How to Prepare for Tornadoes: Tornado Safety Tips

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Learn How to Prepare for and Survive a Tornado

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Get ready for tornado season. Weather experts are concerned about above-normal tornado activity this year, but no matter what the prediction, it is important to start thinking about severe storms and be prepared with these tornado safety tips and facts.

The 2021 Tornado Season

The 2021 tornado season may bring slightly above normal activity, according to weather experts at Accuweather and Weather.com. Based on past decades, the chance for tornadoes typically increases from February into March in the South, and it is highest from April through June across the Plains. 

The above-average forecast is mainly driven by the “La Niña” weather pattern which concentrates hot, humid air over the southern Plains (Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, and other parts of the southern USA) and, in turn, favors storm formation. In 2020, tornado activity was below-normal. 

Extended tornado forecasts can be very challenging; The Old Farmer’s Almanac as well as NOAA (the federal government) do not issue weather predictions for seasonal tornado activity. However, it’s worth sharing if only to emphasize hurricane preparation and safety. 

Where Are Tornadoes Most Common?

Did you know that the United States has the highest incidence of tornadoes in the world, with an average of 1,200 tornadoes each year?

Many tornadoes 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!

Make sure you prepare by having different ways of getting tornado watches and warnings. Sign up for Wireless Emergency Alerts or check otu NOAA Weather Radio.

How to Survive a Tornado

  • Know where to shelter at home, work or school if a tornado strikes.
  • 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.

About The Author

Catherine Boeckmann

Catherine Boeckmann loves nature, stargazing, and gardening so it’s not surprising that she and The Old Farmer’s Almanac found each other. She leads digital content for the Almanac website, and is also a certified master gardener in the state of Indiana. Read More from Catherine Boeckmann

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