It’s tornado season once again, so what better time to take a look at what a tornado is and how best to prepare for them.

What is a Tornado?

A tornado appears as a rotating, funnel-shaped cloud that extends from a thunderstorm to the ground with whirling winds that can reach 300 miles per hour. Damage paths can be in excess of one mile wide and 50 miles long. Some tornadoes are clearly visible, while rain or nearby low-hanging clouds obscure others. Occasionally, tornadoes develop so rapidly that little, if any, advance warning is possible.

Before a tornado hits, the wind may die down and the air may become very still. A cloud of debris can mark the location of a tornado even if a funnel is not visible. Tornadoes generally occur near the trailing edge of a thunderstorm. It is not uncommon to see clear, sunlit skies behind a tornado.

  • Tornadoes cause an average of 70 fatalities and 1,500 injuries in the U.S. each year.
  • The strongest tornadoes have rotating winds of more than 250 mph.
  • Tornadoes can be more than one mile wide and stay on the ground for over 50 miles.
  • Tornadoes may appear nearly transparent until dust and debris are picked up or a cloud forms within the funnel.
  • The average forward speed is 30 mph but may vary from nearly stationary to 70 mph.
  • Waterspouts are tornadoes which form over warm water. They can move onshore and cause damage to coastal areas.

Tornadoes can destroy buildings, flip cars, and create deadly flying debris. Tornadoes are violently rotating columns of air that extend from a thunderstorm to the ground. Tornadoes can:

  • Happen anytime and anywhere;

  • Bring intense winds, over 200 MPH; and

  • Look like funnels.

  • If you can safely get to a sturdy building, then do so immediately.
  • Go to a safe room, basement, or storm cellar.
  • If you are in a building with no basement, then get to a small interior room on the lowest level.
  • Once there, get under a workbench, table, or some other heavy piece of furniture to protect yourself from falling debris. If that’s not available, you can cover yourself with a mattress.
  • If you have a helmet (preferably a motorcycle helmet) or some other form of head protection, be sure to put it on.
  • Stay away from windows, doors, and outside walls.
  • Do not get under an overpass or bridge. You’re safer in a low, flat location.
  • Watch out for flying debris that can cause injury or death.
  • Use your arms to protect your head and neck.


  • Know your area’s tornado risk. In the U.S., the Midwest and the Southeast have a greater risk for tornadoes.
  • Know the signs of a tornado, including a rotating, funnel-shaped cloud; an approaching cloud of debris; or a loud roar—similar to a freight train.
  • Sign up for your community’s warning system. The Emergency Alert System (EAS) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Weather Radio also provide emergency alerts. If your community has sirens, then become familiar with the warning tone.
  • Pay attention to weather reports. Meteorologists can predict when conditions might be right for a tornado.
  • Identify and practice going to a safe shelter in the event of high winds, such as a safe room built using FEMA criteria or a storm shelter built to ICC 500 standards. The next best protection is a small, interior, windowless room on the lowest level of a sturdy building.
  • Consider constructing your own safe room that meets FEMA or ICC 500 standards.

Prepare NOW

  • Staying informed about your community’s risk and response plans.


Basic Emergency Kit

Keep the following items in a container that can be easily carried.

  • Water and canned or dried food – families should set aside one gallon of water per person per day, to last three days, and a three-day supply of food per person. The food should be nonperishable items that don’t need to be cooked, such as tuna and crackers. Remember to include a manual can opener. If there’s an infant in the house, include formula and baby food.
  • Battery powered radio
  • Flashlight
  • Extra batteries for the radio and flashlight
  • Prescription medications
  • First-aid kit

Storing Important Documents

Store the following documents in a fire- and water-proof safe:

  • Birth certificates
  • Ownership certificates (autos, boats, etc.)
  • Social security cards
  • Insurance policies
  • Will
  • Household inventory:
    1. List of contents of household; include serial numbers, if applicable
    2. Photographs or videotape of contents of every room
    3. Photographs of items of high values, such as jewelry, paintings, collection items

Keep a BOLT Kit ready as part of your preparedness plan that includes your vital documents, money, some extra clothes. A First aid kit, phone chargers, weather radio, flash light, should be among the basic essentials. Keep some water in the your vehicle whenever possible. If the severe weather threat will  going to be over night, consider getting a hotel room on the first floor of the hotel. If possible, consider staying with a friend or loved one until the severe weather threat has passed. If you do not have an underground shelter available, attempt to make friends with people who have them. When traveling, other shelter options include hospitals, malls, hotels, etc..


How to Prepare for Tornadoes

Protecting Your Family

  • Talk about tornadoes with your family so that everyone knows where to go if a tornado warning is issued. Discussing ahead of time helps reduce fear, especially for younger children.
  • Check at your workplace and your children’s schools and day care centers to learn about their tornado emergency plans. Every building has different safe places.
  • Ensure that every member of your family carries a Safe and Well wallet card.
  • Check emergency kit and replenish any items missing or in short supply. especially medications or other medical supplies. Keep it nearby.

Protecting Your Pets & Animals

Protecting your home

  • Make a list of items to bring inside in the event of a storm.
  • Make trees more wind resistant by removing diseased or damaged limbs, then strategically remove branches so that wind can blow through. Strong winds frequently break weak limbs and hurl them at great speed, causing damage or injury when they hit.
  • Remove any debris or loose items in your yard. Branches and firewood may become missiles in strong winds.
  • Bring BBQ grills, trash cans, outdoor furniture etc. inside before the storm.
  • Consider installing permanent shutters to cover windows. Shutters can be closed quickly and provide the safest protection for windows.
  • Strengthen garage doors. Garage doors are often damaged or destroyed by flying debris, allowing strong winds to enter. As winds apply pressure to the walls, the roof can be lifted off, and the rest of the house can easily follow.


Right Before a Tornado

Don’t wait until you see the tornado to act! If you do nothing else:

1. Listen to local area radio, NOAA radio or TV stations for the latest information and updates.

2. Move to an underground shelter, basement or safe room. If none is available, a small, windowless interior room or hallway on the lowest level of a sturdy building is the safest alternative.

  • Remember: no area of a mobile home is safe during a tornado. If you have access to a sturdy shelter or a vehicle, go there immediately, using your seat belt if driving.

3. Find a local emergency shelter and know the best routes to get there if you need to.

Then, if you can, do this:

  • Watch for tornado danger signs: dark, often greenish clouds – a phenomenon caused by hail; wall cloud – an isolated lowering of the base of a thunderstorm; cloud of debris.
  • Move or secure any of the items on your list of items to bring inside or anything else that can be picked up by the wind.
  • Bring your companion animals indoors and maintain direct control of them.


Signs of Danger

  • Dark, often greenish sky
  • Large hail
  • A large, dark, low-lying cloud (particularly if rotating)
  • Loud roar, similar to a freight train

Parents should make sure their children know:

  • What a tornado is
  • What tornado watches and warnings are
  • What county or parish they live in (warnings are issued by county or parish)
  • How to take shelter, whether at home or at school


Where Tornadoes Happen

  • The average tornado moves Southwest to Northeast, but tornadoes have been known to move in any direction.
  • “Tornado Alley” is a nickname given to an area in the southern plains of the central U.S. that consistently experiences a high frequency of tornadoes each year. Tornadoes in this region typically happen in late spring and occasionally the early fall.


When Tornadoes Happen

  • They may strike quickly, with little or no warning.
  • Tornadoes can accompany tropical storms and hurricanes as they move onto land.
  • Peak tornado season in the southern states is March through May; in the northern states, it is late spring through early summer.
  • Tornadoes are most likely to occur between 3 pm and 9 pm, but can occur at any time.


The Enhanced Fujita Tornado Scale

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