How to Stay Safe During a Tornado


Every year, around 1,200 tornadoes hit the United States, destroying everything in their path. They can form almost anywhere, in any season, and bring with them 300 mph winds and funnels that can be more than a mile wide. This is what you need to know to survive one of Mother Nature’s most brutal offspring.

Where and When They Occur

Most tornadoes in the U.S. occur east of the Rocky Mountains. They are especially concentrated in the central and southern plains (what’s commonly known as “Tornado Alley”), as well as the Gulf Coast and parts of Florida. That said, tornadoes can occur just about anywhere, so it’s good to be prepared for them wherever you live. Once they form, tornadoes tend to move southwest to northeast, but they have been known to change direction.

While tornadoes can occur any time during the year, they’re most likely to strike in the spring and summer months. More often than not, they happen in the late afternoon and early evening when the pressure is rapidly changing, usually between 3 and 9 p.m.

Know the Warning Signs

Tornadoes can strike quickly and seemingly out of nowhere, but there are usually warning signs of some kind. Make sure you know what different weather warnings mean:

  • Severe thunderstorm watch: Weather conditions suggest severe thunderstorms may develop in your area. Severe thunderstorms are an early warning sign of a potential tornado.
  • Severe thunderstorm warning: A severe thunderstorm has been observed by spotters or indicated on radar, and is occuring in your area. These storms can produce rain, lightning, hail, and wind of at least 58 mph. These warnings last for around an hour, or until the storm passes or upgrades to something more severe.
  • Tornado watch: Weather conditions suggest severe thunderstorms are likely and may develop into tornadoes in your area. If you see this warning, review your emergency plans and start preparing for the worst.
  • Tornado warning: It’s happening right now! A tornado has been spotted or indicated on radar in your area, so engage in your emergency plan or take cover immediately.
  • If you’re not near your phone, or in an area with poor coverage, there are other tornado signs. Look and listen for:
    • Dark, greenish thunderstorm clouds
    • Dark, low-lying clouds (especially if rotating)
    • Large hail or heavy rain
    • Whirling dust or debris on the ground (tornadoes don’t always have a funnel)
    • Loud, continuous roar that sounds like thunder or a freight train (but never fades away)

    Knowing these warning signs can save you a ton of time, and time is of the essence in emergency situations.

    When the Tornado Strikes

    GIF: Accuweather

    Once a warning has been issued, or you can see the storm approaching yourself, it’s time to seek shelter immediately. Do not hesitate! Keep in mind, wherever you end up, be sure to protect your head. Most tornado injuries involve flying debris. And never leave a building in an attempt to escape a tornado. You can’t outrun it.

    If you’re at home

    Go inside and move to a small interior, windowless room. The lower the room, the better. If you have a basement or cellar, go there. Stay away from corners, windows, doors, and outside walls. The idea is to put as many walls between you and the outside as possible. Once you’re in a safe room, get under a sturdy table or desk, cover your head and neck with your arms, a heavy coat, a thick blanket, or pillows to protect from debris. If you live in a manufactured or mobile home, leave immediately and head to the closest sturdy building. Mobile homes offer very little protection. Keep pets on a leash or in a crate or carrier.

    If you’re at work or school

    Head to a pre-designated safe area, like a safe room, storm cellar, or a windowless interior room. If you are in a high-rise building, head to a small interior room on the lowest floor possible. If possible, avoid any buildings with long-spanning roof areas, like gymnasiums, arenas, or shopping malls. These buildings have a high chance of collapsing from pressure during tornadoes. Follow the instructions of your office safety officer or teacher.

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