How to Survive a Tornado: Tornado Safety Tips

Learn How to Prepare for and Survive a Tornado

April 15, 2020
Tornado Touch Ground

Did you know that the United States has the highest incidence of tornadoes in the world? Before you are caught in a storm, be prepared with these tornado safety tips.

Where Are Tornadoes Most Common?

In the U.S., an average of 1,200 tornadoes form each year, many of which occur in an area called “Tornado Alley” (a region covering all or parts of Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Texas).

Why there, you ask? Located in the Great Plains, this area receives cold polar air from Canada, warm tropical air from Mexico, and dry air from the Southwest, which all clash in the middle of the country. Heat and moisture can build up near Earth’s surface if a stable air layer called a “cap” lies on top. Then, if the cap weakens, the lower, unstable air rises rapidly, often forming super-cell thunderstorms that are the harbingers of tornadoes. 

Statistics show that most tornadoes in the U.S. occur between 5 P.M. and 6 P.M. However, those times vary by region; for example, Florida tornadoes are just as likely to occur after midnight as in the afternoon. 

Although the U.S. is certainly a hotbed of tornado activity, tornadoes do happen in other parts of the world. Significant tornadoes have been recorded in Canada, Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Australia, Russia, Bangladesh, South Africa, and the United Kingdom, among other places. In fact, the deadliest tornado on record occurred in April 1989 in Bangladesh, where a tornado reportedly killed more than 1,200 people after two entire towns were leveled.

Where Are Tornadoes Uncommon?

Luckily, tornadoes don’t touch down very often in the downtown centers of big cities. Tornadoes require three factors to grow: vertical air movement, which generally comes from thunderstorms; a significant variation in both wind speed and direction within the thunderstorm or air mass; and plenty of space for the rotation to develop.

That need for wide, open spaces is why you hear about tornadoes so much in the plain states and flat areas of the Midwest and West. Tornadoes are unusual in large cities and mountainous areas because they lack the open space needed for the tornado to develop.

However, it’s not impossible for tornadoes to form around cities. On May 12, 1997, a tornado struck very near downtown Miami, Florida, and lasted about 15 minutes. A number of people were injured and it caused $525,000 in damages. That tornado developed over open water, which provided the space for it to grow, and then move onshore. Plus, Oklahoma City alone has been hit by more than 100 tornadoes thanks to its flat surroundings.

How to Predict a Tornado

Unlike hurricanes or other severe weather events, tornadoes are hard to predict almost up until they hit, but there are still signs of impending twisters that you can look out for:

  • A pale green sky is an indicator that a tornado may occur. Although no one knows why this is, some people theorize that because tornadoes usually form in the afternoon, the longer red and yellow wavelengths of afternoon sunlight turn water-heavy, bluish clouds to green.
  • The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) also advises to look out for the following danger signs: large hail; dark, low-lying clouds; and a loud roar, similar to that of a freight train.

What Tornado Warnings Mean

  • A tornado watch indicates possible tornadoes in your area. Stay tuned to the radio or television news.
  • A tornado warning means that a tornado is on the ground or has been detected by Doppler radar. Seek shelter immediately!

How to Survive a Tornado

  • If you are indoors, take cover in the cellar or a small space (a closet or bathroom) in the interior of your home. If you can’t decide where to go, choose the bathroom. The bathtub is a good, solid structure to hunker down in.
  • Stay away from windows! 
  • If you are outdoors, find a field or ditch away from items that can fly through the air. Lie down as flat as you can.
  • Do not stay in a car or try to drive away from a tornado. Cars can be flung about by high winds or crushed by debris.
  • If you have evacuated your home, do not return until it is deemed safe to do so by local officials.

For more on weather preparedness, see our articles on making an emergency survival kit, preparing for a power outage, and surviving a hurricane.


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A National Disaster Awareness Program

In your browser, type 'A National Disaster Awareness Program'. How long are we going to stay in this crazy status quo for preparedness? Until the next major catastrophe? When everyone is running around saying, " we gotta do something"? How many fatalities? How much property loss? Mitigation is the name of the game. And we can do a whole lot better than the past, because it seems it's going to get worse. Am I wrong?

Jump in your tub.

Jump in your tub.

when a tornado hits, run for

when a tornado hits, run for cover...
if you can not run for cover, put your head between your legs & kiss your backside g'bye.

A tornado is why I would LOOOOVE to have a basement and/or storm/root cellar.

nice tips especially if you

nice tips especially if you are doing a project or report on safty tips for tornadoes

AMEN! to that last bullet

AMEN! to that last bullet point! I was working in West Des Moines back in 1998 when we had a severe out break of tornados that afternoon, when it appeared all clear, I attempted to drive home. The tornados weren't gone, they were just back-building! Once they got their strength built back up they dropped back down again! I was dead center of the spot where all 3 were re-converging. God directed me to a hotel(Praise God!!) for shelter & to ride out the storm, but by the time i'd reached it, the 2 1/2" hail had totaled my car and busted every pc of glass & plastic on my car. the car looked like someone had taken a ball-pein hammer to it!! and I'm not talking surface dings! I'm talking deep impressions, ALL OVER THE CAR!! The windsheild was starting to cave into to the car from all the repeated hits when I reached the hotel parking lot. When you're in or near a tornado - you can't see it, because it's too big!! It's just a BIG grey wall bearing down on you. You have to be a distance back from it, to actually SEE it!!! SECONDLY: I have REAL issues with "...get out of your car and lay flat or in a ditch!!!" The hail on the outter edges of a tornado is 2+ inches & upward in size!!! DO YOU KNOW HOW "BADLY" THAT HURTS?!! A direct hit to your head can kill you...!