Survival Situations: Tornadoes


There are a virtually infinite number of possible survival situations that one could experience. It can be overwhelming trying to understand and prepare for them. In an effort to index and provide information about the most common survival situations, has prepared a series of article which are entitled: Survival Situation. Each article provides high level information about a specific common survival situation and various ways to prepare and overcome them should they happen to you.

Tornadoes are the most violent of all naturally occurring storms. An estimated 700-800 tornado are reported annually in the US resulting in loss of life and billions of dollars worth of damage. They’ve been known to occur in all 48 continental US states but generally occur in the central and eastern parts of the US. Texas, Alabama, Ohio, Florida, & Arkansas lead the way in number of tornadoes and casualties recorded in the US. In Southern states, tornadoes are most commonly reported between the months of March & May. In the North, late spring through mid-summer is generally the busiest time for tornadoes. Strong thunderstorms known as supercells are where tornadoes are spawned from (if you want to gain a better understanding behind the science of tornadoes, click here). A tornadoes wind speed can range anywhere from 100-300 MPH and a tornadoes strength is measured by the US National Weather Service using the Enhanced Fujita Scale. This scale measures the amount of damage a tornado is capable of and ranges from the least damaging F0, to the most violent of all storms, the F5.

About Tornadoes

Tornadoes frequently occur at the edge of a thunderstorm which is why they are often followed by blue skies after the tornado has passed on or dissipated. They are defined as rotating columns of air that come in contact with both the ground and a cumulonimbus cloud. Occasionally, tornadoes form or travel over water and are referred to as waterspouts. Often, tornadoes may be virtually transparent and not visible from a distance until enough debris or dust has been picked up to give it some color. There’s several common warning signs you should be aware of that are known to occur just prior to a tornado occurring.

  • Just before a tornado strikes, it’s common for the wind to die down, leaving the air very still.
  • Another indicator to look for is a dark, often described as greenish, sky.
  • Hail is a common precursor for tornadoes.
  • The sound of an advancing tornado is often described as a freight train.
  • A large, low-lying, dark cloud may be an additional indicator that a tornado is imminent.
  • Many urban & suburban areas in the US are now equipped with storm alert systems and will be activated when a tornado has been spotted or is imminent. However, due to the fact that tornadoes can develop so rapidly, you should be familiar with other warning signs and stay alert when conditions are favorable for a tornado, as sirens may not always be activated in time to be effective.

Watches Vs Warnings

Many people often get confused over basic tornado safety terms. The most commonly mixed up terms are tornado watches and warnings.

  • Tornado Watch – this means that conditions are favorable for a tornado and you should remain vigilant. If you are in the open or outside, try and seek shelter at this point in case a tornado occurs.
  • Tornado Warning – this means a tornado has been spotted or confirmed nearby. You should seek shelter immediately until the warning has expired or the tornado has passed.

What to do

If you find yourself in an area impacted by a tornado warning, seek shelter immediately, the following are the recommended guidelines of what you should do depending on where you are:

Outside / No Structures Nearby – It’s recommended to lie down flat and cover your head with your hands in any nearby ditch or natural depression. Don’t take cover under a bridge or overpass if any are nearby because of the potential for falling debris (the most deadly part of tornadoes). Be aware that hail and flooding are also common side effects of a tornado so as soon as the tornado passes, seek shelter if possible.

Inside of a Structure – Hopefully you’re in or near a shelter you can take refuge in. Inside of the shelter, it’s best to have as many walls as possible between you and the outside. Take care to avoid windows or other glass / sharp objects that could cause injury. There’s a common myth that you should open the windows ahead of a tornado to try and even the air pressure – this is a myth and you shouldn’t waste time opening the windows. Go to the center of an interior room if a basement or cellar isn’t available. If applicable, take shelter under a sturdy table to protect you from falling debris. It’s not uncommon for entire roofs to be ripped off a structure leaving you vulnerable to miscellaneous debris a tornado might drop. If the structure doesn’t have a basement or cellar, always go to the lowest level of the structure.

Vehicle or Trailer / Mobile Home – To be in this situation isn’t much better than being outside with no available structures. Even if the trailer is tied down, these types of structures offer very little in the way of protection even with less severe tornadoes. If there are permanent structures nearby, get inside one and take shelter in low or sublevel interior room. If no permanent structure is nearby, seek shelter under a sturdy table or get in a bathtub and cover yourself with a mattress if you’re able to. If you’re in a vehicle, it’s not recommended to try and outrun the storm although if you’re familiar with the area and there’s little to no traffic that would slow you down, you’ll need to make that judgment call. Many tornadoes move approximately 30-40 MPH so although it’s possible, it’s extremely dangerous and probably not the best idea for most people. The added stress of trying to outrun and navigate your way out of a severe storm with a tornado behind you is enough to cause many people to make careless mistakes that might just end up in a fatal accident.


Although tornadoes are natures most violent storm type, you can greatly increase your odds of survival by keeping the tips mentioned in this article in mind the next time you find yourself in a tornado watch/warning. Remember that falling debris is the most common cause of death in a tornado so seek shelter in a well protected interior room, at the lowest level possible. Take cover under a sturdy object, such as a table, and cover your head with your hands.  Having a radio or some other device with a NOAA weather channel will always help you stay ahead of a moving storm capable of producing tornadoes and is a great asset to have in any survival kit.

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