A tornado is a rapidly spinning column of cloud that extends from a thunderstorm and touches the ground. Tornadoes are dangerous and can cause injuries and damage to property. The danger and impact of a tornado depend on its wind speed and size. Large tornadoes can obliterate buildings, violently spin heavy objects such as cars, and even uproot or snap trees in half. A tornado’s wind speed can reach upwards of 300 miles per hour, with a damage range reaching one mile wide.
While tornadoes are generally dangerous, some are more dangerous than others, depending on their impact and damage level. A tornado’s impact and damage are assessed after the tornado's occurrence. A tornado rating is assigned to the tornado event after this assessment. Tornadoes are rated using the Enhanced Fujita (EF) Scale, which has a rating range of EF0 to EF5. Tornadoes in the EF0 and EF1 range are tornadoes with minimal impact and a wind speed not exceeding 110 miles per hour. The EF2 and EF3 range cover tornadoes that record a maximum speed of 165 miles per hour and cause substantial damage. Tornadoes classified under the EF4 and EF5 range are known to cause catastrophic damage and reach wind speeds exceeding 200 miles per hour. Note that a tornado is rated after it has subsided and not before it hits. All tornadoes must be treated as potentially catastrophic, and residents in potentially affected areas must take necessary safety steps once a tornado approaches.
There are several signs of a tornado or signs that indicate a tornado is approaching. These include:
Where any of these signs are apparent, it is crucial to find safety.
Tornadoes can form from different weather conditions. However, certain weather types are more favorable for the formation of a tornado. These weather types may be referred to as “tornado weather” and typically include large thunderstorms, high winds, and weather with uneven wind distribution. Notwithstanding how they may have formed, tornadoes are characterized by certain sounds. The sounds vary and depend on the tornado’s speed, the affected environment, and its contact with the ground. Familiar sounds that indicate the presence of a tornado include high-pitched whistling, loud train-like roars, a pulsing ebb and flow, or the sound of a trashing machine metal being chewed up. Upon hearing such sounds or any other known tornado sound, it is necessary to seek safety immediately.
Several factors affect tornado formation. In most cases, this formation is sudden, but tornadoes are known to form mostly from supercell thunderstorms. Supercell thunderstorms are characterized by a persistent rotating updraft. They are most favorable for a tornado occurrence due to wind variations, speeds, and rotation. This does not mean tornadoes do not emerge from other thunderstorms. Generally, a tornado starts to form in a thunderstorm when warm air rises and cold air drops. A sharp variation in the speed of the warm and cold air results in wind rotation and progressively spinning air currents. This typically creates a funnel-shaped cloud. The funnel-shaped cloud extends from the thunderstorm and drops down, making contact with the ground. When the cloud touches the ground, a tornado is formed. These funnel-shaped clouds are usually vertical when touching the ground, although they may initially be horizontally shaped.
A twister is a colloquial term for wind-related weather events involving rapid wind rotation, flying debris, and thunderstorms, which are typical of a tornado. The unique features of a twister are much similar to a tornado, and there are no differences between the two wind-related events. The two terms are used interchangeably, but the usage of the term “twister” can be attributable to pop culture.
Super tornadoes refer to extremely violent and devastating tornadoes. This may include tornadoes with high wind speed and a wide destructive range or tornadoes accompanied by hail and electrical storms. Super tornadoes are usually in the EF4 and EF5 range. They do not occur frequently but can cause significantly more damage than frequent tornadoes in the EF0 and EF1 range. An Arkansas super tornado occurrence in 1974, known as the Greenbrier tornado, reportedly had a damage range of 18 miles and resulted in property damages of over $2 million. Super tornadoes and other tornadoes in the EF4 and EF5 rating range account for a substantial part of tornado-related property damages and 70% of tornado-related fatalities.
Tornadoes can form at any point across the year if the weather conditions are favorable. However, such weather conditions are usually present during certain periods of the year. These periods are known as tornado seasons. The tornado season in the US is mostly early spring, although the exact time of the year may vary by region. In the Southern Plain region, the tornado season is between May and early June. In the Midwest and Northern Plain, the period ranges between June and July. A region may have multiple tornado seasons. In Florida, there are two tornado seasons. There is the spring season between February and April and the summer season between June and September. Notably, tornadoes that form during spring usually have more damage than those formed during the summer. Residents of Florida are advised to still take both tornado seasons seriously.
Tornadoes are categorized by different factors, but the major factors are:
The categorization of tornadoes by damage impact is done through the EF Scale. Regarding the categorization of tornadoes by their formation, tornadoes are categorized into:
Supercell tornadoes are tornadoes formed from supercell thunderstorms. Although supercell tornadoes consist of a minor part of supercell thunderstorms, most dangerous tornadoes are supercell tornadoes. Supercell tornadoes generate wind speeds that exceed 50 miles per hour and can last several hours. In extreme cases, supercell tornadoes may become super tornadoes, accompanied by large hail, a large width of flying debris, and electrical storms. On the other hand, non-supercell tornadoes are tornadoes that form from thunderstorms other than a supercell. Non-supercell tornadoes are also dangerous, but not as dangerous as supercell tornadoes. They typically last minutes and gather wind speeds below 50 miles per hour. Tornadoes categorized as non-supercell are mostly in the EF0 and EF1 damage impact range.
Non-supercell tornadoes are further categorized into landspouts and waterspouts. Landspout tornadoes are tornadoes that form close to the ground and without a rotating updraft. Landspouts are formed when the thunderstorm is not yet violent or when the thunderstorm is still in its formative stages. Waterspout tornadoes are landspout tornadoes on water. Essentially, waterspouts and landspouts have the same features, except that waterspouts form over water.
Climate disasters are not uncommon in the United States, with the country reporting several climate disasters since the 1980s. These disasters have resulted in economic losses exceeding $1 billion. Wind-related weather events form part of these climate disasters and significantly contribute to these costs, including preventive measures and clean-up costs. However, of these wind-related weather events, tornadoes cause the most damage. Annually, tornadoes cause over $400 million in property damage, over 70 fatal injuries, and hundreds of serious non-fatal injuries. In 2015, the US recorded over $300 million in property damages due to tornadoes, which was over seven times more than damages caused by hurricanes and even higher than damages from other wind-related weather events. More recently, in 2021, tornado-related events caused billions of dollars in property damage and over 100 fatalities across the US. These tornado facts show the extensive impact of tornadoes and why it is necessary to have a preparedness plan.
Although the wind force from a tornado is part of what makes it dangerous, flying debris poses the most threat to humans. This is because flying debris can go farther than the tornado, and the force of the debris can cause serious bodily injuries and damage properties immediately before, during, or after the tornado passes an affected area. Flying debris is also unpredictable. Debris includes broken glasses, ripped tree branches, roofs, broken home doors, and even bikes. Tornadoes can also dig into the ground, make ditch holes, and destroy asphalt pavements. This makes structures without proper reinforcements, such as mobile homes, more prone to damage or destruction.
Florida is home to more than 20 million people and currently ranks in the top 10 most populous states in the US. Geographically, the state is the second largest eastward of the Mississippi peninsula, with a unique tropical climate. Florida experiences sufficient rainfall and sunshine during summer and some parts of the winter season. Across Eastern US, the state experiences the highest average percentage of seasonal sunshine. The abundant presence of both warm, humid air and cold, dry air in the Florida climate makes the state prone to tropical storms and other wind-related weather events. The state records a higher frequency of tornadoes per 10,000 square miles than any other state in the US.
Although violent tornadoes rarely occur in Florida, other serious tornadoes are sometimes recurrent. The state experienced several numbers of such tornado occurrences between 1997 and 2004. The number of occurrences per year was sometimes more than 100. These occurrences also resulted in property damage, several injuries, and fatalities. Between 1966 and 2007, tornado-related injuries reached upwards of 1,000 and over 70 fatalities were recorded. More recently, in 2018 and 2020, Florida was affected by hurricanes Michael and Sally, respectively, both of which resulted in over 50 fatalities and billions of dollars in property damage.
Tornadoes can occur across any area in Florida, but certain areas record higher tornado occurrences than others. These areas generally include Tampa Bay, Fort Myers, and the Florida Panhandle. Tornadoes are also common in the Jackson county area of Florida, although no violent tornado has been recorded in decades. The recorded tornadoes are between the EF0 and EF2 range or the F0 and F2 range for tornadoes recorded before the EF Scale. The most serious of such tornado occurrences was in 2004. It caused three injuries and over $3 million in property damage. It was an F2-rated tornado and had a maximum width of 500 yards. Another county in Florida with significant tornado occurrences is the Bay county area. In 2004, the county experienced more than five significant tornadoes resulting in 8 injuries and property damage costing more than $7 million. In 2008, there was an EF0-rated tornado in the area with a maximum width of 25 yards and property damage costing more than $500,000. No injuries were recorded. Since then, the county has experienced a series of tornado occurrences, although without substantial damage or injury reports. There have also been reports of significant tornado occurrences in the Walton county area of Florida. The county recorded two significant tornadoes in 2002, causing property damage upwards of $1 million with no injuries recorded. The county further recorded several EF0-rated tornadoes in 2015, although there were no recorded damages or injuries.
Other counties in Florida with a high probability of tornado occurrences include Hillsborough, Pinellas, Seminole, Pasco, and Polk County areas. These counties have some of the highest tornado indexes of all the counties in Florida. A tornado index is a meteorological calculation used to determine the probability of a tornado occurrence in an area. These county areas also record significant wind-related and other weather events.
One of the best ways to avoid the potential dangers of a tornado is through preparation. As earlier noted, tornadoes can happen anywhere and any time of the year. Tornado preparations take many forms and include several considerations. Adequate preparation typically depends on the number of individuals included in necessary arrangements, home, vehicles, pet considerations, and financial plans.
The objective of tornado preparation is safety. During such preparations, it may be helpful to consider the following tips:
Know your area’s tornado risk: Certain areas across the US are more prone to tornadoes than others. Tornadoes are also more likely to occur during specific periods of the year in some regions than in others. Therefore, residents of Florida are advised to know the tornado peculiarities of their areas, such as the area’s tornado season and tornado index. Interested residents can contact their local National Weather Service (NWS) office for information and assistance on such matters.
Have or develop a tornado safety shelter: A tornado safety shelter is a structure or area of a structure that offers substantial protection against a tornado. These structures are designed to withstand a tornado's force. Having or developing a tornado safety shelter is crucial to tornado preparations. This is because buildings may not offer adequate protection against wind force and flying debris, both of which are potentially fatal. Residents interested in building a shelter can utilize the National Storm Shelter Association Specifications or the International Code Council design standards for maximum safety. Alternatively, residents unable to build a separate shelter can designate an area of their home as a safe spot. Such areas should not have any windows, be the lower part of the house, and should be able to withstand some force. The basement of a house and a windowless bathroom are viable areas. Such areas can be further reinforced if possible.
Know the signs of a tornado: Various signs indicate an approaching tornado, including dark-greenish skies, a cloud of debris, and a high-pitched or missile-like noise. Knowing these signs is necessary to know when to avoid staying outdoors or seeking immediate shelter. This may be crucial, especially when unaware of reported tornado sightings or living in areas without tornado warning signals.
Practice safety drills: Safety drills are what to do if a tornado strikes. They typically include knowing where to go and several other courses of action necessary for safety. Safety drills may differ by household. Residents should ensure to occasionally practice their safety drills and include family members, especially children, in practice sessions where applicable.
Gather sufficient supplies: A tornado may last several hours. In some cases, there may be multiple tornadoes across several days. These may make it necessary to stay in a tornado safety shelter for a longer period. Even after a tornado, it may be necessary to stay in the shelter for safety reasons. Leaving to find food or other necessities would be impossible in such situations. Therefore, it is crucial to stock safe shelters with sufficient supplies. Such supplies include non-perishable food, first-aid kits, enough clothes for a week, and cleaning supplies.
Learn first-aid: Flying debris from a tornado can cause serious injuries. Also, a tornado’s wind force can violently move an individual and lead to injurious situations. Knowledge of first aid is crucial in these situations, pending access to proper treatment.
Stay tuned to weather reports: Although tornadoes may suddenly form, most tornadoes are anticipated based on climate conditions. Weather reports will indicate when a tornado is likely to form. Staying tuned to weather reports will help to know of any such situation and make adequate preparations before the tornado hits.
Keep household and outdoor items secure: The wind force of a tornado typically disrupts household and outdoor items and may turn them into flying debris. This can destroy the items and also make them dangerous. It is necessary to secure household items and arrange them in sheltered or reinforced areas to avoid such situations. Larger items can be secured by anchoring them with metal strapping, cables, bolts, or corner brackets. Outdoor items can be moved into the house or kept in a reinforced outdoor storage unit. Remember to remove loose items, both indoor and outdoor items, and either secure them or dispense with them.
Gather important documents and keep them: Important documents include insurance policy documents, certificates, and medical documents. These can be kept in waterproof bags before they are kept in a safe or any other secure place.
After making plans for personal safety and the safety of family members, it is necessary to consider how to secure one’s home and vehicles and keep pets safe. The following tips may be helpful in this regard:
Reinforce the house against wind force: It is advisable to include weather event considerations when building a house. Such considerations include installing reinforced doors, building sturdy walls, and having a room suitable for a tornado-safe spot. This is crucial, especially for residents in tornado-prone areas like the Florida Panhandle. Those living in buildings without such considerations can make necessary reinforcements. Necessary reinforcements include tightening loosened door bolts, fixing slack roof parts, and installing wind-resistant windows. These reinforcements will depend on the type of building, the area of the city, and other considerations like the costs.
Build or find a secure garage for boats, vehicles, and other automobiles or find a safer location: Tornadoes with high wind force can spin vehicles and boats. Even low-rated tornadoes can deal significant damage. This makes it important to plan for the security of one’s vehicles and automobiles in the event of a tornado. Building a reinforced garage and parking the vehicle or boat in such a garage is a viable option. Alternatively, vehicle or boat owners can move them to a safer location that would not be affected by the tornado. Listening to weather reports can help determine the closest safe location around.
Get essential pet items: For most people, pets are a part of the family. Plans for personal safety during a tornado are also applicable to pets. This includes providing a pet space in a tornado safety shelter, getting sufficient pet food, medications, clothes change, and cleaning supplies. Note that pets are likely to be more shaken by a tornado and may lose composure. This may result in pets running out of sight in search of safety. Pet owners can get a personalized collar with owners’ information. Should the pet run away or get missing, any stranger that finds the pet can easily contact the pet owner.
Financial plans are an important part of tornado preparations because these preparations involve a lot of spending. Financial plans also cover possible clean-up costs after the tornado subsides. Without adequate financial planning, it is easy to get overwhelmed with the necessary expenses to prepare against a tornado or obtain medical assistance and conduct repairs after it hits. Interested individuals can consider the following when drawing up a financial plan:
Have an emergency fund in place: Emergency funds can take different forms. Some people develop an emergency fund by setting aside a portion of their total income. Others only set aside unexpected funds or recurrent income. The preferred form will depend on a person’s income stream and savings goal. An emergency fund is simply money dedicated for emergency purposes. It will help reduce out-of-pocket expenses when such emergencies occur or even help cover the entire expenses from the emergency. It is advisable to keep emergency funds in a savings account to accrue interest.
Get necessary insurance policies: Insurance helps reduce the financial burden that comes with the occurrence of a particular event. This particular event is usually stated in the insurance policy. Examples of insurance policies that can reduce the financial burden from a tornado occurrence include home insurance, comprehensive car insurance, boat insurance, and medical insurance. Before paying the insurance premium, ensure the insurance policy covers tornado occurrences or damages and injuries from such occurrences. Alternatively, interested persons can obtain a disaster insurance policy if offered by their insurance provider. Disaster insurance is a policy type that indemnifies a policyholder from the financial effects of specific disasters. Disasters may be natural, man-made, or both. Such disasters include tornadoes, flooding, fires, and terrorism. Note that disaster insurance mostly applies to houses and businesses, not cars, boats, or medical expenses. It is crucial that prospective policyholders confirm the extent of their disaster insurance policy from their insurance provider before paying a premium.
Tornado warnings and alerts are notifications on a possible or ongoing tornado occurrence in an area. The two notable tornado alerts are the tornado watch and the tornado warning alerts.
A tornado watch alert is a notification stating that a tornado is likely to occur based on present weather conditions. Residents of an area where a tornado watch is issued are expected to practice safety measures and anticipate a tornado. Examples of such safety measures include:
The Storm Prediction Center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) issues tornado watch alerts. This is usually done through the local center of the affected area. Local news outlets and weather reports may also publicize the alert.
A tornado warning alert is a notification indicating a tornado is incoming. It indicates that a tornado has already formed and a particular area or city is in its path. When a tornado warning is issued, it is necessary to seek safety immediately. The NOAA national weather service office issues tornado warnings, usually through the local office of the affected city. Local news outlets and weather reports also publicize this alert once issued by the NOAA.
The NOAA maintains an online weather page containing a list of counties in Florida and their real-time climate condition. Each county’s information is updated to reflect possible climate disasters such as floods and tornadoes. Interested persons across the state can stay informed on their area’s weather by checking the page daily. They can also use the information on the page to prepare for possible climate disasters.
When making tornado preparations, it is wise to assess your area’s tornado risk. This assessment includes finding out about past tornado occurrences and the probability of a future tornado occurrence. Conclusions from this assessment can give insight into better home reinforcement options. They can also help to know if tornado preparations are sufficient. For example, if tornadoes typically last hours in an area, preparations for a potential tornado occurrence would be different than if tornadoes typically lasted minutes. The Storm Prediction Center of the NOAA maintains updated information on nationwide weather conditions on its homepage. Interested persons can look through the information daily to assess their area’s weather conditions. The daily update will help track the severity of weather conditions. It will also help determine the risk of a tornado or other climate disasters occurring and prepare adequately.
During a tornado, it is crucial to seek safety. This can be done by staying in prepared tornado rooms or safety shelters or moving to another city not affected by the tornado. If in a building without a safe room when a tornado strikes, here are helpful tornado safety tips:
Find a part of the building that is low, windowless, and can withstand some force. A basement or windowless bathroom are examples of these areas. Alternatively, find a sturdy object, such as a workbench or heavy desk, and stay under it. These can offer additional protection from falling debris.
Lay flat and protect your head. Ways a person can protect their head include placing their hands over their head, wearing a biker helmet, or covering their body with a sleeping bag or thick blanket.
Avoid opening windows during a tornado. Stay away from windows. Windforce from a tornado can cause a window to explode. The explosion and accompanying shards can cause serious or fatal injuries to a person close to the window. The shards can also become dangerous projectiles.
Do not go outside for any reason. Leaving your home during a tornado leaves you fully exposed to the tornado’s wind force and debris. Only step outside after the tornado subsides, and do so with caution.
Even people who find and stay in safe rooms are advised to lay low and protect their heads during a tornado.
It is possible a tornado may begin before you get to safety. Examples of such instances include when driving or when outdoors. In such situations, find shelter immediately after noticing signs of a tornado. Alternatively, find a low place and lay flat with your hands over your head. Low outdoor places include a ravine, gully, or ditch. Stay away from places with trees and avoid staying under overhead passes. The wind force of a tornado gets stronger under overhead passes, exposing anyone there to more danger and risk of injuries. Do not try to outrun a tornado. It is dangerous to do so, and it is impossible to drive inside a tornado. Tornadoes can move at speeds exceeding 250 miles per hour and spin cars.
Note that mobile homes offer no protection against a tornado, and it is unsafe to stay in one when a tornado is approaching. Finding shelter elsewhere or temporarily moving to a city not affected by the incoming tornado are better options. If in a mobile home when a tornado strikes, leave for a sturdier structure or find a low outdoor place and lay flat, with hands over your head.
After a tornado, it is still necessary to ensure personal safety. Stay tuned to weather reports, as the climate conditions may still be unsafe. During this period, it is best to check for any injuries or if medical assistance is necessary. When it is safe to go outdoors, it is advisable to go for a medical checkup to confirm if there are any tornado injuries. Tornado injuries may be non-apparent or apparent. Non-apparent injuries include traumas and organ failure, and apparent injuries include cuts, bruises, and fractures. A medical checkup will generally point out if medical treatment is necessary.
Also, it is necessary to assess damages caused by the tornado and make plans for repairs or replacements. This is where financial plans come in handy. If you have existing tornado insurance or any related insurance policy, notify your insurance provider you will be making a claim soon. Damage assessment must be done with caution. Wear protective clothing and avoid broken utility lines or building areas that are falling apart. If possible, leave such damage assessment to a structural engineer.
Tornadoes may pollute water supplies and destroy power lines, causing a power outage. This may make residents unable to preserve their food. Therefore, it is best to get fresh food and other necessary supplies, depending on the extent of the tornado’s damage. For example, if the tornado makes it impossible to get clothing from your house, you may need to buy new clothes and food supplies. For more assistance on what to do after a tornado, interested persons can contact their local NWS office.