How to Survive a Tornado a step by step Guide
Unlike hurricanes, which are big and lumbering, fast-moving tornadoes can appear without warning, cause great destruction, and disappear again.
Today, we will be talking about the steps you can take to maximize your chances of surviving a tornado.
What are Tornadoes?
Tornadoes are rotating columns of air which form under thunderheads and touch the ground.
They can be visible or invisible, thin or wide, carry debris or not, and appear alone or in groups of multiple funnels.
When and Where do Tornadoes Form?
In the United States and southern Canada, the vast majority of tornadoes appear between March and June. However, tornadoes are recorded throughout the year.
The southeastern United States gets more tornadoes in the winter and early spring. Similarly, while most funnels form in the central plains of North America—called “tornado alley”—they can appear anywhere in the world.
Basically, wherever a thunderstorm or hurricane occurs, there is potential for tornadoes to develop. In general, most tornadoes:
- Form in the late afternoon or early evening
- Move from the southwest to the northeast
- Move at an average of 30 miles per hour
- Will be on the ground no more than 20 minutes
Again, these are just averages. There have been tornadoes in the morning. Some have backtracked or changed direction more than once.
Tornadoes have been recorded moving as slow as a few miles per hour and as fast as 70 miles per hour, and some have carved paths of destruction across multiple states.
Can you Really Hide from a Tornado?
How do Tornadoes Form?
Tornadoes form in a couple of different ways. When a front of warm and moist air collides with a front of drier, cooler air, the cool air may travel upwards, starting a self-feeding spiral movement that increases in strength.
Tornadoes can also form from supercells, which are very large thunderstorms that rotate.
How are Tornadoes Measured?
Tornadoes, like hurricanes, are measured on a scale. The Enhanced Fujita scale (expanded in 2007 from the original Fujita-Pearson scale, which was introduced in 1971) classifies tornadoes by their wind speeds and by the damage they cause.
There are six different categories on the Enhanced Fujita scale (damage effects are abbreviated):
- EF0 – Winds up to 85 miles per hour. Light damage to buildings. Branches and small trees may be torn away.
- EF1 – Winds between 86 and 110 miles per hour. Moderate damage to buildings, roofs can be torn away, moving cars can be pushed off of the road.
- EF2 – Winds between 111 and 135 miles per hour. Extensive damage to buildings, large trees can be broken, cars maybe lifted off of the ground.
- EF3 – Winds between 136 and 165 miles per hour. Severe damage to buildings, trains turned over, cars thrown.
- EF4 – Winds between 166 and 200 miles per hour. Devastating damage to buildings, heavier cars were thrown.
- EF5 – Winds over 200 miles per hour. Incredible damage to or complete destruction of buildings, cars were thrown more than 300 feet.
The above picture is the damage caused by an EF5 tornado in Moore, Oklahoma on May 20, 2013.
What do you do when a tornado comes?
Tornado Watches & Warnings
Tornadoes can form invisibly, only becoming visible when the funnel cloud reaches the ground and begins to pick up debris. It can happen in seconds, catching you unawares. Out of all of the weather-related disasters, you may have to face, only earthquakes happen with less warning.
When conditions look right to spawn tornadoes, the National Weather Service (NWS) will issue a Tornado Watch. As with hurricanes, this is just a cautionary bulletin to get people that may be affected to pay attention and be ready to seek shelter.
Since radar systems won’t always spot tornadoes as they are forming, the NWS has a network of more than quarter-million volunteers that observe and report on local weather conditions. The NWS volunteers in the areas for which a tornado watch has been issued will be instructed to closely monitor the situation.
If a tornado is spotted, a Tornado Warning will be issued, and anyone in the area should get to safety immediately.
There is actually a third bulletin, called a Tornado Emergency, which is issued when it looks likely that a very large tornado (or tornadoes) will impact a densely-populated area.
What are the Warning Signs for Tornadoes?
Keeping in mind that every tornado is different, there are some general signs to look out for. According to Oklahoma’s Emergency Medical Services Authority (EMSA), atmospheric warning signs may include:
- A dark, often greenish sky
- Wall clouds or an approaching cloud of debris
- Large hail, often in the absence of rain
- Winds that grow calm and still air
- A load roar may be heard
Tornado Emergency Preparedness and Safety Tips
When Should You Evacuate for a Tornado?
If you plan to evacuate for a tornado, do it as soon as a Tornado Watch is issued. You cannot outrun a tornado.
If you do get caught in the storm while evacuating, and see a funnel cloud on the ground, move at right angles to its direction of travel.
There are still other dangers (and it may change course), but that is your safest action.
How to Prep for Surviving a Tornado
Since tornadoes are very sudden occurrences, you must prep in advance. You will not have time, otherwise.
Keep your survival kits on you for the duration of the storm. Prepping your home requires many of the same steps as prepping for a hurricane, which we covered last week.
Store anything that could become a missile in high winds; make sure your home is in good repair; clean your yard of dead branches; stock up on food and clean water; have an emergency radio and flashlight, with extra power sources.
What if You are Outdoors when a Tornado Hits?
If there is no shelter nearby, your best chance of survival is to get as low as possible—dig a shallow hole if you can—to avoid flying debris and high winds. Cover your head and neck with your hands.
DO NOT GET UNDER AN OVERPASS! The gap beneath funnels the winds and makes them stronger and can rip you out from under.
Similarly, stay away from walls, tall trees, and the like, as they can be pushed over onto you by the wind. Lightning is also a danger during tornadoes, and being low will make you a smaller target. Once the funnel has passed, be wary of falling debris.
Tornadoes can carry light debris up to 40,000 feet (over 7 ½ miles!) in the air, and when the funnel dissipates, it all comes falling back down to earth. Protect your head.
The storms that spawn tornadoes can drop an incredible amount of rain onto the area. Flash floods are not uncommon.
What are the Best Shelters for Surviving Tornadoes?
Underground storm shelters, basements, or metal safe rooms within sturdy structures are best. Failing that, first floor rooms and hallways without windows are the next best place to ride it out.
Even closets are better than nothing. The idea is to have as many doors and walls between you and the storm as possible.
NOTE: Mobile homes are NOT SAFE. Their light, open construction makes it easy for a tornado to destroy them.
Commercially, walk-in coolers and bank vaults are very safe, and some cities have municipal shelters available.
Remember, you may only have minutes to seconds to get to safety. Have your kit. Have a plan. Be ready.
We hope that you have found the information in this article to be useful. See you tomorrow!