Surviving a tornado in this active weather season

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RAPID CITY, S.D. -

Tornadoes are not the most common natural disaster in the western Dakotas, but they can and do happen. They caused damage in South Dakota last month, and then again in western North Dakota this past Tuesday.

Preparation is the key to staying safe when a tornado touches down.

It’s important to know the difference between a tornado watch and a tornado warning: A watch means that a tornado is possible in your area, and you should keep an eye to the sky and listen to the forecast. A tornado warning means that a tornado has been sighted or indicated by radar, and you should seek shelter immediately.

One of the fastest ways to get tornado watch and warning information is from a NOAA weather radio. The radios are sold at many big box stores and can easily be found at online retailers.

The best shelters are basements or interior rooms on the lowest level of a sturdy building.

"Being in an interior room gets you away from any flying debris that may get through there,” said Richard Smith, executive director of the American Red Cross of Central and Western South Dakota. “It has to travel through more of the house to get to you.”

If you live in a mobile home, know ahead of time where the nearest safe shelter is, since mobile homes are never safe in a tornado.

"What we recognize is that mobile homes are basically just tied to the ground in kind of a loose fashion,” said Smith. “A lot of times, even a high wind is going to tip those over. And if you're in a mobile home and you start rolling in that mobile home, a lot of that debris is going to fall on you. You're going to be tossed in that mobile home."

If you were told to open the windows in your house before a tornado when you were young - think again.

"Opening the windows as a tornado is approaching is really a myth because the tornado winds are so powerful,” said Matthew Bunkers with the National Weather Service’s Rapid City office. “If they're going to hit your house, they're going to destroy it. It doesn't matter about the pressure equalizing that."

If you find yourself on the road, your best bet is to avoid driving into storms that look threatening, since they could hide unpleasant, rotating surprises.

"Take your time, don't drive into a storm that's looking nasty or even tornado warned, even if there isn't a report of a tornado,” said Bunkers. “One could be hidden in the rain and that’s the most dangerous kind of tornado that there is I think."

Instead, drive toward a nearby sturdy building or get yourself into a low-lying area. And of course, never take shelter under a highway overpass, since the overpass can accelerate the tornado's winds, and your vehicle will block traffic.

RELATED: Avoid physical and financial loss during hailstorms

Knowing what's going on and where you need to be are the keys to staying safe in a tornado.

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