Tornadoes & Tornado Safety

A tornado is a violently rotating column of air extending from the base of a thunderstorm down to the ground. Tornadoes are capable of completely destroying well-made structures, uprooting trees, and hurling objects through the air like deadly missiles. Tornadoes can occur at any time of day or night and at any time of the year. Although tornadoes are most common in the Central Plains and the southeastern United States, they have been reported in all 50 states.

Tornadoes that come from a supercell thunderstorm are the most common, and often the most dangerous. A rotating updraft is a key to the development of a supercell, and eventually a tornado. There are many ideas about how this rotation begins. One way a column of air can begin to rotate is from wind shear – when winds at two different levels above the ground blow at different speeds or in different directions. Once the updraft is rotating and being fed by warm, moist air flowing in at ground level, a tornado can form.

Watch vs. Warning

Tornado Watch: Be Prepared! Tornadoes are possible in and near the watch area. Review and discuss your emergency plans and check supplies and your safe room. Be ready to act quickly if a warning is issued or you suspect a tornado is approaching. The watch area is typically large, covering numerous counties or even states.

Tornado Warning: Take Action! A tornado has been sighted or indicated by weather radar. There is imminent danger to life and property. Move to an interior room on the lowest floor of a sturdy building. Avoid windows. If in a mobile home, a vehicle, or outdoors, move to the closest substantial shelter and protect yourself from flying debris. Warnings typically encompass a much smaller area (around the size of a city or small county) that may be impacted by a tornado identified by a forecaster on Radar or by a trained spotter/law enforcement who is watching the storm.

What to Do During a Tornado Watch

When a Tornado Watch is issued, make sure the following items are stored in your safe place:
• Helmets, pillows, or even a mattress to protect your head from falling debris.
• Shoes to protect your feet from broken glass and other sharp objects.
• A whistle or noise-making device to signal for help after the storm passes.
• Baby formula, diapers, and other necessary items for your children.
• Pet carriers, leashes, and other pet supplies.

Tornado Sheltering Guidelines

Seek the best available refuge area immediately when a Tornado Warning is issued. Your chance of surviving a tornado is excellent if you follow these guidelines:

• Mobile homes
• Vehicles
• Underneath a highway overpass


• Large open rooms like gymnasiums
• Manufactured housing

• Interior room of a well-constructed home or building
• Basement

• Above or below ground Tornado Storm Shelter
• Specifically-designed FEMA Safe Room

What to Do During a Tornado

Find out what you can do when a tornado strikes. Acting quickly is key to staying safe and minimizing impacts.

Stay Weather-Ready: Continue to listen to local news or an NOAA Weather Radio to stay updated about tornado watches and warnings.

At Your House: If you are in a tornado warning, go to your basement, safe room, or an interior room away from windows. Don’t forget pets if time allows.

At Your Workplace or School: Follow your tornado drill and proceed to your tornado shelter location quickly and calmly. Stay away from windows and do not go to large open rooms such as cafeterias, gymnasiums, or auditoriums.

Outside: Seek shelter inside a sturdy building immediately if a tornado is approaching. Sheds and storage facilities are not safe. Neither is a mobile home or tent. If you have time, get to a safe building.

In a vehicle: Being in a vehicle during a tornado is not safe. The best course of action is to drive to the closest shelter. If you are unable to make it to a safe shelter, either get down in your car and cover your head, or abandon your car and seek shelter in a low lying area such as a ditch or ravine.

What to Do After a Tornado

Stay Informed: Continue to listen to local news or an NOAA Weather Radio to stay updated about tornado watches and warnings. Multiple rounds of thunderstorms capable of producing tornadoes are possible during severe weather outbreaks.

Contact Your Family & Loved Ones: Let your family and close friends know that you’re okay so they can help spread the word. Text messages or social media are more reliable forms of communication than phone calls.

Assess the Damage: After the threat for tornadoes has ended, check to see if your property has been damaged. When walking through storm damage, wear long pants, a long-sleeved shirt, and sturdy shoes. Contact local authorities if you see power lines down. Stay out of damaged buildings. Be aware of insurance scammers if your property has been damaged.

Help Your Neighbor: If you come across people that are injured and you are properly trained, provide first aid to victims if needed until emergency response teams arrive.

Enhanced Fujita Scale for Tornadoes

EF-0 … 65-85 MPH
Minor damage: shingles blown off or parts of a roof peeled off, damage to gutters/siding, branches broke off trees, shallow-rooted trees toppled.

EF-1 … 86-110 MPH
Moderate damage: more significant roof damage, windows broken, exterior doors damage or lost, mobile homes overturned or badly damaged.

EF-2 … 111-135 MPH
Considerable damage: roofs torn off well-constructed homes, homes shifted off their foundation, mobile homes completely destroyed, large trees snapped or uprooted, cars can be tossed.

EF3 … 136-165 MPH
Severe damage: entire stories of well-constructed homes destroyed, significant damage done to large buildings, homes with weak foundations can be blown away, trees begin to lose their bark.

EF4 … 166-200 MPH
Extreme damage: well-constructed homes are leveled, cars are thrown significant distances, top story exterior walls of masonry buildings would likely collapse.

EF5 … 201+ MPH
Massive/incredible damage: well-constructed homes are swept away, steel-reinforced concrete structures are critically damaged, high-rise buildings sustain severe structural damage, trees are usually completely debarked, stripped of branches, and snapped.

More Information on Tornadoes

For more information on tornadoes and tornado safety, please visit the National Weather Service’s Weather-Ready Nation page on Tornado Safety.