How to Survive a Tornado

The flowers are growing, the birds are singing, and the storm clouds are gathering. Yes, it’s tornado season once again.

We had several thunderstorms here in Tulsa last month, and the tornado siren has already gone off three times (all of them in a single night), so preparing for a twister to come barreling through my neighborhood has been on my mind lately. Statistically, more tornados happen in May than any other month of the year.

With swirling winds that can reach up to 300mph, tornados are both fascinating and frightening. On average, 60 people die each year from tornado outbreaks, but in a particularly deadly year, like 2011, they can kill over 500. I’ve been through two big tornadoes during my time in Oklahoma that flattened entire parts of cities. It’s one of the most surreal and sobering things to see.

Tornado safety is pretty elementary – quite literally; if you grow up here in “tornado alley,” sometime during your grade school years a kindly local weatherman will probably show up at your school and teach you how to survive a twister. For me, Gary England was that kindly local weatherman. The man is a cult hero roun’ these parts.

He’s calmly talked Oklahomans through tornadoes and severe ice storms for 40 years. Gary England is so beloved, there’s even a drinking game named after him.

Yet despite growing up in the panhandle state, I learned a surprising number of new things (as well as how advice has changed over the years) while researching this article. And if you’re a new arrival to the Midwest or Southeast, tornado survival 101 is something you should definitely take the time to learn. Also, just because you don’t live in a tornado-prone part of the country doesn’t mean this bit of lifesaving know-how doesn’t apply to you; tornados have occurred in all 50 states, and you never know when one might touch down on a 14,000-foot mountain or come roaring through the Big Apple.

How to Survive a Tornado

Be Prepared

Before the storm clouds even gather, know exactly where you’ll take cover in your home if a tornado approaches, and store some padding materials in this designated “shelter” (we’ll talk about this more below). When you’re out and about at the stores and restaurants that you frequent, take note of where the bathrooms are and if shelters are available. If you live in an apartment or mobile home park, know what the tornado evacuation drill is and where you’re supposed to go for shelter if a tornado is imminent.

Since tornados can knock out power and utilities for several days, I also recommend having a 72-hour emergency kit at the least, and ideally, supplies for a longer period of grid-down as well.

Be Observant

Tornados can occur without warning any time of day, even if there isn’t a thunderstorm in the area. And if it’s nighttime, or there is heavy rain and clouds in the vicinity, you may not be able to see signs of a potential tornado. That being said, most tornados occur in the afternoon, and they are sometimes preceded by a few telltale conditions. Signs of a possible tornado include a pea-soup green sky and/or a low, dark cloud; spotting a wall cloud around here is always a cause for concern.

If a tornado is imminent, it may be accompanied by the following signs, provided by theNOAA Storm Prediction Center:
  • Strong, persistent rotation in the cloud base.
  • Whirling dust or debris on the ground under a cloud base — tornadoes sometimes have no funnel!
  • Hail or heavy rain followed by either dead calm or a fast, intense wind shift. Many tornadoes are wrapped in heavy precipitation and can’t be seen.
  • Day or night – loud, continuous roar or rumble, which doesn’t fade in a few seconds like thunder.
  • Night – small, bright, blue-green to white flashes at ground level near a thunderstorm (as opposed to silvery lightning up in the clouds). These mean power lines are being snapped by very strong wind, maybe a tornado.
  • Night – persistent lowering from the cloud base, illuminated or silhouetted by lightning — especially if it is on the ground or there is a blue-green-white power flash underneath.
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