Tornado Safety and Preparedness

Tornadoes are deadly, arrive suddenly and can happen at any time of year. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports that about 1,200 tornadoes hit the U.S. yearly. Being prepared for severe weather is always crucial, but even more so for tornadoes because their suddenness and ferocity give you little to no time to get ready. Learning about tornadoes and what to do if one touches down in your neighborhood may save your life. Here are some ways you and your family can prepare for a tornado.

Be disaster-ready!

The best action you can take for any disaster is to plan ahead. Here are some preliminary preparations that will help to keep your family safe:

  • Learn the emergency warning procedures for your community or installation. Not all communities have tornado warning sirens, but check with your local government/installation to see if you can sign up for an emergency notification text on a mobile device. Know the procedures for your workplace and your child's school that define the safest location in the building to wait out a tornado. Review the information with your child, and ask teachers if they conduct emergency drills with the children.
  • Prepare an emergency kit for your family that is easy to grab at a moment's notice.
  • Have a family emergency plan so every member of your family knows what to do in an emergency and how to communicate with each other - then practice it.
  • Prepare your children. Sesame Street Let's Get Ready! is a program with videos and activities to help children prepare for emergencies.
  • Help those with special needs. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention suggests those with special needs keep a list of their specific needs, capabilities, limitations and medications in their wallet and give a copy to a friend, co-worker, teacher or relative. Access to weather warnings should be available, using special equipment such as closed captioning, if needed.
  • Use technology to be informed.'s Get Tech Ready suggests ways to use technology to access critical information during an emergency.
  • Create a home inventory. A home inventory will help you file an insurance claim should you suffer damages from a tornado. Store this with other important papers (insurance documents, wills, birth certificates, deeds and titles, social security cards) in a safe deposit box or a water- and fire- proof safe.

Before a tornado strikes

Once you are "disaster-ready," there are some key facts about tornadoes that can make a difference in your safety.

  • What tornado terminology should I know? A "watch" means that conditions are favorable for a tornado; a "warning" means a tornado has been spotted, and you must take cover in a safe location immediately.
  • What is a "safe" location? Tornadoes can rip structures right off the ground. The safest place is underground, but barring that, you should plan to go to an interior room (without windows) on the lowest level of your building. Mobile homes are not safe; plan to go to a sturdy building nearby.
  • Can you see a tornado coming? Plan ahead by knowing the signs of a tornado, listed by NOAA's Storm Prediction Center:
    • Strong, persistent rotation in the cloud base
    • Whirling dust or debris on the ground under a cloud base - tornadoes sometimes have no funnel
    • Hail or heavy rain followed by either dead calm or a fast, intense wind shift
    • Many tornadoes are hidden by heavy precipitation and can't be seen
    • Loud, continuous roar or rumble that doesn't fade in a few seconds like thunder - day or night
    • Small, bright, blue-green to white flashes at ground level near a thunderstorm (as opposed to silvery lightning up in the clouds) seen at night, indicating power lines are being snapped by very strong wind, maybe a tornado

During a tornado

NOAA describes tornadoes as the most violent of all atmospheric storms. These rotating funnel-shaped clouds, with winds that can reach 300 miles per hour, can cause a swath of destruction that can be a mile wide and 50 miles long. They can appear so quickly that you may not have time to prepare. If you notice any of the tornado danger signs, turn on your TV or NOAA weather radio and take these precautions:

  • Seconds count. Take cover in a sturdy building immediately if there is a tornado warning advisory. Don't wait for the advisory if you see the signs of a tornado; take cover immediately.
  • Most injuries and fatalities are caused by flying debris. If you have made it to an interior room of a building, crouch low and protect your head with your hands. If you can, use mattresses or blankets for protection and get underneath a table.
  • Cars are very risky. If you cannot drive away from the storm or get to a building before the tornado arrives, park your car away from other cars. Avoid being under bridges. Put your seat belt on, get lower than the windows and cover your head with a coat or blanket. If you can get much lower than the roadway, leave your car and lie flat in that area with your hands over your head.

After a tornado

The danger is not completely over once the tornado has passed. There are many hazards that can cause injuries in the aftermath of a tornado. If you were away from home during the tornado, the first thing you may want to do is return to your home. However, you may not be able to enter your neighborhood right away. Be sure to listen to the local news or your weather radio for specific instructions. Here are some safety tips for after the tornado occurs:

  • Wear protective clothing, such as sturdy shoes or boots, long pants, a long-sleeved shirt and gloves to protect yourself from debris, especially nails and glass.
  • Stay out of damaged buildings. Be extremely cautious when entering structures that appear to have suffered little damage.
  • Look out for downed power lines and broken gas lines. It's a good idea to shut off your home's electrical power, natural gas and propane tanks to avoid fire, explosions or electrocution.
  • A spark could start a fire. Use lanterns or flashlights instead of candles, matches or lighters. Do not turn on lights or appliances until you are certain there are no gas leaks. If you smell gas or hear a hissing sound, turn off your main gas valve, open the windows and leave the house. Do not return until the gas company or the fire department deems it safe to do so.
  • Cooperate with safety officials. Help when requested, but do not hamper emergency response efforts. Use your phone only as necessary to keep communication lines available for emergencies.
  • Let your extended family know you are safe by registering at American Red Cross Safe and Well or by calling 866-GET-INFO (866-438-4636).

By reviewing this article, you have taken the first step in preparing yourself and your family for a tornado. Our military is trained to be a force in readiness, and families embrace readiness as part of their military life. Preparing for weather-related disasters will serve you well wherever you call "home" and will give your children the reassurance that they are safe even in a new location. Practice being prepared for emergencies, and you will engender positive habits that will cross over into other areas of your life. Access and the American Red Cross for additional disaster preparedness information.


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