How to Prepare for and Be Aware of Tornadoes

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As with all types of weather, It’s important to know the difference between the related types of weather alerts. When a "Tornado Watch" is in effect, the conditions are right for thunderstorms to possibly produce tornadoes in and near the watch area. When a "Tornado Warning" has been issued, a tornado has been spotted in the immediate warning area, and the danger is immediate. In this case, you should seek shelter at once.

Relevant Facts

  • Tornadoes are the most violent storms nature produces.
  • Nearly all tornadoes are the bi-product of severe thunderstorms (they tend to form at the trailing edge).
  • While they do happen in a few other countries, the US has the highest frequency of tornadoes in the world.
  • Tornadoes can occur in every state in the US. (They're most common east of the Rocky Mountains.)
  • There are an average of about 1,200 tornadoes per year in the US.
  • Tornadoes can develop with little to no warning. (The average tornado warning time is less than 13 minutes).
  • Tornadoes can reach wind speeds of more than 300 mph, be more than a mile wide, and run for 50 miles or more.
  • Initially, tornadoes can be almost invisible (until debris collects or a cloud forms in the funnel).
  • Peak tornado season is early spring through mid-summer.
  • Tornadoes can occur at any time of year and any time of the day or night, but usually occur between 3 and 9 p.m.

Tornadoes are the most violent type of weather; they can develop with almost no warning and severe ones have the capability to devastate an entire neighborhood in seconds. The value of a good "weather alert radio," such as the Midland WR-300 S.A.M.E Weather Alert Monitor, cannot be stressed enough here. As mentioned before, you must understand the difference between a Tornado Watch and a Tornado Warning, and be aware of broadcast alerts.

Tornadoes can range from being nearly stationary to moving at more than 70 mph. The average tornado moves at about 30 mph, can travel in any direction, and is capable of changing direction randomly and suddenly.

Warning signs of a thunderstorm that can produce tornadoes

  • Dark “greenish” clouds (this is an effect of hail).
  • Large hail (about 1" or more).
  • A large, dark, low-lying cloud (especially if rotating).
  • A “funnel cloud” (a visibly rotating funnel extending from the base of a storm cloud).
  • A loud roaring sound (similar to a freight train).

"The average tornado moves at about 30 mph and can travel in any direction and is capable of changing direction randomly and suddenly."

Having a family emergency plan is highly recommended for all types of emergencies, and especially for tornadoes. You could truly only have seconds to react and reach safety. Make sure everyone in your home knows the plan in advance—it’s a good idea to practice once in a while so everyone knows exactly what to do if a real emergency occurs.

The safest place to take shelter is underground (in a basement or such). If a basement isn't available, go to an interior room without windows on the lowest floor possible. Manufactured and mobile homes do not offer protection from tornadoes.

Hard-top vehicles (not convertibles) offer better protection than mobile homes, yet should only be used as a last resort. If at all possible, drive away from the tornado’s path, and do not use highway overpasses or bridges for shelter, they offer no protection.

Safety Tips

  • If a Tornado Watch is issued, dress in long pants and sturdy shoes or boots (you may not have time to do this later if the watch is upgraded to a Tornado Warning).
  • Have a flashlight with fresh batteries on hand (never use candles).
  • Contrary to what you may have heard, do not open your windows during a tornado.
  • Have a portable AM/FM Weather radio, listen for continuing updates (tornadoes sometimes occur in groups).

Dangers after a tornado has passed

After a tornado passes, you still need to exercise extreme caution. A recent study conducted after a significant event showed that 50% of tornado-related injuries occur after the storm had passed, mostly from people exiting damaged buildings and from the debris left behind. Homes that are still standing can be potentially severely damaged, and may not be structurally sound. There will likely be a large amount of debris everywhere—metal with sharp edges, broken glass, and building materials with nails exposed. Use extreme caution when exposed to this debris.

There is also a high probability of downed live power lines and natural gas leaks. Even if your home and neighborhood are missed by the storm, you still may be without power for some time. It’s a good idea to always have some standard supplies on hand, such as water, food, and extra batteries. Once again, planning ahead can make a huge difference in such an event.

Basic items to have in your emergency kit

I hope you found this information to be beneficial. Remember, the key is to plan ahead.

Check out the other article in this series: How to Prepare for and Be Aware of Thunderstorms.