A tornado is a rotating mass of wind originating from a severe thunderstorm that extends to the ground to wreak havoc on anything that it touches. Tornadoes can take a serious toll on an area as they can be strong enough to completely level buildings or toss 18-wheelers high into the air like it is nothing. Because of the extreme danger that tornadoes pose, they are definitely not something to take lightly.
This is a full tornado safety guide to help you navigate the different stages of protecting yourself and your family from tornadoes, as well as other important facts to know about these natural disasters.
What to Do
Before a Tornado Occurs
Properly preparing for a tornado is extremely important. The more time you take before a tornado occurs to make sure all of your safety measures are in place, the better off you will be. You definitely do not want to be running around frantically last minute making sure you have everything you need when your main concern should be getting to safety.
Here is a list of things to do to prep your house and your family before a tornado arrives:
Agree on a family emergency plan for what to do when a tornado is coming. It is a good idea to have a gameplan for the various places you may be in your neighborhood such as friends’ houses and work.
There should be a room in your home that everyone knows to go to in case of a tornado. For most houses, this safe room is the basement, but it could be a storm cellar or an internal room on the lowest floor.
Put together a tornado emergency kit. Details on what to put inside one of these are listed below.
Store important items in a safe in the basement that is waterproof and fireproof. This may include social security cards, birth certificates, wills, car deeds, a marriage license, and other important family papers.
Make sure that your utility switches are easily accessible and marked so that anyone can quickly turn off the appropriate ones in an emergency.
Communicate with your child’s school to make sure they discuss the emergency plan with students and to determine how you are to be alerted if there is an emergency dismissal.
Be aware of the tornado warning sirens in your area and how they work. There are typically allocated testing days for the sirens each month. It will reduce confusion if you know when these scheduled testing days occur.
Know the difference between tornado and storm warnings that you may see on TV or hear on the radio:
Conditions are right for a tornado to occur. Stay alert.
A tornado has been spotted and you need to seek cover right away.
Severe Thunderstorm Watch
Weather conditions are making a severe thunderstorm extremely likely.
Severe Thunderstorm Warning
This means that a severe thunderstorm is happening or is about to happen.
What to Do
when a Tornado is Coming
If a tornado is headed towards your home, there is not much time to act.
Here are a few things you should do if you have enough time:
Do not open any windows.
Turn off the utilities in your home. This could help protect your home from additional damage such as a fire or electrocution.
Put pets on a leash or in a crate and bring them down into the basement with you. You do not want them getting out and putting themselves in danger.
Do not get in your car and attempt to outrun the tornado. Shelter is a much safer place to be than inside of a car during a tornado.
Get underground into your basement or storm cellar immediately. Many states don’t have basements so if you do not have either of these, get to a small room or hallway as far near the center of your home as you can and on the lowest floor possible. You want to avoid any windows, because hail or debris from the winds can break the windows in and blow broken glass or debris in your direction.
What to Do
DURING A Tornado
When a tornado is knocking at your door and you are already hunkered down in your basement, storm cellar, or small interior room, here is what to do:
Listen to your radio or TV for emergency information on the location and duration of the tornado.
Put on shoes as you may have to walk through sharp debris at some point.
Put on a helmet to avoid potential head trauma if things start falling down on you.
Stay put in your basement or shelter for the duration of the tornado.
Do not leave your basement until you are given the all clear from authorities.
What to Do
AFTER A tornado hits
Picking up the pieces after a tornado hits your home and your neighborhood can be daunting and even dangerous. Your house could be damaged, trees could be uprooted or you might need to clean up a flooded basement. Another common repair is the need to replace windows. Here are some things to do when dealing with the tornado aftermath:
Proceed with caution as you leave your home as there could be a gas leak, downed power lines, biohazard waste or loose materials that may fall on you.
Take pictures of the damage for your insurance company.
Put pets on a leash or in a crate so they do not run around and get into areas that may hurt them.
Tornado Safety Kit
It is a good idea to prepare a tornado safety kit and keep it in your basement, so that if you do need to go down there to seek cover during a tornado you already have everything that you need.
Here is a list of items to include in your tornado safety kit:
Three days worth of non-perishable food for each individual. Do not forget a can opener for any cans.
Three days worth of water for each individual. About a gallon per person is required.
Battery powered radio or TV to listen to weather and emergency updates
Helmets for each person
Shoes for each person
Any prescription medications
Blankets and pillows
Whistle to use to call for help if trapped under debris
Cash just in case banks are closed for a while
Baby needs like diapers, wipes, food, toys, medication
Pet needs like food, pet waste bags, and/or a litter box
Signs a Tornado is Coming
If it is looking ominous outside and you are wondering what sort of weather you are in for, here is a list of some signs that it could be a tornado:
The sky is dark and sometimes green
Sometimes large chunks of hail
Large, low, dark clouds and sometimes lightning
Loud noise, sometimes described as the sound of a train
A rotating funnel cloud reaching towards the ground
Debris falling due to strong winds
What to Do
if You are in a Car or a Mobile Home
Cars and mobile homes, even if they are tied down, can be easily lifted if the tornado winds are strong enough. Here is what to do if you are caught in either during a tornado:
Find a safe building if possible.
Avoid structures that have long roofs like shopping malls or school gyms, because these do not have strong support systems throughout and are more easily collapsed during a strong storm.
If you are out of shelter options, get out of your vehicle or mobile home and lie flat in a ditch and cover your head.
Get as far away from your vehicle as possible. If the tornado winds pick up your vehicle, you avoid the possibility of it getting blown on top of you.
Do not hide under an overpass or bridge. This is one of the most dangerous places you can be during a tornado.
Debris being blown around by strong winds is the highest cause of death and injury from tornadoes, so do your best to protect yourself from this by covering your head with whatever you can find.
11 Quick Tornado Facts
Tornado speeds have been known to range between almost 0 mph to 70 mph, but are typically around 30 mph. The strongest tornado winds have gotten up to 250 mph.
Their path can shift quickly and unexpectedly.
They can be more than a mile wide.
They can appear transparent before they have picked up any debris or clouds form within them.
Tornadoes can last anywhere between a few seconds to over an hour. However, most last under ten minutes.
They typically occur in the late afternoon/ evening between 4pm and 9pm, but they can occur any time of the day.
Tornadoes can appear with very little warning
Tornadoes typically travel from southwest to northeast, but not all of the time.
Tornadoes can travel over rivers and bodies of water.
On average in the United States, tornadoes cause an average of 70 deaths and 1,500 injuries each year.
Tornadoes are most common in April, May, and June in southern states and they are most common in May, June, and July in northern states, but they have been known to occur all year round.
What Causes Tornadoes to Form?
There is a particular cocktail of air masses with different temperatures, directions, and speeds that when they all come together, they can collectively form a tornado.
Typically, this consists of strong cold winds coming from the west that are positioned higher in the atmosphere combining with lower warm moist air coming from the south as well as a layer of hot dry air that sits between them.
When these fronts meet, the cold air traps the warm air under it so the warm air can no longer rise and instead begins to rotate.
As more warm air rises from below, it eventually breaks through the cool air barrier and pushes it down, forming a rotating column of air or a tornado.
This map shows how the different air masses and weather conditions come together to form a tornado in the United States:
Cold dry air
Warm dry air
Warm moist air
States Around the US Most Vulnerable to Tornadoes
Although tornadoes can happen anywhere at any time, “Tornado Alley” is the nickname given to the stretch of land in the middle of the United States that is most likely to see tornadoes each year. The main states in this area, as shown in the map above, include South Dakota, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas.
The reason why this area is so vulnerable to tornadoes is because the surrounding terrain is very conducive to the types of air and wind patterns discussed above that form tornadoes.
Here are some of the qualities that Tornado Alley has that makes it such a hotbed for tornadoes:
The Rocky Mountains positioned to the west that feed in dry cool mountain air.
The warm desert air coming in from the dry southwestern states.
The Great Plains that stretch vertically across the whole country make a clear and smooth path for air to travel through.
Perfect landing point for cold and warm fronts colliding.
The Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean Sea to the south that send warm humid air up.
Is the Southwest Corner of Your Basement the Safest Place to be During a Tornado?
The basement is the safest place in your home to be during a tornado, but the idea that the southwest corner is the best place to position yourself in there is a complete myth.
This started because most tornadoes travel from southwest to northeast and the thinking is that this would mean debris would end up falling on the northeast end of the basement, but it is not supported by facts.
In reality, there is no safest corner of the basement. You can get safer in a basement by positioning yourself under a table or sturdy object to protect yourself from falling objects.