Tornados are fascinating in many ways. They’re spiral storms that are unpredictable in timing, strength, and direction. Every year, the United States gets hit with more than a thousand of these storms a year. Let that number sink in for a minute- that’s 2 to 3 tornadoes a day!
A grand majority of tornadoes leave minimal traces of tree and roof damage but a handful of them are completely devastating, leveling entire towns.
Although technology and alert systems are improving, tornadoes are not easy to predict. Preparing for this type of disaster is not only necessary but it can be life-saving.
Tornado preparedness is more about learning how to stay safe than it is about keeping your home intact. As much as we want to protect our homes - and indeed we should do our best to make them structurally sound - a strong enough tornado has the potential to destroy anything along its path.
This guide will highlight the safety principles you should practice in order to survive a tornado.
[This is a long article about tornado preparedness, so the links in the Table of Contents may help you to navigate through the page. If you don't have much time and want to dive right into the meat of this article, please click here.]
Interesting tornado facts
- The United States ranks highest as the country with the most tornadoes. Canada places second.
- The United States experiences an average of 1,000 or more tornadoes every year. Out of those, roughly 20 are expected to be violent and there’s a chance that one of them may become extremely destructive.
- Tornadoes commonly occur in the Gulf Coast and in Tornado Alley, the plains of the central United States.
- Some of the most affected states are Texas, Oklahoma, and Florida, but tornadoes can and do occur in all 50 US states. Alaska is least likely to get hit.
- 77% of tornadoes are classified EF-1 or lower. This is enough to cause structural damage but possibly won’t level your home to the ground.
- A tornado can cause destruction to an area for as long as 50 miles and as wide as a mile.
- The deadliest tornado in US history was the Tri-State Tornado that occurred on March 18, 1925. It traveled 219 miles across three states, killed 695 people, and injured over two thousand others. It destroyed nine towns and many small villages.
Tornado terms you should know
Tornado - A tornado is a funnel-shaped cloud caused by violently rotating high-speed winds caused by thunderstorms.
Tornado Watch - A tornado watch means that a tornado is expected to form due to the weather conditions that make such an occurrence likely. A watch does not mean that the tornado has formed yet, but you should be making preparations to take shelter in the event that the watch turns into a warning. Since tornadoes and severe thunderstorms go hand in hand, you should be prepared for the chance of severe thunderstorms coming your way. Take tornado watches very seriously.
Tornado Warning - A tornado warning means that a tornado has already formed and it’s time to take cover immediately. The average warning time given before a tornado approaches is 13 minutes, so when a warning is issued get to safety right away. All tornadoes are considered dangerous because a their intensity cannot be measured until after the tornado has passed. When you receive a tornado warning, assume the worst and find a place of shelter as soon as possible.
Enhanced Fujita (EF) Tornado Intensity Scale - Tornadoes are measured on the EF scale based on their estimated wind speed and 28 other damage indicators.
EF-0 - This is considered a light tornado with wind speeds of 65 to 85 mph. You should expect light damage around your property. You may see some broken branches or shingles ripped out of your roof.
EF-1 - This is considered a moderate tornado with wind speeds of 86 to 110 mph. You should expect moderate damage to well-built homes. You may need to replace parts of the roof, the siding, windows, doors, and other parts of your home. Mobile homes may receive a lot more damage because their structure is very weak in comparison.
EF-2 - This is considered a considerable tornado with wind speeds of 111 to 135 mph. You should expect considerable damage to well-built homes and significant damage to mobile homes. Trees will possibly be completely uprooted and cars moved over several feet away.
EF-3 - This is considered a severe tornado with wind speeds of 136 to 165 mph. You should expect severe damage to homes, commercial buildings, overturn vehicles, etc.
EF-4 - This is considered a devastating tornado with wind speeds of 166 to 200 mph. You should expect devastating damage to your property and community. Expect well-built homes to be leveled, overturned, and mangled debris.
EF-5 - This is considered an incredible tornado with wind speeds of over 200 mph. You should expect extraordinary damage. Most homes and buildings will be completely leveled and the area will be covered in debris.
Current live map of tornadoes
There are a few websites that offer live updates of tornadoes.
The best one I found is on Severe Studios’ website. They stream a live storm chaser map which not only includes tornadoes but also lightning, supercells, heavy winds, hail storms, and winter storms. Their map is the most up-to-date version I could find.
Another live map option is Tornado HQ’s website. Their map looks a lot like Severe Studios’ does, except it gives you the opportunity to track your location and receive live updates. Their map might be a bit delayed, so keep that in mind. Their website tells viewers how many actives severe weather warnings there are at the moment, as well as a summary of the most recent tornadoes. Find their map here.
What to expect during a tornado
When is tornado season?
Can tornadoes be predicted?
What organizations monitor tornado activity?
What type of warning system do tornadoes have?
There are several ways to receive tornado warnings but since they develop so quickly, you must remain on alert. Be mindful that some tornadoes may form while you’re sleeping so determine a way where you can receive alerts if something occurs through the night.
- NOAA Weather Radio: Listen to the NOAA for the most up-to-date status on storm warnings. This is perhaps the most reliable way to receive tornado notifications. You can buy a NOAA weather radio online or download the app on your phone.
- TV and Radio: Local weather and news stations should be informing the public right away if a tornado watch or warning is underway.
- Sirens: In large high-risk areas, there are tornado sirens that will go off throughout the city. The problem with those is that you might not be able to hear them from inside your house.
- Wireless Emergency Alert: FEMA sends out a message to the cell phone carriers, which will send an automatic message to anyone near the predicted impact zone. These messages are free and will appear much like an Amber alert. Make sure you have your emergency alerts turned ON on your phone.
When a tornado is predicted, do you know its intensity?
What does a tornado feel like?
As a tornado approaches, you will feel the atmospheric pressure dropping. You may, or may not, feel some changes in your body but everyone is different. Your ears might pop (sometimes causing earaches), your joints might ache or swell, you might experience headaches, and your ability to breathe might feel different.
The sound of a tornado is like a massive train crash with a prolonged hissing sound. Rain, hail, lightning, and strong winds are expected to accompany the violent ripping apart of the structures and objects lying in the path of a tornado. Here you can read two accounts of people who were in the eye of a tornado and lived to tell their story.
How long do tornadoes typically last?
How to mitigate tornadoes
Tornadoes are difficult and tricky natural disasters to predict. There are several atmospheric factors that increase the likelihood of a tornado forming, yet there’s no certainty that the combination of those factors working together will cause anything to occur at all. The trouble researchers experience is that in some cases a tornado will form and later on, under the same weather circumstances, nothing will happen.
As for the little bit that we understand about tornado research, we know that they can form very quickly and their path cannot be controlled nor manipulated. In fact, there’s no way to tell which direction the tornado will take nor how long it will last.
The unpredictable nature of tornadoes force us to become prepared as best as we can to reduce the effect of the destruction they leave behind. Unfortunately, no matter how much we prepare, we cannot eliminate the risk associated with such an event but preparedness greatly improves our chances of survival.
- Be on alert! There are several warning systems in place to inform the public quickly about an approaching tornado or severe thunderstorm. Make sure to keep your phone’s Wireless Emergency Notifications turned ON to receive warnings, especially during the night when you’re sleeping.
- Build a safe room or buy a storm shelter. Of course this represents a significant financial investment but it may become life-saving so you should see it instead as a life-saving investment. I believe that your life is worth a lot more than the cost of a storm shelter. If this one thing is what helps to keep you and your family safe, it’s definitely worth it! FEMA has recommendations on how to build a residential safe room. They have worked with research institutions and universities to determine the best structures to withstand storms. Although there is no way to make a home fully “tornado-proof,” you can say that this is the next best option. Download FEMA’s guide here.
- Make a tornado preparedness plan with your family. Discuss the safest places to seek shelter in your home and design an evacuation plan with a couple of different exits. Revise and practice your plans a couple of times or more per year. Your kids are an important part of your tornado preparedness plan and including them throughout the entire process will help them understand the best way to react in such a time.
- Build your tornado emergency kit. Keep reading to make sure that you have included the essential items recommended here. Remember to pack enough supplies not just for you and your family, but also for your pets.
- If you have kids that go to public school, make sure to ask their school what preparedness procedures they have in place and how often they have drills.
- If an elderly or disabled loved one lives with you, make sure to adjust your preparations to fit their needs.
- Make sure your homeowners or renter’s insurance covers tornados. If you live in a tornado-prone area, consider getting a comprehensive auto insurance that covers tornado damage done to your vehicle. Contact your insurance company for more details.
- Take photos of your home and valuables. If a tornado causes damage to your home, you’ll want to show them before and after photos to prove that you’re being honest in your claim. Contact your insurance company for advice what documents or photos are recommended to issue a claim after a tornado.
- Learn to switch off all the utilities.
- Train yourself to think and act fast. If you live in a tornado-prone area, make it a habit to seek out possible shelter locations wherever you go. If you are continually observant, the next time that you receive a tornado warning in an inconvenient location, you’ll be more adept to act proactively and find a place to hideout quickly. Whereas if you go about life, day in and day out, without it ever crossing your mind, and you suddenly receive a tornado warning, you’ll probably behave out of fear and not know where to go or what to do. The few minutes you’re given during a warning are vital and your safety is most important. Become mentally prepared!
Tornado safety tips
As soon as a tornado warning is issued, you should seek shelter immediately and tune in to your local radio station.
Now you may be thinking, if I only have minutes to get to a safe location and I’m not home, where do I go?
The general rule of thumb is to shelter yourself in an interior room (preferably a storm room, cellar or basement) where there are NO windows or exterior doors.
With that in mind, let’s get a little more specific.
- Get inside a safe room, a basement or storm shelter. The majority of the damage tends to occur above ground so your home is not guaranteed to survive, but hopefully your life will be spared if you take refuge in a specially-built safe room, basement or storm-proof shelter. If you don’t have either of these, your next best solution is to go to an interior room on the lowest level of the home or building (such as a restroom, hallway, or pantry) where there are no windows. I’ve read about people who survived tornados by sheltering in the bathtub so that may be a last-resort option. Although I’m not saying this is an ideal place by any means, but it saved a few people’s lives so that’s gotta count for something.
- Protect your pets or bring them into the storm safe-room if you’re able to grab them in time.
- Stay away from windows, exterior doors, and garage doors. These are some of the most vulnerable parts of a home and extremely dangerous.
- Get under a heavy table or object. The idea is to protect yourself from flying debris.
- Crouch to the ground or under a sturdy table, and cover your head and neck. If you have a heavy blanket or fluffy pillow, use them to protect yourself.
- If you’re in a mobile home, find a safer structure to shelter in. Mobile homes are particularly weak and extremely vulnerable to tornado damage.
- Try to seek shelter inside a sturdy building (go to a room without windows).
- If you can’t get to a storm shelter and remain outdoors, get as far away as possible from trees.
- Lie down flat against the ground.
- If you find a ditch, tuck yourself in it.
- Protect your head and neck to prevent getting hit by flying debris.
In a car, bus, or truck:
- Experts recommend that you do not try to outdrive a tornado, but if there’s a clear path in the opposite direction, make a break for it.
- If you’re surrounded by the thunderstorm, pull over immediately and find the nearest building or structure to shelter in.
- If you can’t find a building, flee from the vehicle and lie flat on the ground (or a ditch if you can find one) where there are no trees. Protect your head and neck.
- If you can’t get out of the vehicle, crouch forward in your seat. Try to face the interior of the vehicle and tuck yourself away from the windows. Protect your head and neck.
After the tornado passes:
- If your home experienced considerable damage, shut off the utilities and have a professional inspect them prior to turning them back on.
- Remember to stay away from downed power lines- they may still be charged.
- Do not walk in or near puddles and flooded areas.
- Do not sift through the rubble unless you’re wearing protective gear. Be careful with broken glass, debris, nails, metal scraps, etc.
Tornado preparedness kit must-haves
I recommend you keep one of your preparedness kits in your safe room or basement, and another one in your office or vehicle. When you receive a tornado warning you should be more concerned about getting yourself and your loved ones to safety and less concerned about gathering your emergency supplies last-minute. Your tornado kit essentials should already be stored in the place wherever you plan to take shelter.
- A NOAA weather radio: These can be purchased on Amazon or at your local hardware store. When there’s a weather emergency, you can count on the NOAA for the most current information. If you don’t want to radio, you can opt for the app which is available for both iOS and Android.
- Potable water: I recommend keeping enough water to keep you and each person in your home hydrated for a minimum of 72 hours, but as much as 14 or more days. Due to the unpredictable nature of tornadoes, it’s not possible to tell how quickly emergency assistance will be able to get to you. For this reason, have enough drinking water available to help sustain you.
- Water purification kit: After a tornado, there might not be a shortage of water per se, but there may be a shortage of drinking water. If you use all of the potable water in your storage, you should have a purification kit as a backup. A Lifestraw can purify roughly 1,000 gallons of water and it’s lightweight, making it one of my preferred purification solutions.
- Long-term food storage: You may choose to store canned goods, dried foods, and freeze-dried food. Just like water storage, keep enough food to last you a minimum of 72 but preferably more than 14 days. Remember to consider all dietary needs and restrictions when assembling your food storage supplies. And if you have cans, keep a can opener with it.
- A stove and fuel kit: In order to have warm meals and a cup of coffee or tea, you’ll need a safe cooking source. These kits are ideal because they don’t produce toxic fumes so they can be used indoors and outdoors. Just be cautious and make sure that there aren’t any broken gas lines nearby!
- Plasticware, including plates, cups, and cutlery. This will solve the problem of having to wash dishes when clean water is in limited supply. Remember to store several large trash bags for easy clean up.
- A complete first aid kit: Your first aid kit should include enough supplies to treat minor wounds and keep larger wounds under control until help arrives.
- Medication: Make sure to include medication to help ease any pain and inflammation associated with the atmospheric pressure drop, especially if you have joint problems like arthritis.
- A complete bug out kit: This should have the essentials for you to survive the first 72 hours without outside assistance.
- Waterproof gear and clothing: This includes but is not limited to heavy duty waterproof boots, jackets, pants, and an extra set of warm clothes.
- A headlamp or flashlight with extra batteries: A headlamp is convenient because it’s hand-free.
- Heavy blankets and fluffy pillows: When you take cover, you’ll want to protect yourself with a heavy blanket or pillow in case debris falls on top of you. This will minimize the impact of an object hitting your body.
- A toilet and sanitation kit: Waste management during and after natural disasters is crucial for your health and well-being. A toilet kit provides you will all the necessary supplies to safely dispose of all waste, especially during times when the power is out or the plumbing has been destroyed.
- Wet wipes: Baby moisture wipes are essential for quick sanitation when a daily shower temporarily becomes a luxury.
- Important documents in a sealed waterproof container: Expect to get wet during a tornado but do what you can to keep your important documents dry.
- Extra supplies for babies, toddlers, the elderly, and disabled who may be under your care. Remember to have a week’s supply of prescription medication and take into consideration dietary needs and such.
- Pet supplies, if applicable. Remember to include plenty of pet food and extra water, a bed, and a toy or two.
I know I just fed you way too much information it may feel overwhelming to digest it. That is why I created an easy tornado readiness list that you can download by clicking on the button below. This checklist includes all the essential items you should have in the event of a tornado as well as some of the important things to do and keep in mind in order to help you stay safe.
Print your tornado preparedness list and save a copy with your go-bag or emergency kit for quick access!
FEMA’s resource on Tornado Protection is comprehensive and provides insight into selecting areas of refuge inside buildings. Find that resource here.
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11 Facts About Tornadoes — Do Something
Tornado Alley — NOAA
Historical Records and Trends — NOAA
The Tri-State Tornado of 1925 — US Tornadoes
Understand Tornado Alerts — National Weather Service
Tornadoes 101 — NOAA
How do you measure a tornado? — The New Yorker
The Enhanced Fujita Scale: How Tornadoes are Rated — The Weather Channel
Bathtubs Provide Shelter During Tornadoes — AccuWeather
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