A tornado is a dangerous, destructive weather event that can happen just about anywhere at any time. Tornadoes are columns of air that rotate violently and extend from the base of a thunderstorm cloud to the ground. They occur in most areas of the world—including Africa, Asia, Australia, North America, and South America.

In the United States, "tornado alley" is an area in the south central part of the country that can be especially prone to tornadoes. However, it's important to remember that tornadoes can and do develop outside of this area—in fact, Florida has more tornadoes that any other state.

About Tornado Watches & Warnings

When conditions are favorable for tornadoes in your area, check your television, radio, smartphone, or other electronic device frequently for weather updates, alerts, and tornado watches or warnings. Most tornado-prone areas also have a tornado warning system—siren or other type of alert.

The U.S. Storm Prediction Center of the National Weather Service issues a tornado watch when conditions are right for tornadoes to develop. A tornado warning is issued when a tornado has been sighted in the area or has been indicated by radar. If a tornado warning is issued for your area, take shelter immediately.

Pay close attention to changing weather conditions whenever there are thunderstorms in your area. If bad weather is expected, try to keep your cell phone and/or other electronic devices fully charged and be sure to have extra radio batteries on hand. Remember, tornadoes sometimes develop very quickly and there isn’t always time for the National Weather Service to issue an alert or warning.

How to Prepare for a Tornado

One of the most important things you can do to keep your family safe in a tornado is to prepare ahead of time. Here are some tips from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):

  1. Develop and practice an emergency plan—for home, work, and school. Make sure family members know where and how to seek shelter from a tornado.
  2. Have your home inspected to make sure it is structurally sound. Hire a qualified contractor to make needed improvements and eliminate possible hazards. Secure large household items (appliances, bookcases, china cabinets) and arrange furniture—especially chairs, couches, and beds—away from windows and large picture frames/heavy mirrors.
  3. Make sure family members know where first aid kit(s) and fire extinguisher(s) are located and how to use them. Basic first aid and life support measures like CPR are important skills to learn.
  4. Write down important information and keep it in a safe place that is easily accessible. Include emergency phone numbers, your family's medical information (e.g., medications, allergies, chronic health conditions), and information about your insurance, bank(s), utilities, vehicles, etc.
  5. Keep important documents (birth certificates, social security cards, passports, will, household inventory) in a fire- and water-proof safe.
  6. Learn how and when to shut off the electricity, gas, and water to your home safely.

How to Stay Safe During a Tornado

Signs that a tornado is approaching include the following:

  • A very dark or greenish-colored sky
  • A low-lying dark cloud
  • Large hail
  • Loud roar that sounds like a freight train

Take shelter immediately if any of these weather conditions develop. If you can do so safely, alert others in your area and report the conditions to your local radio or television station.

Staying Safe at Home, in a Public Building, or Outdoors

Do not stay in a mobile home during a tornado. Move quickly to a shelter or building nearby. If you cannot get to a safer place, lie face down in a ditch or ravine and cover your head with your arms and hands.

The safest place in a tornado is in a basement, away from windows. If your home or the building you’re in does not have a basement, crouch down in the innermost area on the lowest floor. If possible, get under a sturdy table and cover yourself with blankets, towels, or sleeping bags. Avoid areas with heavy furniture above you.

If you're in a long-span building—shopping mall or department store, theater, gym—stay away from windows and get to the basement, if possible. If there isn't time, or the building doesn't have a basement, crouch under a door frame or against something heavy, like a counter, that will provide some support and/or help deflect debris.

Never try to outrun a tornado in your car. Vehicles, including cars, trucks, buses, boats, etc., are the least safe places to be in a tornado. If you're unable to seek adequate shelter, stop your car—do not get under it—and lie flat in the lowest area possible, covering your head.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at Healthcommunities.com

Published: 10 Jul 2014

Last Modified: 07 Jan 2015