Unlike hurricanes, there’s no set season for tornadoes. The powerful storms can strike nearly anytime at some location in the U.S. True, the peak time in the Southern Plains is wrapping up, but things in the Northern Plains, upper Midwest and the South are just really getting cranked up.
About 1,200 tornadoes occur in the U.S. every year, according to the National Severe Storms Laboratory. The narrow, violently rotating columns of air span from the ground to the base of a thunderstorm.
- Fact No. 1: What you see when you spot a tornado is a condensation funnel made up of water, dust and debris.
- Fact No. 2: Tornadoes most commonly happen between 4 and 9 p.m.
Researchers don’t completely understand how tornadoes form, according to the NSSL. Rotating thunderstorms called supercells or mesocyclones generally are considered the genesis of tornadoes. From there, temperature differences across downdrafts that wrap around the supercell often trigger the higher winds, hail, downpours and other conditions characteristic of tornadoes.
Note the word often, however. The NSSL says these temperature variations aren’t always present and weren’t for the May 3, 1999, tornado outbreak in Oklahoma – which killed 36 and caused $1.5 billion in damage, with winds reaching more than 300 mph or higher. It is one of the most destructive storms ever.
- Fact No. 3: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Storm Prediction Center issues a tornado watch when conditions are favorable for the formation of tornadoes. Keep updated for the next step.
- Fact No. 4: Your local NOAA National Weather Service Office meteorologists issue a tornado warning when radar or human spotters actually identify a tornado. Seek immediate shelter.
So what do I do before, during, and after a tornado?
The Centers for Disease Control have some excellent advice for tornado safety. Some of the CDC tips:
Before the storm
- Pick and prepare a safe place. Most tornado-related deaths are attributed to flying debris. That means the safest place in your home is the basement or an interior room that has no windows. It could be a hallway, bathroom – even a closet. Cover your head with a blanket, sleeping bag or mattress. Avoid staying in a mobile home.
- Plan a route to that safe place. First off, never try to outrun a tornado, even if you’re in an automobile. Decide on that safe place (above) and head for it as soon as danger lurks: Better safe than trapped in a violent storm.
- Prepare a storm kit. Include batteries, a battery-operated TV or radio, a charger for your phone – something to keep you posted on the latest conditions. Have a supply of water, nonperishable food and any necessary medications on hand.
- Keep emergency phone numbers at hand. This could include emergency services, relatives, friends, a pharmacy, etc.
During the storm
- Pay attention to conditions. If a thunderstorm is coming, keep tuned to local radio and TV in case the situation worsens rapidly. Know the difference between tornado watches and warnings (above). Pay particular notice to the following, which can be tornado harbingers: a green or dark-colored sky; large, dark, low-lying clouds, hail that’s larger than normal; or a roar reminiscent of a train.
- Know when to evacuate. If you see a funnel cloud, seek shelter immediately.
- Be patient. Tornadoes generally don’t last a long time, but take your time emerging from your safe place.
After the storm
- Don’t let your guard down. The CDC says that as many as half of tornado-related injuries occur after the storm, as part of rescue efforts and cleanup.
- Watch where you walk. Stepping on nails causes nearly a third of injuries reported from tornadoes.
- Be alert for fire. Downed power lines or ruptured gas lines can spark fires. Don’t be caught unware.
- Let others know you’re safe. You don’t want friends and family out looking for you, putting themselves at additional risk.
- Again, be patient. If your home suffers damage, allow for an inspection by professionals before you re-enter.
Fact No. 5: Tornadoes are dangerous, but with a lot of preparation and a little luck, you can stay safe during the storm.
Arthur Murray directs ChooseEnergy.com’s newsroom, taking advantage of nearly 30 years of newspaper and magazine experience. A native of Virginia, Arthur attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and graduated with a bachelor’s in journalism.