a three-day supply of non-perishable food

● Battery-powered radio and a NOAA Weather Radio with tone alert and extra batteries for both

● Flashlight and extra batteries

● First-aid kit

● Whistle to signal for help

● Infant formula and diapers, if you have an infant

● Moist towelettes, garbage bags and plastic ties for personal sanitation

● Dust mask or cotton t-shirt, to help filter the air

● Plastic sheeting and duct tape to shelter in place

● Wrench or pliers to turn off utilities

● Can opener for food (if kit contains canned food)

In a cold weather climate, additional items for a disaster kit include:

● A jacket or coat

● Long pants

● A long-sleeve shirt

● Sturdy shoes

● A hat and gloves

● A sleeping bag or warm blanket for each person

Additional items to consider:

● Emergency reference materials such as a first aid book or a print out of the information on www.ready.gov

● Rain gear

● Mess kits, paper cups, plates and plastic utensils

● Cash or checks, change

● Paper towels

● Fire extinguisher

● Tent

● Compass

● Matches in a waterproof container

● Signal flare

● Paper, pencil

● Personal hygiene items including feminine supplies

● Disinfectant

● Household chlorine bleach

● You can use bleach as a disinfectant (diluted nine parts water to one part bleach), or in an emergency you can also use it to treat water. Use 16 drops of regular household liquid bleach per gallon of water. Do not use scented, color safe or bleaches with added cleaners.

● Medicine dropper

● Important family documents such as copies of insurance policies, identification and bank account records in a waterproof, portable container

Finally, take pets into consideration. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) recommends an Evac-Sack (but a pillowcase will do) of emergency items that everyone in the household can locate in case of an emergency. Items to consider include:

● Photocopies of medical records and a waterproof container with a two-week supply of any medicine your pet requires (Remember, food and medications need to be rotated out of your emergency kit — otherwise they may go bad or become useless)

● Pet first-aid kit and guide book (ask your vet what to include, or visit the ASPCA store to buy one online)

● 3-7 days worth of canned (pop-top) or dry food (be sure to rotate every two months)

● Disposable litter trays (aluminum roasting pans are perfect)

● Litter or paper toweling

● Liquid dish soap and disinfectant

● Disposable garbage bags for clean up

● Pet feeding dishes

● Extra collar or harness and an extra leash

● Bottled water, at least 7 days’ worth for each person and pet (store in a cool, dry place and replace every two months)

● A traveling bag, crate or sturdy carrier, ideally one for each pet

● Flashlight

● Blanket (for scooping up a fearful pet)

● Recent photos of your pets (in case you are separated and need to make lost posters)

● Especially for cats: pillowcase or Evac-Sack, toys, scoopable litter

● Especially for dogs: extra leash, toys and chew toys, a week’s worth of cage liner

With awareness and preparation, tornadoes as powerful as the one that passed through Oak Grove can be weathered. Property damage remains, but the community of Oak Grove stands strong a year later. Speaking of individuals in the community, Blackston states, “They were able to put personal feelings aside, come together as a community, take care of one another, and be very understanding.”