Tornadoes are violent windstorms characterized by a swirling funnel of air between the clouds and the ground. Beyond that general definition, tornadoes can assume a surprising number of variations. Many of the general characterizations about tornadoes are wrong and many of those assumptions can be dangerous and deadly.
Over 1,000 tornadoes are spawned every year. Most of us are familiar with tornado alley, the collection of Midwestern and Southeastern states with significant and well publicized tornadic activity. But the fact is all 50 states have experienced tornadoes so it pays to be able to separate tornado fact from fiction and know how to survive a tornado.
Tornado season will vary depending on geographic location but runs roughly from late winter to mid-summer. These storms are usually generated by severe thunderstorms but tornadoes can occur in the absence of lightning and have even been observed during intervals of sunshine. The classic funnel cloud comes in many sizes; it can be narrow or wide. Sometimes the funnels is hidden behind a wall of rain or is not visible because it has not picked up sufficient debris or is masked by the debris it has picked up.
Tornadoes vary in intensity measured by the Fujita Scale. They usually vary in width from 100 yards to 300 yards, though at least one major hurricane was estimated to be one mile in width. The damage from hurricanes occurs directly in the path of the cyclone with little to no damage outside the vortex. That is why a home can be untouched while neighboring homes can be completely devastated.
Twisters can form suddenly, can move at speeds up to 60 mph and can change direction suddenly; so it is important to be alert to signs that a tornado is possible, particularly during a tornado watch or tornado warning. Tornadoes generally move in a northeasterly direction; this is not always the case so you should be aware of changes in wind and sky from all directions. Most people who have lived through a hurricane describe the sound it makes as 'like a freight train'. However, you cannot count on hearing the sound in time. Watch for these signs:
Before Tornado Season
Decide the best place in your home to wait out a tornado. An underground shelter, built specifically for that purpose, is best. If you don't have a shelter, the southwest corner of the basement is the next best place. Shelter yourself under a table or other sturdy structure and shield your head from crumbling walls and falling debris with a blankets, pillows or other padded material. Just be sure to have these handy since there will be little time before the tornado hits.
The next best place for shelter is on the lowest floor, in an interior, windowless room. A bathroom is best because of the plumbing and extra framing. Bathtubs and commodes are bolted directly to the foundation slab so huddling in or next to one of these is somewhat safer. If you can get in the bathtub you can cover yourself with a mattress for extra protection.
Whatever area you choose, make sure your family knows where it is and is prepared to go there quickly. Keep a tornado disaster kit updated including:
During a Tornado Watch
Be especially alert to the tornado warning signs listed above. You should avoid driving – a vehicle affords little or no protection in a tornado. Make sure you know where all family members are and make sure they are prepared to take shelter. Monitor the radio for emergency updates and broadcasts.
During a Tornado Warning
Go at once to your prearranged shelter. Continue to listen to the radio for updates. If you are in a car, drive to the nearest shelter. Outrunning a tornado can be a dangerous and low probability undertaking. Overpasses, commonly thought to be safe shelters, are bad choices. If no shelter is available, find a ditch and lie flat. Hold on to small trees and other vegetation. Tornado wind speed is lower the closer to the ground but flying debris is still a danger.
After a Tornado