Spring season marks the peak tornado season in the southern states of the United States. Tornadoes are more likely to occur during this time of year due to atmospheric conditions. During this transitional season, cooler dry air and warmer moist air are more likely to meet and create thunderstorms. When instability and wind shear are present in the atmosphere, a violent rotating column of air that extends from a thunderstorm to the ground can occur. A tornado can look like a funnel or can resemble a rope, and there can be a single vortex or multiple vortices. They can vary in size and some are only visible by swirling debris on the ground.
Though tornadoes have been recorded on all continents but Antarctica, they are most common in the United States. In the U.S., the average tornado is about 500 feet across and travels on the ground for approximately five miles. Most move Southwest to Northeast but can go any direction. The U.S. has the greatest number of any country and has some of the strongest and most violent tornadoes on record. Outbreaks, the occurrence of multiple tornadoes, can occur within the same day or succeeding day where there is continuous or near continuous tornado activity. In April of 2011, a Super Outbreak occurred in the United States, with 362 tornadoes and over $10 billion in damages. A second and less active tornado season can take place in the fall, during another period where atmospheric conditions are changing.
According to The Weather Channel’s Tornado News, “April kicks off what is typically the most active and dangerous three-month period of the year for tornadoes in the United States. During the 20 years from 1997 to 2016, the U.S. averaged 1,225 tornadoes annually, 55 percent of which were sandwiched between April and June.” Tornadoes are measured by the Enhanced Fujita Scale of Tornado Intensity. They range from an E/F0 with winds of 65 to 85 miles-per-hour to an E/F5 with winds 200 miles-per-hour plus. An E/F2 tornado can destroy a mobile home, while a stronger E/F3 tornado can destroy a standard home. Even an E/F0 can be life threatening due to falling and flying debris.
If you live in or plan to travel to a tornado-prone area such as Dixie Alley (in the southeast U.S.) or Tornado Alley (an area of the United States where tornadoes are more frequent), you’ll need to be especially prepared and know what to do in an emergency. Tornado watches and warnings are issued by the National Weather Service. If a tornado watch is issued, this signifies that weather conditions are changing and that it is possible for a tornado to develop in your area. As a result, you’ll need to pay close attention to the weather. A dark or green sky, dark and low-lying clouds, hail, or a roar like a freight train can signal the approach of a tornado.
A tornado warning is significant. This means that one has been sighted or picked up by radar and that you’ll need to seek shelter immediately on the lowest level of your home. If no basement or storm cellar is accessible, take shelter in an interior room of a sturdy building, such as a closet or bathroom, away from exterior walls and windows. If you hear a tornado siren, do not hesitate. Seek shelter immediately. Knowing what to do in an emergency can come in handy during a tornado. This includes paying attention to weather and having a weather radio.
NOAA Weather Radio All-Hazards (NWR) is a nationwide network of radio stations that relays weather information directly to the public from the nearest National Weather Service office. NWR has over 1,000 transmitters that broadcast continuous weather updates, so you can get weather 24/7. It is one of the quickest and most effective ways to get severe weather alerts. The radios come with a battery backup, so they can function even when electricity is lost. The National Weather Service, responsible for transmitting weather information, also relays information on hazards, such as earthquakes, AMBER Alerts, and local emergencies.
Weather radios are equipped with a menu that allows you to scroll through options. You can set the time, lighting, alert test (to hear how loud it is), alert type (voice or tone or display), the same code (select the code for your county or neighboring counties), the channel or frequency, and an alarm. While many people rely on their smartphones for weather updates, a weather radio is considered more reliable. It can come in handy should your cell phone die or if connection is disrupted. Though tornadoes can occur at any time of the day, worldwide they are more likely to occur in the late afternoon between 3pm and 9pm. However, some occur late at night or in the wee hours of the morning. A weather radio set with a tone alert can wake sleepers, providing an opportunity to seek immediate shelter.
Schools and malls usually have a designated location where it is best to take refuge. At home, designate a safe area where your family will take shelter – and have the family practice getting there. Since storms may approach with little warning, you must be able to reach that destination quickly. If you can’t get below ground and you need to shelter in an interior room, choose one that puts as many walls between you and the outdoors. Get under something sturdy and be sure to cover your head and neck with your arms. If you are in a multiple story building, go to the lowest level possible. Do not use the elevator. People who live in mobile homes should get out immediately and go to a sturdy building or storm shelter. Planning where to go is key to survival if you live in a mobile home. If there is no shelter, head to a ditch, or ravine, or culvert as it is safer than staying in your mobile home. Even mobile homes with tie-downs may not be safe.
If you are driving in a vehicle, seek shelter in a sturdy building if possible. If you are stuck in traffic and must abandon the vehicle, do not get under an overpass or bridge where winds can be higher. As a last resort, you are safer to hunker down away from your car in a low, flat location such as a gully or a ditch. Stay away from areas with trees and be sure to cover your head and neck with your arms. If you do not have time to leave your vehicle, put on your seatbelt and cover your head and neck with your arms and a coat or blanket. After a tornado, steer clear of debris and downed powerlines. Get medical help for those who need it and listen to local officials for updates and instructions.
Since tornadoes can strike at night, it may be worthwhile to keep extra footwear in your designated shelter area. Since most tornado-related injuries and deaths are the result of getting hit by flying debris, there is some suggestion that wearing football or bike helmets may help. However, more research is needed in this area. It is important that they be kept in your designated shelter area so that you won’t have to go hunting for them at this critical time. To increase preparedness, build an emergency kit with enough supplies to last you for 72 hours. Visit https://www.ready.gov/build-a-kit for a printable checklist of what you’ll need. Head to https://www.cdc.gov/disasters/tornadoes/index.html to gain more information on what to do before, during, and after a tornado in order to stay safe.