When the tornado sirens sound, there is often only minutes to react, if even that long. What you do in those fleeting moments makes the difference between life or death. Tornadoes can quickly tear buildings apart, toss cars like toys and send objects and debris flying at breakneck speeds over 300 miles per hour. Where you are when the sirens go off will determine what you do.

Causes of Tornadoes

A tornado is a vertical cone or funnel spinning around as wind direction and speed change to form the horizontal twister. Tornadoes form as weather patterns create increased instability with high wind shear happening in the lower atmosphere. They occur in extremely violent thunderstorms, often preceded by a cold front and hail. 

Instability is nothing more than warm humid air near the ground and cool, moist air up in the clouds. Wind shear refers to the velocity of wind variations measured at right angles the wind’s actual direction. These short bursts push wind up and around, creating the twisting seeing in the tornado. 

Where Tornados Occur

While tornadoes can occur anywhere there is unstable weather patterns mixing warm moist air with cool upper atmospheric air, they are most common in the Great Plains of the United States. In fact, they are so frequent here that this region is known as Tornado Alley. This region has the cool dry air from Canada collide with the moist warm air coming up from the Gulf of Mexico.

They are most frequent during the spring and summer when thunderstorms are prevalent with May and June being peak tornado season. Remember that a tornado can occur anywhere the right weather conditions occur. Waterspouts often accompany hurricane weather. Unusual weather patterns the sweep into California can lead to tornadoes. Still, the most frequent and strongest tornadoes occur in the Great Plains region of the U.S.

Tornado Alley Map

The Great Plains are home to Tornado Alley with Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska taking the brunt on the western side and Missouri, Arkansas and Louisiana taking most of the eastern side. It does extend up to Indiana and Ohio through parts of Kentucky and Tennessee. This map from Tornadochaser.com is a guideline since there is no specific boundaries defining weather patterns.

Tornado Scale: The Fujita Tornado Damage Scale

The Fujita Tornado Damage Scale was developed by a University of Chicago professor, T. Theodore Fujita. This is the precursor to the scale used today, derived by meteorologists and engineers at Texas Tech University. The new scale is known as The Enhanced Fujita (EF) Scale and is the current model to rate tornadoes and their expected damage.

Enhanced Fujita Scale Wind Speed Expected Damage
EF-0 65-85 mph Light
EF-1 86-110mph Moderate
EF-2 111-135 mph Considerable
EF-3 136-165 mph Severe
EF-4 166-200 mph Devastating
EF-5 200+ mph Incredible

As the winds increase, the damage increases. An EF-0 might see light damage such as roof shingles fly off and shallow-rooted trees uproot and fall over. An EF-2 is much more extreme with considerable damage to roofs, foundations of frame-homes shift and mobile homes can be destroyed. At the top of the scale, an EF-5 will level homes of all types of construction, high-rise buildings have structural deformation and damage and objects as large as cars can fly through the air as missiles.  

Tornado Warning Systems

Communities in known tornado regions have siren systems that sounds when tornado warnings go into effect. Local television and radio stations will also broadcast the information about warnings. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) also triggers cell phone alerts along with flash floods and other impending emergency weather systems. Every home should have a NOAA Weather Radio to get updates. Some NOAA radios can be programmed to sound alerts in the house as well.

Levels of Tornado Alerts

Warning systems break down tornado alerts into three categories:

  • Tornado Watch: a change in weather systems suggesting tornados may touch down and residents should be prepared to take emergency precaution
  • Tornado Warning: a tornado has been sighted as having touched down in a nearby region and suggests tornadoes are imminent in the area so residents should seek shelter
  • Tornado Emergency: when a tornado is seen to touch down or about to touch down in a densely populated areas and residents must find shelter immediately

What to Do When a Tornado Touches Down

Where you are at when the tornado sirens go off will determine what you do next. There are differences between being at work, school or outside. The type of structure you are in will also determine what you do next. If at all possible, avoid being in cars and mobile homes when a tornado hits.

In Your House

If you are in your home:

  • Get all family members to the basement or interior ground floor room (closet, bathroom or hallway)
  • Stay away from windows, exterior walls and doors
  • Place little children in car seat for added protection
  • Cover yourself with pillows or a bed mattress

On a Farm

Those who live or work on a farm:

  • If time permits, open escape routes for livestock
  • Exit in an opposite direction of the expected tornado path
  • Consider your personal safety over livestock

Office Buildings or Apartments

  • Proceed to lower level if possible (basement or ground floor)
  • Shelter in inner room or hallway
  • Stay away from windows
  • Do not use elevators

Gymnasiums or Churches

  • Determine if there is a basement or another safe building nearby
  • Stay away from windows but don’t congregate in the center of the building as the roof may collapse
  • Find a table or desk or bleachers to take cover under

Mobile Homes

  • Leave the mobile home
  • Find a ditch or drain pipe nearby to lay in away from the mobile home and any cars
  • Prepare to move if there is a torrential downpour or hail

In Your Car

  • Drive in the opposite direction of the tornado path
  • Avoid going under overpasses or bridges
  • If a tornado is endangering your car, exit and find a ditch to lay in
  • Stay away from power lines

Preparing for Tornado Ahead of Time

Take the time to understand the risk of tornadoes in your area. Make sure you have your phone and radios set for a community tornado warning system. Planning ahead could save your life. Consider your plan for safety and practice drills with your family so everyone knows what to do in the event of a tornado.

Your plan should include an emergency preparedness bag that includes food, water, dust masks, a first aid kit and your NOAA radio. Keep the bug out bag in the room or hallway closet where you are most likely going to shelter. If at all possible, keep an extra car seat for infants and toddlers to strap them in. Have extra pet leashes or carriers in the event you need to evacuate after the tornado.

The Basic Emergency Preparedness Kit

Having an emergency preparedness kit in place before you ever need it is the ideal way to prepare. If you have a basement, set a place for extra food and water. But always keep a bug out bag ready for evacuation.

Make sure to plan with family members on how everyone will communicate if they are not all home together. The “Marked Safe” options on social media are great for this. Use texting and cells phones as little as possible to conserve batteries. You never know how long it will be before you are able to recharge your phone.

In your emergency preparedness kit:

  • Water (one gallon per person per day)
  • Food (non-perishable items such as protein bars and freeze-dried foods)
  • NOAA radio with batteries (and extra batteries)
  • Flashlight
  • First aid kit
  • Whistle to let search crews know you are stranded
  • Dust masks
  • Moist towelettes and garbage bags
  • Additional medications
  • Extra pair of eyeglasses
  • Baby items such as diapers or formula

Final Thoughts on Surviving a Tornado

Tornadoes are one of the most unnerving natural disasters because there is often little-to-no time to react. Planning ahead and knowing what you will do is the most important thing you can do. By practicing and doing tornado drills, your family will calmly but quickly move to the right place and do the right things to help ensure their survival.

For emergency preparedness kits, visit our store. We will help you customize the kit for what you and your family needs to survive.

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