A tornado is a narrow, violently rotating column of air that extends from a thunderstorm to the ground. It is characterized by forceful winds that create a condensation funnel of water droplets, dirt, and debris. The wind speed of a tornado can range from 75 to 300 miles an hour, measure one mile in width, and travel for 50 miles. While most tornadoes are a few yards wide and barely touch down, violent tornadoes, which make up only two percent of all tornadoes, are responsible for nearly 70 percent of tornado-related fatalities. The United States (US) gets as many as 1200 tornadoes annually, with Texas experiencing the most tornadoes every year out of all the states in the US, with an average of 137 tornadoes.
Despite originating from a fraction of the energy released in a thunderstorm, tornadoes are concentrated in a small area which is why they can be dangerous. The sounds produced by a tornado depend on its interaction with the ground and the contours or peculiarities of the affected terrain. For example, when moving through trees, tornado noises have been compared to the roar of a freight train. When moving through buildings, tornadoes usually make a high-pitched whistling noise. However, it is crucial to note that not all tornadoes produce intimidating sounds. To avoid being caught by a seemingly quiet tornado, it is advisable to listen to tornado sirens instead. Although a tornado’s sound can help assess its magnitude, most tornadoes are categorized by their estimated wind speeds and the resulting damages. In making such an assessment, the common scale used is called The Enhanced Fujita scale (EF Scale), which is an improvement based on the previous Fujita scale (F Scale). The EF scale ranges between EF0 and EF5. The first two categories, EF0 and EF1, have a maximum wind estimate of 110mph, with minimal damage. The following two categories of EF2 and EF3 are between 111mph and 165mph, and damage may be substantial. Damages are more devastating for the next two ratings of EF4 and EF5, as winds may reach well above 200mph.
Signs of a tornado generally include:
A rotating funnel-shaped cloud
A cloud of flying or rotating debris
A roaring or high-pitched whistling sound
High winds complemented by dark-colored skies.
However, rather than watch out for these signs, it is best to look out for and listen to emergency warnings which usually provide more time to prepare for an imminent tornado.
Tornadoes form on days that are favorable to thunderstorm development. This includes days when the air is convectively unstable, especially when there is a mix of hot, humid air and cold, dry air in the atmosphere. The possibility of a tornado formation increases when the hot, humid air rises and the cold, dry air drops continuously. An imbalance in the speed between the two air types causes a wind rotation, which increases as the imbalance continues. This constant wind rotation results in an updraft. As wind speed increases, this attracts moisture in the air. The combined effect of the wind rotation and absorbed air moisture is usually a funnel-shaped cloud. The wind becomes more powerful as the difference between the wind speed of the hot and cold air increases. Powerful winds may pick up debris and dust. This sometimes results in a cloud of debris, which is a sign of an approaching tornado. As the wind rotation continues, the funnel-shaped cloud intensifies and begins to extend. Once it extends from the sky and touches the ground, a tornado is formed.
It should be noted that there is no difference between a tornado and a twister. Both terms describe the same phenomenon. The latter appears to be a slang term for a tornado because of how it acts. Also, not all tornadoes sustain a cloud of debris. The fact that a cloud of debris does not accompany a tornado does not mean it is less dangerous. Texans are advised to seek shelter once they receive any tornado alerts, even if there are no obvious signs of a tornado.
Although tornadoes occur throughout the year, a “tornado season” is when the most tornadoes occur. Beginning in March and lasting until June, the US sees a peak in tornado occurrences because of the transition from cooler temperatures to warmer weather. In the southern plains, which include Texas, tornado season is from May to early June. The winter months hardly see tornadoes because of the cooler temperatures. However, tornadoes in this period are more dangerous and move faster due to higher upper atmospheric winds. Additionally, tornadoes are most common between 4:00 p.m. and 9:00 p.m. in the evenings.
Tornados are also classified as supercell and non-supercell. As the name implies, a supercell tornado is a tornado that is formed from a supercell. A supercell is a thunderstorm with a deep, persistently rotating updraft called a mesocyclone. Supercells are prone to occur in a vertically-sheared environment, which refers to areas where the wind changes in direction and speed with height. Supercells often produce large hail, powerful downpours, strong winds and sometimes tornadoes. Notably, nearly all supercells produce some sort of severe weather, but only 30 percent or less produce tornadoes.
Tornadoes pose a significant risk to people and property. The violent winds destroy structures in their path, spinning the debris from the destruction and other loose objects around and turning them into projectiles. Similarly, violent winds from tornados can lift and throw around people who could not find shelter. Sometimes, the debris being spun around by the tornado may also hit people and animals, causing substantial and sometimes fatal injuries. With tornados amassing wind speeds between 50 and 300 miles per hour, they can level most structures that are not reinforced against heavy winds, especially mobile homes and bridges. They can also send heavy objects, such as trucks and trains, flying. Flying debris makes anywhere as far as several miles from the tornado a dangerous place.
The tornadoes that occur in the US are most common among the states in the central parts of the country, especially Texas. Texas, along with other states in the southern plain region, is prone to tornado occurrences because of the unique geography of North America. The Rocky Mountains to the west and the Gulf of Mexico to the south provide the environmental conditions necessary for a tornado to form. The conditions are warm, moist air near the ground and dry air aloft.
Tornadoes are more frequent in the Red River Valley of North Texas. The “Tornado Alley”, a broad area of relatively high tornado occurrence in the central United States, extends from North Texas to Oklahoma. Texas counties that experience a fair share of tornadoes include Harris, Galveston, and Dallas counties, among others. Tornadoes are not new to Texas, with the most significant recent outbreak of tornadoes in the state occurring in 1967. The tornado outbreak consisted of 115 known tornadoes, which spawned from Hurricane Beulah and lasted five days, with 67 tornadoes occurring on September 20, a Texas record for a single day. Hurricane Beulah also set the record for the number of tornadoes associated with a tropical system. Another tragic tornado event occurred in May 1987 in Saragosa, Texas. It was a violent, multiple-vortex tornado with winds between 207 and 260 mph hitting a Hispanic community in sparsely populated Reeves County. This resulted in 30 fatalities and over 100 injuries. Reports show that severe storms, which include tornadoes, have cost Texas between 20 and 50 billion dollars from 2010 to 2022, with up to $1 billion in the present year alone.
The keys to survival during a tornado are preparedness and action. The first thing to do is to identify a safe place to take shelter. Although no places are absolutely safe from a tornado, certain areas still offer more protection. Examples of such areas include storm cellars, basements, or windowless rooms. Note that mobile homes are entirely unsafe against a tornado, and it is very dangerous to remain in or stay around one during a tornado. The main reason for the mobile homes’ lack of tornado protection is because forceful winds can easily displace them, and the debris from the destruction can turn into dangerous projectiles.
Tips helpful for preparing against a tornado include:
Drawing up an emergency plan
Making a list of emergency contacts, specific health needs, and limitations that may be shared with other family members and neighbors
Having a supply kit beforehand and ensuring it is regularly restocked
Knowing how to administer basic first aid.
In preparing one’s home against a tornado, it is crucial to make repairs and reinforcements to improve the building’s structural integrity. Homeowners are also advised to clear their outdoor surroundings and reduce potential debris. This can be done by tying down objects that can be spun around or removing them altogether. Indoor objects such as bookshelves, dining tables, cutleries, and settees should also be fastened or kept in a shut enclosure.
Besides preparing one’s home, protecting other personal belongings, especially vehicles, is equally important. Building reinforced storage rooms or moving such items to secure areas are options to consider. It is also wise to obtain comprehensive vehicle coverage that usually covers damages from extreme weather events (it would be wise to verify your coverage with your insurance provider). All insurance or ownership-related documents for a vehicle should also be kept in a secure location. Examples of safe keeping include putting these documents in waterproof files, securing them in reinforced safes, or keeping them with a friend or family member who resides outside tornado-prone areas. Note that it is unsafe to remain in a vehicle during a tornado or attempt to outrun the tornado, especially since tornados can easily tip a vehicle over.
These tips may be extended to boats as well. Boat owners in Texas should keep their boats fastened in a secure and reinforced storage spot, obtain comprehensive boat insurance policies, and ensure documents related to the boat are kept in a secure location. Anchoring a boat by the seashore is not a good option, as flying debris can cause substantial damage to the boat, and the wind speeds may capsize it.
In preparing one’s pets during an imminent tornado, pet owners can consider the following tips:
Ensure that pets are vaccinated.
Keep necessary documents relating to the pet, such as medical records and ownership documents in a secure location.
Stock up on pet food.
Pet owners should get collar tags with owner-contact information. In case the pet gets lost, strangers or first responders can easily contact the pet owner.
Include pets in safety drills.
For livestock and farm animals, reinforce their barns and stables. Alternatively, if possible, transport them to a safer location.
After a tornado, substantial costs are spent on cleanups, treatments, repairs, and returning things to normalcy. This takes a hit on an affected person’s finances. Therefore it is important to prepare a financial plan using the following two major considerations:
Obtaining an insurance policy for insurable belongings and possible medical treatments. Such policies include home, comprehensive vehicle or boat, and medical insurance. Policyholders should confirm that these insurance policies cover tornado-related damages. Prospective policyholders can also ask their insurance provider if they offer disaster insurance policies. A disaster insurance policy indemnifies a property owner from the financial damage caused by a disaster, whether natural or man-made.
Creating a tornado or emergency fund, especially if residing in tornado-prone areas. The money from this fund can help cushion the financial impact of a tornado and possibly assist with preparing for it.
Essentially, preparedness entails planning for personal safety during a tornado. It also includes planning for financial stability after the tornado. On the other hand, action entails seeking safety. The time for preparedness or action depends on the proximity and potential impact of an approaching tornado. To find out when to prepare and when to take action, it is crucial to stay tuned to local news updates on tornadoes and look out for tornado warnings and alerts.
Tornado warnings and alerts are updates on an area's tornado situation. This includes updates on the recent formation of a tornado, its potential impact, its speed, and information on safety measures or evacuation. While there are several tornado alerts, such as local tornado sirens and circulars, the two major alerts across the US are the tornado watch and tornado warning.
A tornado watch is an alert indicating that weather conditions are favorable for the formation of a tornado in a particular area. A tornado watch signifies the need to plan for personal safety in the event a tornado occurs. Such plans include practicing safety drills, securing household and outdoor items, and restocking necessary supplies like food and first-aid materials. A tornado watch signal is usually issued by the storm prediction center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Residents of an area identified in a tornado watch are advised to stay tuned to the NOAA or their local news for subsequent updates or helpful information. On the other hand, a tornado warning alert indicates a tornado has formed and is fast approaching. When the NOAA national weather service office issues this alert, the people in the affected area are advised to seek safety immediately.
It is crucial to understand the difference between both alerts. When the NOAA issues any of the alerts, anyone unsure of the situation can contact their local National Weather Service office or stay tuned to local news updates for clarifications. Additionally, anyone can explore the NOAA-maintained portal on tornado watch and warning alerts issued across Texas to find out if the NOAA has issued any of the alerts in their area. The information on the portal is updated every three minutes and segmented into counties for ease of search.
Assessing your tornado risk helps to determine adequate safety measures. A tornado risk assessment includes finding out the probability of a tornado occurrence in your area, the area’s history of tornado occurrences, and likely wind disasters that may result from the area’s climate. The NOAA keeps and publishes information on weather conditions across the country, indicating areas likely to experience tornadoes or severe weather conditions. Texans can utilize this information when assessing their tornado risk and how to prepare for any such occurrences. For more information or assistance with tornado-related information, Texans can contact their local National Weather Service customer service.
During a tornado, immediate safety must be the primary consideration. After a tornado watch signal, or after it is obvious a tornado is imminent, it is advisable to seek safety. This can be done by moving to designated tornado shelters. Avoid windows entirely, but make sure they are shut before the tornado hits. Shut windows help minimize the penetration of rain and flying debris, compartmentalize the building, and act as a barricade to debris. All of these make the building less prone to damage. Also, it is advisable to install wind-resistant windows.
When a tornado hits, lay flat on the ground with hands over your head.
Do not remain in a vehicle or mobile home during a tornado, as these can be easily destroyed or tossed around by the wind. Remember, it is near impossible to outrun a tornado. Also, avoid taking shelter under an overpass as wind force increases in this area. The duration of a tornado will depend on the strength of the tornado. Weak tornadoes last only a few minutes, while strong tornadoes may last for as long as 20 minutes or more. Violent tornadoes, while very rare, may extend beyond an hour. Some additional safety tips during a tornado include:
Abandon mobile homes and move into an underground shelter, basement, or safe room.
If on the road or in a vehicle, get out of the vehicle and find a low place, such as a culvert or ditch, and lay flat.
Stay away from objects that a tornado could easily destroy or toss around. This includes staying away from trees, car parks, or mobile homes.
Furthermore, pay attention to emergency warnings and forecasts, weather reports, and observe climate conditions for any signs of a tornado. If you have additional questions about weather reports, you can contact your local weather office for clarifications.
Tornadoes often result in injury, property damage, or both. Regarding injuries, head injuries have been reported to be the most common type of injury, as well as broken bones. These injuries are common for people who could not find adequate shelter during the tornado, especially after being spun around or hit by flying debris. After a tornado, if you did not sustain any injuries, check on the safety and health of others. Call 911 if you or your neighbors require medical assistance.
Tornadoes often lead to expensive repairs or replacements resulting from damages caused to property. After a tornado, it is best to assess the extent of property damage caused by the incident. This includes checking one’s home for areas that may need repairs and checking if other properties, such as vehicles or boats, were damaged. If possible, take pictures of any property damages. They may be helpful to prove damages when filing insurance claims. Fortunately, most standard home and comprehensive auto insurance policies include coverage for tornado damage. This is because tornadoes don't require special coverage, as the insurance industry classifies tornadoes as windstorms. Note that it may be difficult for victims of a tornado to maintain a claim when their coverage contains a wind exclusion clause. Policyholders should confirm from their insurance provider that policies obtained in preparedness for a tornado situation cover tornado-related damages.
Policyholders are advised to notify their insurance provider of their intention to file a claim as early as possible. Some insurance policies stipulate a timeframe within which the claim must be filed, and failure to do so may result in the claim being denied.
When assessing property damages, take extra safety precautions. Helpful safety tips include:
Looking out for unstable objects or structures: In some cases, winds from a tornado do not directly destroy structures in their path but weaken them, leading to a subsequent collapse after the tornado. Therefore, residents of an affected area are advised to be cautious when making damage assessments and look out for unstable structures. Signs of an unstable structure include tilted or heavily cracked walls, broken tree branches, and hanging window frames. It is best to keep a distance from such unsteady structures.
Know that utility lines may be damaged: Tornadoes sometimes damage utility lines. This puts affected residents at risk of fire, explosion, or electrocution. If possible, turn off utilities before the tornado strikes or after the tornado subsides. Residents in affected areas may also contact their local utility company for assistance in this regard.
Wear protective clothing: When conducting damage assessments or clean-ups, residents are advised to wear protective gear such as work gloves, thick-soled shoes, long-sleeved shirts, and safety goggles. These reduce the risk of injury from acid spills, fire, broken glasses, and other hazards.
Although these tips may help with safe damage assessment and clean-ups, consulting a licensed professional instead is a better option. Repair contractors will usually consult a structural engineer who will not only help assess property damages but will give affected residents professional advice on whether their homes are safe for reentry.
After ensuring personal safety and health, make a checklist of needed supplies. Get fresh food supplies and only drink bottled water, as the tornado may have contaminated home water supplies. Also, most tornado occurrences affect power lines, causing a power outage and making food preservation difficult. Other supplies that may be necessary after a tornado include:
First-aid items and medications
Clothes, shoes, and other essentials
Bathing soap, toothbrush, toothpaste, and other personal hygiene items
Safety kits, such as work gloves and safety goggles, for those conducting a debris removal themselves.