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Twister Tips: Tornado Safety

In late January 2017, a series of devastating tornadoes swept across the southern United States, causing 20 deaths and more than $1 billion in property damage over a three-day period. It was the deadliest tornado activity in what turned out to be an above-average year with more than 1,400 twisters; the annual average is about 1,250.1

The first months of 2018 have also seen destructive tornadoes, and it's likely there will be more during the heart of the season. Although tornadoes can occur at any time of the year, they are most common from April to July. Certain areas of the country tend to have more tornadoes that others, notably the state of Florida and the famed "tornado alley" of the Great Plains. But tornadoes can strike almost anywhere in the continental United States.2

Violent Wind

A tornado is a violently spinning column of air extending from a thunderstorm down to the ground. It often, but not always, has the shape of a funnel.

Tornado intensity is typically classified according to the Enhanced Fujita Scale, which measures the strength and estimates the wind speeds of a tornado based on the damage it produces. The ratings range from 0 through 5. An EF 5 tornado can generate wind speeds of more than 200 miles per hour and level almost anything in its path.3 Most buildings can be destroyed if hit directly by an E3, E4, or E5 tornado, but lower-rated winds can be deadly, too.4 There were fatalities due to EF 1 and EF 2 tornadoes in 2017.5

Before the Storm

No matter where you live, you should be aware of basic tornado safety guidelines. If you live in an area that is prone to these powerful storms, you may want to take more concrete steps to prepare. Have a family tornado plan in place, know where you can take shelter quickly, and practice a tornado drill at least once a year. Store protective coverings, such as mattresses, sleeping bags, and thick blankets, in or near your shelter space to help protect you and your family from falling or flying objects. Consider buying a NOAA Weather Radio (NWR) All Hazards receiver, which receives broadcast alerts directly from the National Weather Service.

A tornado watch means that tornadoes are possible in a particular area. When a tornado watch is issued, make sure all your safety supplies are handy. Turn on local TV or radio, or NOAA Weather Radio, and stay alert for warnings. Be sure you are close enough to a shelter or sturdy building to get there quickly in a few minutes if there is an official tornado warning or if you see signs of a tornado

A tornado warning means that a tornado has been sighted or indicated by weather radar. If a warning is issued for your area, take shelter immediately.

Safety Guidelines

Safety steps during a tornado depend on the type of structure and situation. In most cases, the safest structure is a "safe room" built specifically to withstand a tornado. Here are tips for other structures and situations. In all structures, remember to move away from windows and do not open any windows.

  • House with a basement — Go to the basement and, if possible, crouch under some form of sturdy protection such as a heavy table or work bench, or cover yourself with a mattress or sleeping bag. Protective headgear such as a helmet might also offer some protection. Know where heavy objects, such as refrigerators or pianos, are located on the floor above and avoid the space below them.
  • House with no basement or an apartment — Go to the lowest floor, a small center room (like a bathroom or closet), under a stairwell, or in an interior hallway with no windows. Crouch as low as possible to the floor, facing down, and cover your head with your hands. A bathtub may offer partial protection. Even in an interior room, you should cover yourself with thick padding to protect against falling debris.   
  • Mobile home — Get out! Even if your home is tied down, it is not as safe as an underground shelter or permanent, sturdy building. Most tornadoes can destroy even tied-down mobile homes. If possible, go to a shelter or a nearby permanent structure. 
  • Multistory building — Go directly to an enclosed, windowless area in the center of the building on the lowest floor possible. Crouch down and cover your head. Interior stairwells are usually good places to take shelter and, if not crowded, allow you to get to a lower level quickly. Stay out of elevators; you could be trapped if the power is lost.   
  • Car or truck — If the tornado is visible, far away, and the traffic is light, you may be able to drive out of its path by moving at right angles to the tornado. Seek shelter in a sturdy building or underground. If this is not possible and you are caught by extreme winds or flying debris, park the car as quickly and safely as possible out of traffic lanes. Stay in the car with the seat belt on. Crouch or lie so your head is below the windows; cover your head with your hands and a blanket, coat, or other cushion if available.

Note: In the past, some experts recommended that if you could safely get significantly lower than the level of the road, such as in a ditch, you should leave your car and lie in that area, covering your head with your hands. With recent improvements in vehicle safety, however, including stronger safety glass, researchers are reevaluating whether it is better to stay in the car or seek lower ground.

  • Outdoors — If possible, seek shelter in a sturdy building. If not, lie flat and face down on low ground, protecting the back of your head with your hands. Get as far away from trees and cars as you can.

Review Your Coverage

Standard homeowners policies typically cover damage to a home's structure and contents caused by a tornado, up to policy limits, and may also pay for living expenses such as hotel bills and meals if you can't live in your home while it is being repaired or rebuilt. Be sure to review your coverage periodically and make sure that the cost to rebuild the structure and replace all of your belongings would not exceed the limits of your policy.