What to do During a Tornado Warning

I spent my childhood growing up in Northeast Oklahoma and Northwest Arkansas and most of my adulthood in Central and North Texas. I’m no stranger to tornado warnings and watches. From an early age, I’ve been taught and told not only truths but also myths about how to stay safe during a tornado. (Guys don’t waste precious time opening all the windows in your house. It will not equalize or alleviate the pressure caused by a tornado and will not prevent anything from happening to you or your home.)

After becoming more serious about preparing myself and family for both natural and man-made disasters, working as a digital content and social media volunteer with the American Red Cross and finding that educating people on preparedness and survival was something I was not only good at, but thoroughly enjoyed, I’ve learned a lot about how to prepare for and ride out bad weather. In fact, my work has been published and reposted in preparedness and home defense magazines, as well as various online blogs and publications.

Though I wish I could, there is nothing any of us can do to stop Mother Nature’s destruction. However, I can provide the knowledge and reassurance to help you be as ready as possible if the worst was to happen.

We know that tornadoes form from supercell thunderstorms. This image depicts a tornado in Kansas from beginning formation to completion

This picture of a Kansas tornado shows the evolution of its formation.

What is a Tornado?

Okay so this is weird, but scientists and meteorologists don’t 100% know. Professional storm chasing doesn’t just make an exciting show, there are hundreds of people who study tornadoes so that we may get a better understanding of how and why they form and their behavior.

From 2009 to 2010, the National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL,) along with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) conducted the largest tornado research study in history. Their research has led to developments in earlier detection systems, yet a lot more research and study need to be accomplished.

This image from the NOAA National Severe Storms Laboratory shows a tornado and the accompanying mesocyclone.

This image from the NOAA National Severe Storms Laboratory shows a tornado and the accompanying mesocyclone.

What do we Know?

According to the NSSL, “A tornado is a narrow, violently rotating column of air that extends from the base of a thunderstorm to the ground.” Most tornadoes form from a supercell—a rotating thunderstorm—with a strong circulation called a mesocyclone. Though not totally known, it is believed that tornadoes are a result of what happens inside and around the mesocyclone, mainly due to “temperature differences across the edge of a downdraft air wrapping around the mesocyclone.” (NSSL)

An EF-5 tornado in Moore, Oklahoma on May 22, 2013 destroyed this police car, numerous homes, and traveled 20 miles.

Damage after the Moore, Oklahoma EF-5 tornado on May 22, 2013. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jonathan Snyder)

Even though scientists have discovered similarities in conditions where tornadoes form doesn’t mean all tornadoes share the same characteristics. The NSSL points out that some of the tornadoes formed during the Great Plains Tornado Outbreak occurring May 3-4, 1999 did not have any of these temperature differences.

Though we usually associate tornado occurrences with spring, they can and will occur at any time of the year. I was flying back home from New York City on December 26, 2015, when 12 confirmed tornadoes hit numerous counties and cities in North Texas, killing 13 people. A total of 32 confirmed tornadoes occurred across the United States from December 25 to 26 that year.

Signs of Tornadoes

Besides a visible funnel, tornadoes produce signs before fully forming. Unfortunately, these signs might be impossible to see when it is dark, as rain can totally obscure the funnel. Tornadoes can happen at any time of the day; however, they are most likely to form between 4 and 9 p.m.

You can look for these tornado signs:

  • Dark, greenish sky
  • Wall clouds that blow debris
  • Hail with no rain or heavy rain and hail followed by an eerie dead calm
  • An intense shift in the wind
  • Cloud rotation
  • Whirling dust or debris
  • A loud roar which sounds like a train that doesn’t stop or fade
The destruction after a 2014 Vilonia, Arkansas tornado U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Kaylee Clark

The destruction after a 2014 Vilonia, Arkansas tornado (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Kaylee Clark)

Tornadoes are unpredictable, but meteorologists know when conditions are ripe for a tornado to occur. During storms, pay attention to your local news or listen to a weather alert radio to stay aware of any changing conditions or tornado watches and warnings.

A tornado watch means that conditions indicate that a tornado could form, while a tornado warning means rotation has already been sighted or picked up on weather radar. While both should motivate you to seek shelter, a tornado warning means it is imperative to immediately put your tornado safety plan in place.

NOAA’s Storm Prediction Center says:

Tornado Watch: Be Prepared! Tornadoes are possible in and near the watch area. Review and discuss your emergency plans and check supplies and your safe room. Be ready to act quickly if a warning is issued or you suspect a tornado is approaching. Acting early helps to save lives!

Tornado Warning: Take Action! A tornado has been sighted or indicated by weather radar. There is imminent danger to life and property. Move to an interior room on the lowest floor of a sturdy building. Avoid windows. If in a mobile home, a vehicle, or outdoors, move to the closest substantial shelter and protect yourself from flying debris.

What to do During a Tornado

A woman stands inside her underground storm shelter among the total destruction of her home after an EF-5 tornado struck Moore, Oklahoma in 2013.

An underground storm shelter or basement is the safest place to be during a tornado.

A basement, storm shelter or designated reinforced safe room is the best place to shelter during a tornado or potential tornado. If you do not have any of those, move into an interior room of the house with no or as few windows as possible. In smaller homes or apartments, you might need to find an alternative—a purposely built storm shelter or a neighbor’s house if safer. Though there is no solid proof, bathrooms are believed to be a fairly good safe place to stay during a tornado. It is theorized that the plumbing provides an extra level of structural strength to the room.

At my small home, I only have one fully interior room—a bedroom closet. Hunkering down in the closet is the same as any other room. Crouch as low as possible and keep your head covered with blankets, pillows, a mattress or anything else that will protect you from falling debris.

Staying away from windows and putting as much room between you and the outside as possible is key. Preparing your tornado safe room now means you can stock it with protective covers, flashlights, extra batteries, a first aid kit and sturdy shoes.

If you are in your car, pull over and go inside a sturdy building in an interior or storage room without windows. Depending on where you are, this may not be an option. If there is a low-lying ditch, get out of your car, lay down in the ditch and cover your head with your hands. Otherwise, pull over, put your seatbelt on, and put your head down below the window and cover your head.

Never pull over and hide under an overpass. They are, in fact, one of the most unsafe places to be during a tornado. Something called the Venturi Effect creates a wind tunnel in overpasses, increasing your chance of getting hit by debris—the leading cause of death from tornadoes. To learn more about this, click here

In an office, grocery store, church, movie theater, mall or other building, there should be a tornado plan already in place. Follow the instructions of the employees or find an interior room without windows, crouch down and cover your head.

Mobile home dwellers should leave and seek shelter elsewhere. A mobile home, even one that is tied down, is one of the most unsafe places to stay during a tornado. Part of your preparedness plan needs to include finding the nearest shelter if you live in a mobile home.

There is no guarantee that even the most hardened basement or inground storm cellar will protect you completely; however, if you plan, prepare a safe room and heed the warnings, you’re way more likely to survive a tornado than those who have no plan, nowhere to go or think it couldn’t happen to them. Meteorologists and scientists all agree that if you do the best you can at protecting yourself, you have a higher chance of surviving a tornado.

Let’s start a conversation! How do you prepare for severe weather? Do you live in Tornado Alley? What have you done to prepare? Tell us in the comment section.

Click here to begin stocking your safe room.

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