Thunderstorms & Tornados: Anticipation, Awareness, & Reaction Time

Reader Contribution by Kyle Ferlemann
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Photo by Pixabay/veverkolog

As if the Covid-19 pandemic was not enough to worry about, there are still our standard seasonal concerns. Springtime is prime time for thunderstorms and tornadoes. Now is the time to make sure to be aware and prepared to react to these potentially life-threatening events.

Severe weather is rapidly becoming an increasingly frequent fact of life. This has always been the case in the central US along what is known as “Tornado Alley”. Tornado alley is a swath of land that runs from central Texas up through Oklahoma and Kansas, and on into Nebraska. Although perhaps more frequent in that region, tornadoes and thunderstorms are common in other parts of the country as well.

These severe storms can develop quickly but they are not random. Atmospheric conditions must be right for these storms to develop, and there in lay the secret to dealing with them. The trick for staying safe from tornadoes and thunderstorms is anticipation, awareness, and reaction time.

Anticipation, Awareness, and Reaction Time

Being ready for severe weather is very much like a prairie dog standing at its hole. The method of anticipation, awareness, and reaction time has kept millions of prairie dogs safe for the last several thousand years. We can take this observation of nature and emulate it to our own advantage. This is not a silly analogy. Severe storms can develop and become life threatening so quickly our only real option is to emulate the successful survival instincts of our fellow mammals. 

  • The prairie dog knows there are snakes, hawks, coyotes, and all sorts of other predators hunting him and his kin; this is anticipation.
  • The prairie dog “town” sets guards to watch for predators; this is awareness.
  • The prairie dogs all know where the nearest hole is and when the alarm is sounded the prairie dogs all quickly move to their pre-selected hole; this is reaction time.

Just as the prairie dog has multiple natural predators, tornadoes and thunderstorms offer a variety of hazards. These severe storm hazards include; tornadic winds and fling debris, micro burst winds with similar debris hazards, hail stones, lightning, and flash flooding. Our survival actions are virtually the same as the prairie dog’s; anticipate the hazard, be aware of current conditions, and get to cover as quickly as possible when a threat is discovered.     


We know that severe weather is most likely to happen in the spring and to a certain extent the fall as well. Knowing this we can anticipate the need for vigilance during these months. A quick look at the weather projections for the week is all that is needed to let you know if there is a chance for severe weather.

Having a National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), National Weather Service (NWS) “Weather” radio at home and work can provide you with the most accurate weather forecast and severe weather outlook for the next week. They are programmed to receive one of 7 weather channels that will provide coverage for your area. An updated forecast repeats 24 hours a day in 5 to 7-minute loops. Its very easy to check it in the morning and afternoon to stay up to date on the conditions.


When conditions are right for severe weather to develop there are several ways to keep an eye on the weather. The National Weather Service puts out watches and warnings to help people stay aware of the current weather conditions. Your NWS radio will automatically give an audio and visual indication for watches and warnings.

Watches: A weather watch means that conditions are right for severe weather to develop. This is an important part of anticipation. It will tell you that not only is it the right time of year, but the current conditions are favorable for storms to develop. It is important to understand that a watch does not mean a storm has been sighted. It means that the probability is high that a storm will develop. Watches will be specific to the threat. A tornado watch is different than severe thunderstorms watch or flash flood watch, and these differences will be specifically identified with the broadcast of the watch. When a storm does develop and is spotted, then a Warning is issued.  

Warning: A weather warning specifically identifies a known storm or threat and its location. It also tells you about the severity of the storm, its direction of movement and speed, as well as expected threats and potential for damage. Warnings also have information on what to do to protect yourself and family. It will tell you things like to seek cover immediately and bring pets in from outside if they are unprotected from the elements.

These watches and warning will be broadcast on the NOAA weather stations and NOAA weather radios will automatically sound an alarm when a watch or warning begins or ends. These same watches and warning are broadcast through the Emergency Broadcast System. This means these same watches and warnings will be sent across AM and FM radio stations in your area. If you listen to a satellite station you may NOT hear the local Watch or Warning. It is important to “listen local” in the spring and fall. At least have a NOAA weather radio in the area so that you will hear the alarm for Watches and Warnings. 

What if I am away from the weather radio?

You may not always be around a weather radio, but there are other things you can do to stay aware of the weather situation.

The first is to literally keep an eye on the weather. Developing the habit of watching the sky throughout the day, or when you go outside, can give you important clues to the current conditions. Thunderhead clouds indicate a storm is developing. These tall fluffy clouds can be seen from miles away. They are often accompanied by lightning and thunder which are a dead giveaway for an incoming thunderstorm. A greenish tint to clouds is indicative of hail and “wall clouds” are can indicate potentially high winds.

If you are outdoors, a lightning detector is an excellent tool for spring time. These simple and reasonably affordable detectors will alarm when lightning strikes occur within certain distances starting with up to 30 miles away. If you are out stacking hay, golfing, or at a softball game, a lightning detector is a must have warning device in the spring. 

Lightning has been known to strike up to 25 miles away from the storm itself. If you can hear the thunder, you are in range for the lightning, even when directly under blue skies. This is the origin of the phrase “bolt from the blue”.  

When using a lightning detector, the following rules apply:

  •  30 miles Yellow Alert — Threat is possible.
  • 20 miles Orange Alert — Threat is probable.
  • 10 miles Red Alert — Danger! No one allowed outside.

If you do not have a lightning detector then use the 30/30 rule for lighting: If it takes less than 30 seconds to hear thunder after seeing the flash, lightning is near enough to pose an immediate threat. Seek cover or get into a closed automobile. After a storm ends, you should wait 30 minutes before going back to outdoor activities.

Reaction Time

As you can probably tell from the descriptions, thunderstorms can develop very quickly, lightning is instantaneous, and tornadoes can develop within minutes. When warnings are issued, or you detect a weather threat, you need to take immediate action to seek cover. Just like the prairie dog knows where the closest den is, you should know where the closest protective cover can be found and how to get to it. For flash floods it is out of the flood area, for tornadoes, hail, and high winds it is underground in a solid structure, and for lightning it is inside or in a closed vehicle. Severe weather conditions may not allow you the time to “make up your mind” after the severe weather strikes. You need to know the conditions you are in, what the dangers may be, and where you will go (and how you will get there) should the need arise.

Bottom line 

Just like the prairie dog, you will need to get out there and do what you need to do in life, but also be aware and vigilant enough to react quickly to protect yourself and your family during a severe spring time weather event. In the case of severe thunderstorms that can produce tornadoes, hail, high winds, and flash flooding, awareness and adaptability will be more helpful than specific plans. Strive to develop habits of anticipation based upon knowledge, awareness of current conditions, and keeping a weather eye out for good places to take cover where ever you may be, should severe weather develop. 

Have you had any experiences with a tornado? Tell us your springtime weather story and what helped you stay safe in the comments below.

For more details on practical preparedness check out – Disaster Response SMARTBook 3 – Disaster Preparedness, 2nd Edition. His latest book, Practical Preparedness, was published in June 2020 and is available in our online Grit Store.

Kyle is also a speaker for the Mother Earth News Fair Online. Learn more and register to see his workshop video today.

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