How To Survive a Tornado
Sections: How do people die in tornados | How to stay safe during a tornado | Can you outrun a tornado? | Where do most tornadoes strike? | Amazing tornado videos
If you’ve ever lived in tornado alley, or ever visited at a particularly unlucky time, then you know the fear that tornadoes can instill. And rightfully so, tornadoes are some of the most terrifying weather events on Earth. Unlike many other weather events, sans earthquakes, you get very little warning. Though tornado chasers and scientists have paired up over the years to try and increase warning times, the average possible warning time for a tornado remains around 13 minutes, according to the National Weather Service. That’s high compared to the 1980’s whereas tornado warnings were almost non-existent.
The problem with tornado warnings is that you must be in a situation whereas you receive the alert. Smartphones are now equipped with warning capabilities, so long as you don’t shut them off due to privacy fears. There are community alarms that should sound. Radio and television should interrupt with tornado activity updates, including dire warnings.
But reasonable exceptions to rules do exist.
What if you are in a position whereas you aren’t listening to a radio and your phone doesn’t work? What if you are driving on a highway in Zen-like silence? Or the tornado drops before the spotters and radars have detected it (tornado prediction isn’t a full-proof science). Life is full of “what if’s,” anything past what I’ve stated would only feed into fear mongering and I don’t want to do that.
So that said, we are stuck with 13 minutes (maybe more, maybe less). While 13 minutes may not seem like a lot of time, it is well-enough time to save you and your family’s life from the devastating effects of tornado winds.
How do people die in tornadoes?
I know, this seems incredibly obvious. But understanding how people die in a tornado is the first step in understanding how to survive a tornado.
Flying debris wrapped in winds is the weapon of choice for the deadly tornado. The optics of a tornado is really the churned up earth and debris it decided to take for a ride. Tornado wind speeds are measured on the Fujita Scale.
F0: Up to 72 mph: This is considered a minor tornado, but would you want to be hit in the head by a tree branch or even a plastic cup traveling at 72 mph? Apply that logic to the Fujita Scale results following (exponentially).
F1: 73 to 112 mph.
F2: 113 to 157 mph
F3: 158 to 206 mph
F4: 207 to 260 mph
F5: 261 to 318 mph
F6: 319 to 379 mph. F5 is the highest maximum recorded.
Most people who die are people in cars, mobile homes, or in areas susceptible to flying debris.
How To Stay Safe During a Tornado
First, be prepared. Have a plan. Have a tornado plan where you live, where you work, where you frequently shop. Make sure you have a portable radio that will allow you to get the latest updates from the national weather service.
So, you’re in a building, a tornado is coming, what next?
If you are at home and you have a storm cellar, get there with immediacy. Being below ground is as safe as it gets in terms of tornado survival. If you have a tornado storm cellar, odds are, you already know this. If you have a basement, the same logic of “low is best” applies. Get there. Hopefully, you stored that portable radio and batteries there (if you haven’t, go do that now while a tornado isn’t happening…prep for that!)
With urgency, avoid windows and any glass doors of any sort. Glass flying at 72 mph is a killer. You might be tempted to look out a window to see if you can see anything, either due to your own morbid curiosity (we all have some of that) or your need to visually get an idea of the circumstances. This can kill you. Use your radio for updates. If you don’t have a radio, wait it out in your safe space.
You are in a building, such as where you work or a grocery store or even church. Go to the center most point of the building on the lowest floor possible to get to within a reasonable amount of time. Elevators may lose power, by all means, don’t use them.
Don’t try to use a mattress as a cover. Moving a mattress uses up vital time. Tornado survival is all about the use of your time because you don’t have much of it. You could cover your head with a pillow or blanket, though.
Be aware of multiple tornadoes. Tornadoes often come in groups. Just because you think a tornado has passed doesn’t mean another isn’t on the way.
If you are outside, try to find cover inside as soon as possible (only if it is possible). Most malls and gyms can’t withstand the sheer force of a tornado’s winds, so they aren’t good options. If you can find a ditch, get down in it. Yes, ditches are dirty, but they are low and can offer life-saving tornado protection.
If you are in a car and are sure you are able to drive safely away from the tornado activity, do so. But know what you are doing. Tornadoes often change paths. Additionally, they tend to come in groups so running away from one tornado might lead to the direct path of another. And being in a car during a tornado is a death wish. Your first option should be to find a safe building.
If no building is available, it may well be best to pull over and evacuate the car and opt for a ditch (as discussed above). But here’s the trick: You don’t want to abandon the car only to get in a ditch right next to the car. The car may well become a flying object. Many people believe that you should ditch the car for the “protection of an overpass.” Don’t do this. Overpasses are just wind tunnels and they aren’t safe during a tornado.
If you are in a mobile home, get the hell out. Mobile homes, like cars, are dangerous places to be during a tornado. Again, locate a low-lying area near you and get in it.
Take ALL TORNADO WATCHES AND WARNINGS SERIOUSLY. Any good prepper knows that averting disaster is typically done well before the disaster strikes, during preparation.
Tornado shelters can be both above ground tornado shelters and below ground tornado shelters. Both types of tornado shelters can help you and your family survive such a high wind event. Some tornado shelters appear like pods. I take a prepper’s look at the pros and pros of having a either in my article on tornado shelters.
One popular tornado shelter is the Swisher ESP Safety Shelter. It is available on Amazon and fits up to 6 persons.
Can you outrun tornado?
You’ve seen the movie, Twister. You feel strongly you can just jet in the other direction. But here’s the thing: You might not be correct about what that direction is. Additionally, tornadoes are pack rats, there is often more than one tornado.
Tornadoes can travel 70 mph. They can have winds roughly the same. The winds are outstretched far away from the core of the tornado, which is offering you the optics. Those winds can turn your car into a flying machine.
Find safety. Trying to outrun a tornado is never safe form.
Where do most tornadoes strike?
Such a popular question, particularly for those new to tornado alley. Tornado Alley is a term essentially applied to the heaviest region of tornado activity. Not only is their higher volume of tornado activity in tornado alley, they also report much stronger tornadoes than other places outside the region (this all on average, of course).
Let’s break down that logic:
Tornado Alley: This term applies to the southern region (or plains) of the central United States. Think Texas. Think Oklahoma. Think Kansas (Wizard of Oz, my friends). Think Nebraska.
Here’s what tornado alley on a map looks like:
(Link to source image)
Some debate those lines and claim tornado alley to be much broader. Places such as Illinois have experienced monster tornadoes over the years. Tornadoes in tornado alley tend to occur in spring. The reason for this is that spring brings about weather instability (such as cold air meeting warm air) and cause updraft effects, which lend nicely into tornado fuel. If you live in Oklahoma or Kansas, you know that one day in spring might be 80 degrees, while the day that followed could easily swing to upper 40s or lower 50s. That’s not a likely scenario in the Caribbean or California, where powerful tornadoes simply aren’t reported that often.
Powerful clusters of tornadoes have devastated states such as Alabama. In 2011, a super tornado outbreak was one of the costliest in United States history. Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee, Georgia and even Virginia were hit. On April 27th, 218 tornadoes touched down.
Another region with high tornado activity is Florida. Florida, however, doesn’t yield these super tornadoes which is why we focus on it less. Tornadoes in Florida can do damage and certainly have taken lives, but not at the same disproportionate rate as they have in Kansas or Oklahoma. This doesn’t mean a person living in Florida should take less precautions, it just means the metrics tell a bit different story. Tornadoes, no matter how small, are dangerous.
Over the years, tornado videos have become more and more popular. And they’ve given us the ability to safely view tornado activity without risking life and limb. Tornado videos have also become popular on tornado shows that feature tornado chasers doing God’s work. Those chasers who come away with tornado videos are also helping science figure out better ways to predict tornadoes. Additionally, tornado spotters also are a major part of our warning systems. These tornado spotters typically descend in areas where tornado activity is likely to occur, based on weather metrics. And they are on standby to send out warnings to the communities via the National Weather Service. They’ve saved a great many lives.
And they’ve also come up with some amazing tornado videos. Some tornado videos come from the common folk, but it is ill-advised to attempt to get that footage, no matter how enticing it may feel.
Here’s tornado video from one of the largest, most damaging tornadoes in U.S. history, the Joplin tornado. The tornado dropped in Joplin, Missouri during the late afternoon of May 22, 2011. It was an EF5.
More Joplin tornado
Joplin tornado video surveillance video from East Middle School
Before and after of Joplin tornado video
Amazing, super close video of tornado in Colorado
These guys get inside of a tornado (seriously)
Stay safe out there folks. Always be prepared by learning more and more. And always have your bug out bag essentials. Survival bags could be the only thing you are left with after a devastating tornado tears down your home and takes out power.
Author: Jim Satney
PrepForThat’s Editor and lead writer for political, survival, and weather categories.