As one of nature’s most unpredictable manifestations, tornadoes can be sudden, violent, and devastating. More than 1,000 tornadoes occur on average each year in the United States. Most occur in the late spring and early summer months, typically in the early evening into the overnight hours. The majority of tornadic activity occurs in the Midwest and lower plains states. But, surprising to some, tornadoes have occurred in every state. Because tornadoes can appear instantaneously, even tornado watches should be taken very seriously. Pay continued attention to weather forecasts during a tornado watch and know these signs of an impending or actual tornado:
Roaring Noise. Tornadoes can have a whistling or a roaring sound, sort of like a train. By the time you hear it, though, it may be too late. Don’t use sound as your cue to find cover.
• F0 (40-72 mph) minimal damage: Broken tree branches
• F1 (73-112 mph) moderate damage: Mobile homes tipped over. Automobiles pushed off roads.
• F2 (113-157 mph) significant damage: Roofs torn off houses, some large trees are uprooted.
• F3 (158-206 mph) extreme damage: Roofs, walls torn off, trains tipped over, most trees are uprooted.
• F4 (207-260 mph) catastrophic damage: Houses leveled, structures blown apart, cars thrown and large debris moved.
• F5 (261-318 mph) incredible damage: Houses lifted off foundations, automobile-sized projectiles thrown in excess of 100 mph.
Understand Weather Alerts
Watch – While a watch is usually a simple alert to be aware, tornadoes demand extra attention. Due to the abrupt nature of a tornado, remaining outdoors during a tornado watch is not a good idea. Also, avoid driving long distances, particularly in rural areas, during a tornado watch.
Warning – Danger is imminent. The very moment you hear the warning, take action to protect property and life. Spotters (either people or radar) have verified at least one tornado in your area.
Steps you can take before a tornado:
• Know your community’s local emergency system. Identify a reliable radio station for the weather. Know what tornado sirens sound like and whether or not there is a warning system near you.
• Install an app on your phone to alert you to severe weather watches and warnings.
• Because tornadoes often occur after dark, keep a weather radio on in the bedroom at a high volume during tornado watches.
• Practice tornado drills with your family a few times each year. Include different scenarios, such as what to do when at home and when away from home.
• Consider registering yourself and your family on the American Red Cross Safe and Well website. Discuss using this tool, or another, to inform others that you’re safe after a major storm event.
• Identify your home’s safety zone. This is where the household gathers at the start of a tornado warning. Storm cellars are ideal. If the safety zone is inside the home, choose an area free from glass and windows on the lowest level. The more interior (think closet, bathroom, hallway), the better. Ensure nothing heavy (a refrigerator, for example) is directly above the safety zone.
Steps you can take during a tornado warning:
• Immediately take shelter in your pre-planned safety zone. Continue to listen for updates, and for the eventual “all clear” announcement. Remember pets, and keep them under your control. Should a tornado touch down, crouch down on your knees, covering your head and neck for protection. Also, always cover the heads and necks of young children or others who may need the extra help.
• If you are away from home in another structure, such as a store, theater, or restaurant, find a windowless, glassless interior space at the lowest level possible. Larger buildings (such as malls or gyms) may collapse under the pressure. Your best bet in any structure is to find additional coverage, like a mattress or table. Remember also to cover with a blanket or something similar, if possible, and crouch down on your knees, covering your head and neck.
• If you are away from home in the outdoors and away from any possible shelter, get to the lowest-lying area. Lie down flat, face down, covering your head and neck with your hands. Use a blanket or whatever else you can find for protection. It is not safe to be in an area with several trees or on high ground.
• Cars are the most dangerous place to be when there’s a tornado warning. Never try to outrun a tornado. If you see a tornado, stop and take the closest shelter. If no shelter is available, stop the car in a low-lying area, if possible, and away from trees. Now you have two choices: Stay in your vehicle with your seatbelt on. Turn on the hazard lights. If you have a blanket or jacket, use it as cover. Remember to cover your head and neck, crouching as low as possible away from the windows. Otherwise, abandon your vehicle, particularly if there is low ground nearby like a gully or ditch. Bring coverage such as a blanket or jacket and further protect your head and neck with your hands while lying flat, face down. Do not get under your vehicle. Tornadoes can pick up cars and drop them even faster, just a few feet or inches from its original spot.
• In any situation, always avoid windows. The pressure of the funnel can cause windows to explode, causing injury or death.
Safety zone planning tips:
• Have enough blankets or sleeping bags to cover each individual. This will ward off small debris, lessening the chance of eye, ear, or another injury.
• If your safety zone is not underground, a mattress can be a good makeshift cover in an interior area of the home.
• Keep a battery-powered radio on a reliable local weather station. Write the radio station number on the radio with permanent marker.
• Keep a deck of cards or other quiet, age-appropriate games nearby. Tornado watches and warnings can last for many hours. Pillows might be nice, too, to help keep people comfortable.
• Consider reinforcing the home’s safety zone, especially if your home doesn’t have a basement or underground cellar or bunker.
• If you live in mobile home, find a safe place that you and your family and pets can get to quickly. Even with tie-down systems, mobile homes are not safe vessels in high winds. Do not plan to stay in a mobile home during a tornado warning.
• If your property includes animals that live outside of your home, make sure their homes are also protected and as secure as can be from the elements.
• List items to bring inside before a storm hits. Trash bins, potted plants, lawn furniture, and anything else that could become a projectile should be on your list of things to gather.
• List people outside of your household who might need extra help – the elderly, physically challenged, or those living in mobile homes, for example. If you are willing and able, think about how you can assist them during a storm. Discuss emergency planning with them.
• Buy or assemble an emergency preparedness kit to cover each member of your family for a minimum of three to seven days.
• In the unfortunate event of damage, the following steps become necessary. Remember, in any event that causes widespread damage, use your phone for only emergency purposes to avoid depleting the battery. Since you’ll likely have people concerned about you, it is also a good idea to call one person who is capable of contacting others on your behalf. This will allow you to focus on other important safety matters.
Assessing Bodily Injury
• Look yourself over for injury, and look others over for injury, particularly small children and others who may need your assistance. Be aware that adrenaline could cause you to be unaware of self-injury. Ask someone else to look at your head and neck area. Then check yourself and others for concussions in the following 24 to 48 hours.
• Call 9-1-1 immediately, if needed. Then, if trained, provide first aid to those in need.
Assessing Property Damage
• If you must remain in a storm-damaged area, wear protective clothing and shoes. Consider wearing protective eye goggles and a mask, if available.
• Be on the lookout for fallen power lines or broken gas lines, the smell of gas and hissing noises. If you notice any of these, leave the area immediately and tell others to do the same. Then call the fire department and utility company.
• Do not enter damaged buildings.
• Take pictures of property damage for insurance claims.
• Do not use open flames (matches or candles) or smoke in damaged areas.
• Ensure your pets are out of hazardous areas and in your control.
• Carefully clean up flammable liquids that could become a hazard.
More from Your Emergency Game Plan:
• Winter Storm Preparation
• Severe Thunderstorm Preparation
• Flood Preparation
Reprinted with permission from Your Emergency Game Plan, by Shawn L. Tipping, Sarah E. Tipping, and Robert D. Harris, and published by Game Plan Preppers LLC © 2016.