A tornado is “a violent windstorm characterized by a twisting, funnel-shaped cloud. It is spawned by a thunderstorm (or sometimes as a result of a hurricane) and produced when cool air overrides a layer of warm air, forcing the warm air to rise rapidly” (click on Secrets of Survival: How to Survive a Tornado). The most violent tornadoes come from supercells which are “large thunderstorms that have winds already in rotation”. Supercells can also produce heavy rain, flooding, large hail, dangerous lightening, and damaging winds as well as tornadoes.
Tornadoes have been reported all over the world, in places as diverse as Great Britain, India, and Argentina. But most tornadoes occur in the United States of America. Tornadoes can happen in the USA anywhere at anytime but most of the more violent tornadoes are concentrated in an area commonly called “Tornado Alley”. It varies (depending on where you look) but generally the states included in Tornado Alley are Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Texas.
Tornado Season is generally March through August and most tornadoes form in the afternoons and evenings (over 80% strike between noon and midnight) but this can vary by region. For instance, in my home state, my Tornado Season is April through July with most tornadoes occurring between 2 p.m. and 10 p.m.
So in other words do not assume you are safe. As long as conditions are right, a tornado can form anywhere at anytime. Not all tornadoes are spawned by supercells (although the most destructive ones are). Don’t assume you’ll see a tornado coming. Sometimes the distinctive funnel shape of a tornado is visible but sometimes the only thing you can see is the swirling debris at the base of the funnel. And sometimes a tornado is entirely invisible, hidden by darkness or rain. And never assume you’re safe just because you see a tornado disappear or move away from you. Tornadoes are entirely unpredictable. Some tornadoes will lift and reform and drop back down, sometimes several times in different locations. And sometimes satellite torndoes form.
So what can you do to survive a deadly tornado? Here are a few ideas that I’ve cobbled together from literally dozens of websites and documents:
BEFORE A TORNADO
1). FIND THE SAFEST LOCATION
Look around your environment, not just at your home, but also at work, at school, at places you go like shopping centers, libraries, nursing homes, etc. You want to go to an interior room on the lowest level. A basement or storm cellar is best. You can also go to an interior room or hallway on the lowest level of a building. Bathrooms and small closets are good. Also good are bank vaults and walk in freezers. You want to stay away from windows, doors, and glass and put as many walls as possible between you and the tornado. Also stay away from places with wide-span roofs like sales floors of stores, factory floors, gyms, and auditoriums because these roofs may collapse. Don’t just stop at getting to a low floor, get under shelter. Get under the stairs, get under heavy furniture like tables or desks, get in the bathtub, cover yourself with blankets, quilts, pillows, put a metal trashcan over yourself, put a helmet on (helmets with face protection are best like bike helmets or football helmets but any kind will help). Remember: most tornado injuries and deaths are from deadly flying debris and collapsing roofs and walls.
If you live in a mobile home or drive a vehicle a lot, you will need to GET OUT when a tornado occurs. Mobile homes and vehicles are not sturdy enough and can be tossed around or destroyed by a tornado. You need to look around for a sturdy building. If nothing else, look for a ditch or low lying area where you can lie flat and cover your head with your hands. NEVER shelter under an underpass. If the tornado is strong or passes overhead the underpass becomes a wind tunnel. There have been reported deaths from people being pummeled to death by flying debris or being blown away from the underpass. Don’t try to out drive a tornado because they are fast and unpredictable, also the roads may be blocked by high water or debris like trees and poles or even by car accidents. If you have no other choice, you can crouch down in your car with your head below the window.
In case you are outside when a tornado occurs you need to look for a sturdy building. If nothing else, find a ditch or low area, so you can lie flat and cover your head.
2). PRACTICE TORNADO DRILLS
Practice at home, work, school, any place you might go. Tornados are fast and scary. Practice so that you know where to go and what to do and you don’t waste precious time dithering about.
3). MAKE A COMMIUNICATION PLAN
Make sure family and friends know where to go and also where to look for survivors after the tornado. Have an assigned meeting spot so people can reunite and know who to look for. You don’t want to waste time wandering around, screaming and crying, for lost people.
4). MAKE AN EMERGENCY KIT
You should have supplies for at least 3 days. You will need 1 gallon of water per person for 3 days, nonperishable food, a radio and flashlights plus extra batteries, first aid kit, a whistle or fog horn to signal for help, personal sanitation supplies (moist towelettes, garbage bags, ties), wrench or pliers to turn off utilities, matches, and more as well as supplies for all your pets. Click this link to see an emergency supply list from FEMA.
5). INVENTORY POSSESSIONS
Know your stuff before a tornado in case you need to file an insurance claim after a tornado. Click this link for a handy Personal Property Inventory Form.
6). PAY ATTENTION TO WEATHER ALERTS
It’s best to have a NOAA Weather radio but commercial radio and TV will also alert you to changing weather conditions.
7). KNOW THE TERMINOLOGY
A TORNADO WATCH issued by the National Weather Service means conditions are right and tornadoes are possible in your area. Alert family and friends, gather the pets, watch the skies, watch or listen to TV or radio, and be prepared to move quickly if you have to.
A TORNADO WARNING means a tornado has been sighted. Take shelter NOW. Don’t waste time opening windows, your house will not explode from air pressure. Shelter NOW. And don’t come out until you hear an “all clear” announcement.
8). LOOK FOR DANGER SIGNS
You should keep an eye out for signs of trouble. A dark, often greenish colored sky, large hail, a large and dark and low-lying cloud (especially if it seems to be rotating), a loud sound like the roar of a freight train, unusual or anxious behavior in animals. If you see danger signs, don’t waste time going outside to investigate, TAKE SHELTER.
DURING A TORNADO
1). TAKE SHELTER
Remember when you were looking around for possible safe spots before the tornado happened? You should be there NOW. Here’s a few reminders:
If you are in a building, go to the LOWEST LEVEL. Basements, cellars, low level interior rooms or hallways are good. Bathrooms, closets, bank vaults, walk in freezers, under the stairs, under heavy furniture are all good. Stay away from windows, doors, outside walls, and places with wide-span roofs. Cover yourself as best you can with blankets, pillows, mattresses, or just your hands.
If you are in a mobile home, GET OUT. Go to a building or lie in a ditch or low area and cover your head.
If you are in a car, GET OUT. Don’t try to out run the tornado. Go to a building or lie in a ditch or low area and cover your head. Stay away from overpasses. At a last resort, buckle your seatbelt, crouch down in the car and cover your head.
If you are outdoors, GET INSIDE if possible or lie flat in a ditch or low lying area and cover your head.
2). REMEMBER TO “DUCK”.
D = Go DOWN to the lowest level
U = Get UNDER something
C = COVER your head
K = KEEP in shelter until you get the “all clear”.
3). STAY SHELTERED
Don’t go wandering around just because you think it is clear. Remember that there is sometimes a quiet period between heavy rain and a tornado. Remember that tornadoes can lift up but then reform and come back down and they can change direction. Stay where you are until the authorities issue an “all clear”.
AFTER A TORNADO
2). GIVE FIRST AID
Check on your family, friends, and neighbors. Check for injured people and give first aid but don’t try to move any severely injured people unless absolutely necessary. Wait for emergency responders to arrive.
3). GET OUT
Try to get out of damaged buildings if you can. Do not go back inside for possessions. If you can’t get out on your own then blow your whistle, fire your foghorn, call out, and signal for help. Check that your family, friends, and neighbors are safely outside.
4). TURN OFF UTILITIES.
If your house is undamaged, or you can safely get inside, then turn off your utilities. Avoid the danger of fires and explosions from damaged pipes and wires.
5). BE CAREFUL WHERE YOU WALK
Watch for broken glass, nails, and jagged debris when you are walking around. If possible wear sturdy shoes (it would be a good idea to keep sturdy shoes in your safe spot or your emergency bag). Never touch or go near dangling or downed power lines. They could electrocute you.
6). RECORD DAMAGE
If possible, take pictures or video of your damaged property for your insurance.
7). TEXT, DON’T TALK
Save the phone for emergencies. Send texts so you don’t tie up the phone lines. Also texting may work even if cell service is down.
8). STAY AWAY
If you are not in an area damaged by a tornado, or you were able to get out of a damaged area, then stay away and stay out of the way for emergency workers.
Here are a few additional tips and tidbits:
– The Enhanced Fujita Scale measures tornadoes.
EF0 has 3 second wind gusts of 65 – 85 mph (Gale)
EF1 has 3 second wind gusts of 86 – 110 mph (Weak)
EF2 has 3 second wind gusts of 111 – 135 mph (Strong)
EF3 has 3 second wind gusts of 136 – 165 mph (Severe)
EF4 has 3 second wind gusts of 166 – 200 mph (Devastating)
EF5 has 3 second wind gusts over 200 mph (Incredible)
Click this link for an easy Enhanced Fujita chart with pictures of sample damage.
-The word “tornado” comes from the Spanish word “tronada” meaning “thunderstorm”.
– Around 800 tornadoes touch down in the USA every year.
– Only 2% of tornadoes are considered violent but that 2% cause 70% of tornado related deaths.
– Every year, tornadoes cause about $400 billion in damages.
– On average, 70 people are killed by tornadoes each year.
– Tornadoes can reach heights of 60,000 feet into the atmosphere.
– Tornadoes contain the fastest winds on Earth. The greatest tornadoes can have wind speeds over 300 mph.
– Water spouts are weak tornadoes that form over water.
– Dust Devils are strong tornadoes that pass over deserts.
– Doppler Radar records wind speed and identifies areas of rotation within thunderstorms.
– Since Doppler Radar has been in use, the warning times for tornadoes has grown from fewer than 5 minutes in the 1980s to an average of 13 minutes today.
Here are a few fun and handy websites:
Click this link for a printable brochure with 20 pages on “Thunderstorms, Tornadoes, Lightning: Nature’s Most Violent Storms”.
Click this link for a 7 page brochure for kids with a quiz.
Click this link for an interactive lab where you can learn about tornadoes then set the correct conditions and create a tornado in a simulation (keep trying until you get an EF5 tornado).
Click this link for fun kid stuff like a coloring page, crossword puzzle, and word search.
Click this link for a brainteaser quiz .