How to Survive a Tornado

Tornadoes are terrifying and deadly. Spawning out of already violent thunderstorms, or seemingly out of nowhere in mere moments, tornadoes will carve a path of complete havoc through the landscape, and vanish just as quickly as they appear.

tornado ravaging a city

In certain seasons in certain places in the United States, tornadoes are shockingly common, and if you live in one of those there is a line the path of the so-called Tornado Alley, you’re probably used to them.

There’s nothing we can do to stop tornadoes, all we can do is hope to survive them. Knowing a tornado is coming in advance, knowing where and how to take shelter, and hanging on for dear life is the best you can hope for.

In this article will take a look at some life-saving tips and procedures that you can employ the next time that siren sounds with a deadly twister drawing closer.

What is a Tornado?

The NOAA defines a tornado as a violently rotating column of air, extending from a thunderstorm in the sky clear to the ground, sometimes not always visible as a distinctive funnel cloud.

Most commonly created from and accompanying brisk summer and spring storms, even the weakest tornado is a powerful force, more than capable of damaging roofs and building exteriors, shattering glass and pushing over small trees. Strong, mature trees will lose their branches.

tornado activity map

The strongest of them are fantastically destructive events that will gouge their track clear across the countryside annihilating buildings, scouring the soil away, and even lifting and launching train cars to say nothing of smaller vehicles and people.

Some of these monster storms have obliterated entire towns.

Number of tornadoes in the U. S.around 1177 per year
Number of tornado deaths in the U. S. around 21 per year
Time of day most likely for a tornado to hitbetween 15:00 and 19:00
Twister heightup to 60,000 feet (18 kilometers)

We don’t eyeball tornadoes anymore to gauge their strength, nor do we assign their ferocity based on the destruction they have wrought.

Using the latest meteorological techniques in weather monitoring, high-tech radar and other methods the strength of a tornado can be scientifically measured.

These measurements fall on the Enhanced Fujita Scale, trading starting at EF-0 for the weakest true tornadoes, and going all the way up to EF-5 for apocalyptic monster twisters.

tornado alley
Tornado Alley on the U. S. map.

Tornado Ratings

The enhanced Fujita Scale makes use of many variables including things like wind speed and potential to destroy certain types of buildings and their materials.

However, you don’t need to understand all those variables to easily see where certain tornadoes fall on the scale, and what kind of threat they will pose to you. You can check out tornado rankings on the Enhanced Fujita Scale just below.

EF-0, Wind Speed 65 to 85 MPH

Even a baby tornado can throw a tantrum. Tornadoes in this category easily damage roofs, tear gutters off of buildings and damage other exterior features.

Saplings and small trees, or trees with weak roots will be pushed over. Large, strong mature trees will still lose large branches. Some airborne missiles can be dangerous in this category.

EF-1, Wind Speed 86 to 110 MPH (104 to 177 KMH)

Tornadoes in this category are officially no joke. Entire slams in panels of roofs may be torn away.

Weaker structures like sheds, mobile homes contemporary buildings can be knocked over. Unsecured doors can be torn off and carried away. Windows can break from wind speed alone.

EF-2, Wind Speed 111 to 135 MPH (178 to 217 KMH)

Tornadoes packing this level of punch will seriously damage entire towns. Extremely heavy objects like cars and shipping containers may start to wobble and tilt.

Lesser structures are completely destroyed. Strong structures may shift on their foundations. Strong trees may snap, or be pushed over.

EF-2 is an important tornado level, because it is here that airborne debris becomes truly dangerous.

EF-3, Wind Speed 136-165 MPH (218 to 265 KMH)

These tornadoes are titanically powerful. Even well-built and reinforced structures will be partially destroyed. The largest of human constructions will be damaged.

Cars will be flung, heavier vehicles be lifted or toppled. All but the strongest trees will be knocked over, and the strongest trees will have their bark stripped from them.

EF-4, Wind Speed 166-200 MPH (266 to 321 KMH)

A tornado that reaches this lofty precipice of potency will rarely leave anything of substance behind it. All but the very strongest structures will be completely destroyed.

Vehicles will be carried through the air as if made of balsa wood. Airborne debris will become missiles capable of being driven through metal to say nothing of people. Entire forests can be knocked down.

EF-5, Wind Speed over 200 MPH (over 322 KMH)

The rarest and most powerful of tornadoes. They get no stronger, they only get worse. Tornadoes in this category will rick apocalyptic destruction as even strong, hardened structures will be completely obliterated.

The heaviest of man-made and natural objects can be carried through the air as if they weigh nothing. These are weather events that will literally reshape maps.

These are preposterously deadly, and even with perfect planning your survival is not guaranteed if you are directly in the path of one.

Tornado Damage Countdown: EF0 to EF5

Tornadoes are deadly enough weather events all on their own, but they rarely come alone. Tornadoes so often spawn from or are accompanied by thunderstorms, and those thunderstorms come very powerful on their own.

Their driving rain and obscuring clouds can easily hide the distinctive funnel that signals a tornado. This will make your job of spotting one, or knowing it is closing in even harder.

Tornado winds are among the most powerful on Earth. When they get close to you and pass by or over you, you will be subjected to these insanely powerful forces.

It is a common thing for a tornado’s winds to collapse or even carry off a house, right off its foundations. When the winds of a tornado blow strong and furiously, even the most trivial object can become airborne and turn into a deadly projectile.

A border girder can become a deadly harpoon. Jagged metal sheeting may as well be a flying lawnmower blade. Even something as seemingly inconsequential as a piece of straw or hay can be driven deeply into a tree or into a person alike.

You may be surprised to learn that impact by airborne debris is one of the major causes of casualty for people caught by tornadoes.

Those were caught out of doors or carried off by tornadoes winds I’ll recover, if they are recovered at all, looking like they were literally put through a blender, scourged and lacerated by everything from grains of sand to destroy building materials.

Surviving a Tornado

There’s only one defense against tornadoes, and is getting inside a suitably hard and structure, preferably below ground level.

Nothing else will do; did you get caught outside or in a flimsy structure you’re in God’s hands.

There are a few critical elements to survive tornadoes. The first and most important is getting adequate early warning. If you know the tornado is coming, you have time to get to appropriate shelter.

Appropriate shelter is a second part of the survival equation. Will discuss alternatives to conventional shelter points a little farther down.

How To Survive A Tornado

Get Notified

The good news is that reliable, on-demand early warning systems are available everywhere.

The National Weather Service will issue tornado watches and tornado warnings across all kinds of media, TV, radio, the internet, and SMS messages.

Whatever your preference, you’ll get both tornado watches and tornado warnings. It is important to understand the difference between tornado watches and tornado warnings so you know how to react appropriately when received.

Watches are issued when weather conditions in and around a given area true increasing risk of weather patterns that might produce tornadoes.

You’ll see tornado watches issued hours in advance of any approaching weather systems. You might be under a tornado watch on a day where the sun is shining, and then possibly beautiful cotton candy clouds roll across a deep blue sky.

That is not an excuse to let your guard down! You’d be alert for the weather that follows, and be ready to take action with your loved ones.

Tornado warnings are different. A warning is issued when a tornado has been sighted either on the ground, or confirmed by the weather radar.

Things are about to get real when you get a tornado warning! From the time you receive a warning to the time the tornado arrives on top of you, if you are in the path of it, you will have only little more than 10 minutes (the average is 13 minutes)!

That means you might have less, that means you might have a little more, but either way it is time to get a move on.

Every once in a while, though, a tornado can form but there’ won’t be any early detection. It will literally, seemingly, come out of nowhere, and can even drop right down on top of you.

There’s not much for these circumstances. You’ll just have to react as quick as you can, and hope for the best.

Stay Alert!

For all the advanced technology we have at our disposal early warning systems at the beck and call of meteorologists, early warning systems are not infallible.

You should not trust weather broadcasts in lieu your own senses. With few exceptions, tornadoes do have warning signs before and during your manifestation.

Take the time to learn these signs, and be aware of what the weather around you is doing any time dark skies are in the area.

Consult the list below. One, some or all of them may be present if a tornado is forming:

  • Any visible funnel cloud is a dead giveaway that a tornado is on the way. Note that the bottom of the funnel does not have to be in contact with the ground visibly for tornado to wreck your town.
  • A loud, freight train-like roar. Its roaring, whooshing sound is another classic calling card of a tornado. Note that if you can hear it, the tornado is already pretty close.
  • Look for ground effect. This is a haze near the ground accompanying a thunderstorm for an otherwise invisible tornado. It may look cottony, like a cloud, or murky like a dust storm.
  • Watch for the sky to change colors. Most commonly an eerie yellow or green color. It is not always present, but is a common sight around tornadoes and severe thunderstorms in the U.S.
  • Debris from the sky. Anything unusual falling out of the sky (like dirt, limbs, leaves, gravel or man-made material or even things like animals, especially fish and frogs) is a dead warning sign of a tornado because it is what sucked all that crap into the air in the first place!
  • A thunderstorm goes calm, or there is stillness in silence immediately after the passage of a thunderstorm. If the wind and rain suddenly drop off, be extra cautious! This is the literal calm before a tornado’s arrival or formation.

If you spot or otherwise detect one or any of these warning signs together, it is time to get to shelter immediately!

Seek Shelter Now!

The sirens are going off, and the call went out. You watch the sky shift to a murky green as the wind, rain and hail of the thunderstorm die away. You know the tornado is close. What do you do? Where do you go?

Simply stated, you need to find and get inside the strongest available structure that you know you can reach before the tornado arrives.

Risking getting caught outside or in a vehicle trying to get to a “maybe” is a bad play. Once inside, you need to get below ground. A purpose-designed and installed storm shelter is the best bet (barring a basement).

If neither of those are available, go to the innermost room in the house, ideally one without windows. Use whatever you can to cover yourself for protection; falling material and flying debris are serious dangers.

No joke: keeping impact-protection helmets handy if you live in tornado prone areas is a great idea.

Not all structures are worth considering, and some are worse than being outside. Mobile homes afford next to no protection from strong storms, the same with cars, outbuildings and temporary structures.

Also of concern are any large buildings with extra long or wide roofs, since they are so vulnerable to having them peeled off by a tornado’s ferocious winds.

You should take the time while the weather is nice to locate the best tornado shelters in and around your town. The very best are designated FEMA safe rooms or any commercial structure that is built to International Code Council 500 ratings.

tornado shelter sign

Only buildings constructed to these standards have the chops to provide total protection from the very worst tornadoes that Mother Nature can muster. Put it on your to-do list tomorrow to find the ones in your area.

One last thing: no matter what kind of shelter, or rather lack of shelter, you have when a tornado is closing in you must never, never leave it in an attempt to reach a better one.

Even if you think you have time, even if the storm is a ways off, you cannot risk it.

Tornadoes are not just the funnel you see. It isn’t an event horizon like a black hole, you know; as the wall of the storm touches you it carries you away into the sky. It doesn’t work like that.

The tornado’s winds are devastatingly powerful, far away from the physical funnel you can see. The worst thing that could happen is you get caught outdoors or inside your vehicle.

Speaking of which…

What Should You Do if Caught Outside or in a Car?

I won’t lie to you: this is really not good. Your chances of survival plummet if a tornado strikes you when you’re outside.

All you can do, respectively, is take your chances by hunkering in your vehicle or getting into a ditch if there is one nearby.

If there is no ditch, try to lie down behind something that will truly provide immovable cover, and keep it between you and the wind if possible. Crouch down, hold on tight and protect your head.

One thing you definitely should not do is follow the conventional wisdom the devices you take shelter under an overpass or in the crook of a bridge.

Bad idea! These constricted areas intensify winds rocketing through them, and also funnel debris into a tightly constrained area like an oversized and lethal sandblaster.

You’re much better off in a ditch or even in the open field laying down flat.


Tornadoes are among the most awe-inspiring, devastating and lethal weather events on Earth. Their terrifying majesty will carve a path of destruction across the land and through entire towns and cities.

Turning winds that can crush the strongest structures and hurl train cars as if they were toys… it might seem as if no person has a chance of survival.

This isn’t true. If you know what to do, know the storm is coming and take action quickly you can survive almost any tornado. Give this article a good, thorough read, practice tornado survival, and commit those procedures to memory.

tornado survival Pinterest image

2 thoughts on “How to Survive a Tornado”

  1. Very good article. I grew up in Tornado Alley and was nearly killed by a tornado passing nearby. Houses a block away were flattened. My retirement home will be underground, in the side of a limestone hillside, DEEP! I have a high spring that will gravity feed to the building site.

  2. I experienced 3 tornadoes in my early 20s in same county in Tennessee–one in 1970, 1971 and 1972.
    Last night, Nashville and surrounding towns of Hermitage and Mt. Juliet were hit with a tornado.
    Keep those folks in your prayers.

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