It's almost spring—how's your tornado preparedness?

The Practical Prepper

Growing up in the Midwest, tornadoes have been a risk every year of my life. They are violent, destructive forces, as many people discover every year. I'm very grateful that I've never had to deal with the devastation that even a medium-strength tornado can cause. Nevertheless, I learned while very young how to prepare for, and react during, a tornado.

Preparing for Tornado Season

Of course, our foundation for preparing for tornadoes is the same basic preparedness for most catastrophes (e.g., we have an emergency kit, a family communications plan, etc.). Other things we do specifically for tornadoes include:

  • We regularly check our trees for dead, damaged, or diseased limbs and remove them whenever necessary. We also monitor our neighbors' trees and discuss any potential problems with them. 
  • Our lawn furniture, trash cans, etc. are kept secured during tornado season. Whenever there's a tornado watch, we move hanging plants or anything else that can be easily picked up by the wind into our garage or house. 
  • We've identified the safest areas of our house and have that established as our shelter in a tornado warning. As a kid, we had a basement, which is preferable. We don't currently have a basement, but we have a interior bathroom with a central supporting wall and no windows, which is a fairly secure area. 
  • We know how the local siren blares to indicate a tornado and listen for it. 
  • On stormy days, especially in tornado season, we listen to local news to stay informed about developing weather situations and their effects, and to hear any instructions given by local emergency management officials.

Have a Weather Radio

In addition to the local community and television alerts, we also keep a NOAA Weather Radio on and monitoring for the severest weather. The Midland weather radio that we have allows us to select which kind of alerts we want to hear. For instance, we want to hear about tornado watches and warnings, but we suppress the alerts about thunderstorm watches and warnings. We do that so that we only get woken up at night by life-threatening events, not every time there's an update about a rainstorm. Since tornadoes most generally travel from the southwest toward the northeast, we program our radio to monitor the counties to the south and east of us.

Of course, I've made sure the entire family understands the difference between a tornado watch and a tornado warning:

  • Tornado Watch: Tornadoes are possible in and around the areas specified. We consider our situation, check our supplies, and take care of anything outside that needs to be secured. In short we're on alert and ready to act quickly if and when a warning is issued or we see any of the tornado warning signs. 
  • Tornado Warning: When this is issued, a funnel cloud (tornado) has been sighted or indicated by weather radar. Often, the tornado is just minutes away, and present an immediate threat to our lives and property. When we're home, we immediately go into our safe area, being sure to take out pets too. Our weather radio is nearby, and we keep a portable, battery-powered radio in our shelter area.

Knowing the Warning Signs of a Tornado

As mentioned above, we do watch the skies for the following danger signs, which either precede or are associated with tornadoes:

  • A dark, often greenish sky
  • Large hail
  • A funnel cloud, which is the visible, rotating extension of the cloud base
  • A "wall" cloud, which is a large, dark, low-lying cloud, or an isolated lowering of the base of a thunderstorm (particularly if the clouds are rotating)
  • Loud roaring noise, similar to a freight train
  • Cloud of debris

If we see any of the danger signs, we take shelter immediately, whether or not we've heard an announced warning. (But, honestly, we usually find out about tornadoes from the NOAA weather service before these signs are evident.)

Being Prepared when Away from Home

Of course, we're not always home when a tornado watch or warning occurs. Here are some ways we deal with tornado situations when we're not at home, adapted from guidance from FEMA, the Red Cross, and similar resources:

  • At another's home: we follow their lead on taking shelter. If they haven't thought through sheltering for a tornado, we pick a location based on the same criteria mentioned above. If we're in a trailer or mobile home, we leave immediately and find shelter using the approach described below for commercial structures.
  • In a commercial structure (e.g., work, school, shopping center, etc.): We go to the pre-designated shelter areas where available. If shelter isn't designated, we find the center of an interior room on the lowest level, away from corners, windows, doors, and outside walls (an interior hallway is good). We keep as many walls as possible between us and the outside. Getting under a sturdy desk or table works too.
  • In a vehicle: In open country, we move away from the tornado's path at right angles (i.e., when facing the tornado, moving to the right or left of it). As noted above, tornados generally move southwest to northeast, so if a tornado is moving toward us, we head south. We don't try to outrun a tornado in urban or congested areas; instead, we immediately find safe shelter and leave the vehicle.
  • Outside with no shelter: We avoid getting under overpasses or bridges. We lie flat in a nearby ditch or depression and cover our heads with our hands. While we look for a low area, we don't pick a place that is obviously prone to flooding. You are safer in a low, flat location. Covering our heads helps a bit against flying debris, which causes the most fatalities and injuries in a tornado.

Are You at Risk for Tornadoes?

So that's our approach to tornado preparedness, which is critical for us, since we live in an area of fairly frequent tornadoes. Take a look at the graphic below to see if tornadoes are a common threat in your area (click the image to enlarge it).

Image courtesy of the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety's site,

Other Tornado Preparedness Resources

If you do need to prepare against a tornado, here are a number of good resources to use in preparing your own tornado preparedness plan:

Should you be interested in actually building a safe room in your current or future home or business, FEMA offers some additional information about them:


Believing that preparedness and self-reliance are key to individual freedom, Atticus Freeman is the founder of the Self-Reliant Info blog, in addition to authoring The Practical Prepper weekly blog here on Farm Dreams. Thanks for reading!


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Tags: NOAA, shelters, storms, tornado, tornadoes, warnings, watches

Comment by Jodie Westwood on March 16, 2012 at 10:05am

The storms of April 2011 was a wake call for us.  We stayed in our basement 1/2 the night - very uncomfortable I might add.  This year I was more prepared.  We have a small electric generator that stays charged, a weather radio, chairs and pillows.  I actually charged the laptop and had it tuned into the weather radar NOAA - might as well use that internet until its gone!  Made a list of "must grab" too - from purses to pets.  Rehearsing was a huge help.  Coming from Florida where you had time to prepare for a hurricane - tornados dont give you that option (much).

Comment by Atticus Freeman on March 17, 2012 at 11:58am

Hi Jodie, thanks for the comment. You raise a good point; we try to keep at least basic preparedness items in our shelter area (e.g., flashlight, radio, etc.). For "movable" items (like purses, mobile phones, etc.), we do our best to keep them in one or two locations when we come home. For instance, my wife keeps her purse in one of two locations, we keep our mobile phones at their charging stations, and so on. Doing so makes it far easier to round up things, no matter if we're sheltering in place or evacuating.

Comment by Jodie Westwood on March 17, 2012 at 12:27pm

We made a short list of "grab-its" and keep it posted in a couple of places.  It helps when you live with senior people and have to "herd" them as well as pets.

Comment by Karen Paro on March 17, 2012 at 10:43pm

My sister & I had our first and hopefully our last encounters with tornadoes in "03" as we drove to & from TX. The first was one night we stopped for the night at a motel between Bristol & Nashville and during the night I had a severe sinus drain cough hit and didn't want to wake my sister so I stepped outside and dug around in the car until I found my sinus pills as soon as those kicked in and the coughing stopped I decided while I was out there I'd have a quick smoke (did you know it's impossible to light a cigarette in that wind ?) while I'm standing there I'm looking behind the motel trying to see the train as it's going thru and couldn't figure out why it hadn't triggered the crossing lights - the next morning when we hit the road we started seeing all the damage so turned on the radio to see if there was anything on there about what had happened and that was when we found out about the tornado, from there on we kept my portable scanner set so that if NOAA came on with anymore severe weather alerts the scanner would kick to NOAA. That night we stopped in Texarcanna(sp) for the night and the next morning the weather man was showing the areas that were in the danger zone so we made the decision when we came back out of TX that afternoon to drop south and come back thru AL & GA, danged if the tornadoes didn't drop too, we were just leaving Birmingham when the weather alert went off warning that a tornado had just touched down behind us on the outskirts of Birmingham, we were in a huge line of traffic and weren't sure where to go so sis dropped in behind a semi with plates that told us he was from tornado territory so if anyone would know what they were doing it was him and we followed him to where it was safe to pull off & take shelter. The next year when it was time to go back to TX to pick up the grand again she refused to go because it was tornado season so my dad went with me which meant I had to bite the bullet & fly (I don't fly I get deathly airsick) but I will never regret the decision seeing as 2 1/2 months later he passed away.

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