Tornadoes are nature’s most violent storms. Spawned from powerful thunderstorms, tornadoes can cause fatalities and devastate a neighborhood in seconds. A tornado appears as a rotating, funnel-shaped cloud that extends from a thunderstorm to the ground with whirling winds that can reach more than 200 miles per hour. Damage paths can be in excess of one mile wide and 50 miles long. North Carolina is at some risk from this hazard. Some tornadoes are clearly visible, while rain or nearby low-hanging clouds obscure others. Occasionally, tornadoes develop so rapidly that little, if any, advance warning is possible. Before a tornado hits, the wind may die down and the air may become very still. A cloud of debris can mark the location of a tornado even if a funnel is not visible. Tornadoes generally occur near the trailing edge of a thunderstorm. It is not uncommon to see clear, sunlit skies behind a tornado.
- Build an emergency kit and make a family emergency plan.
- Listen to NOAA Weather Radio or to commercial radio or television newscasts for the latest information. In any emergency, always listen to the instructions given by local emergency management officials.
- Be alert to changing weather conditions. Look for approaching storms.
- Look for the following danger signs:
- Dark, often greenish sky
- Large hail
- A large, dark, low-lying cloud (particularly if rotating)
- Loud roar, similar to a freight train.
- If you see approaching storms or any of the danger signs, be prepared to take shelter immediately.
If you are under a tornado warning, seek shelter immediately! Most injuries associated with high winds are from flying debris, so remember to protect your head.
If you are in school, nursing home, hospital, factory, shopping center, high-rise building pre-identified best available refuge then:
- Go to a pre-designated area such as a small interior windowless room on the lowest level, below ground in a basement, or storm cellar, is best. (closet, interior hallway) away from corners, windows, doors, and outside walls. Put as many walls as possible between you and the outside. Get under a sturdy table and cover your head and neck with your arms and cover your body as best you can e.g., with a heavy coat or blankets, pillows. .
- In a high-rise building, go to a small interior room or hallway on the lowest floor possible.
- Do not open windows.
- A sturdy structure (e.g. residence, small building, school, nursing home, hospital, factory, shopping center, high-rise building)
A manufactured home or office then:
- Get out immediately and go to a pre-identified location such as the lowest floor of a sturdy, nearby building or a storm shelter. Mobile homes, even if tied down, do not offer protection from tornadoes.
The outside with no shelter then:
- If you are not in a sturdy building, there is no single research-based recommendation for what last-resort action to take because many factors can affect your decision. Possible actions include:
- Immediately get into a vehicle, buckle your seat belt and try to drive to the closest sturdy shelter. If your vehicle is hit by flying debris while you are driving, pull over and park.
- Take cover in a stationary vehicle. Put the seat belt on and cover your head with your arms and a blanket, coat or other cushion if possible.
- In all situations:
- Do not get under an overpass or bridge. You are safer in a low, flat location.
- Never try to outrun a tornado in urban or congested areas in a car or truck. Instead, leave the vehicle immediately for protection in a sturdy building. .
- Outdoor areas are not protected from flying debris. Flying debris from tornadoes causes most fatalities and injuries.
Injury may result from the direct impact of a tornado or it may occur afterward when people walk among debris and enter damaged buildings. A study of injuries after a tornadoes showed that 50 percent of the tornado-related injuries were suffered during rescue attempts, cleanup and other post-tornado activities. Nearly a third of the injuries resulted from stepping on nails. Because tornadoes often damage power lines, gas lines or electrical systems, there is a risk of fire, electrocution or an explosion. Protecting yourself and your family requires promptly treating any injuries suffered during the storm and using extreme care to avoid further hazards.
Check for injuries. Do not attempt to move seriously injured people unless they are in immediate danger of further injury. Get medical assistance immediately. If someone has stopped breathing, begin CPR if you are trained to do so. Stop a bleeding injury by applying direct pressure to the wound. Have any puncture wound evaluated by a physician. If you are trapped, try to attract attention to your location.
General Safety Precautions
Here are some safety precautions that could help you avoid injury after a tornado:
- Continue to monitor your battery-powered radio or television for emergency information.
- Be careful when entering any structure that has been damaged.
- Wear sturdy shoes or boots, long sleeves and gloves when handling or walking on or near debris.
- Be aware of hazards from exposed nails and broken glass.
- Do not touch downed power lines or objects in contact with downed lines. Report electrical hazards to the police and the utility company.
- Use battery-powered lanterns, if possible, rather than candles to light homes without electrical power. If you use candles, make sure they are in safe holders away from curtains, paper, wood or other flammable items. Never leave a candle burning when you are out of the room.
- Never use generators, grills, camp stoves or other gasoline, propane, natural gas or charcoal-burning devices inside your home, basement, garage or camper – or even outside near an open window, door or vent. Carbon monoxide (CO) – an odorless, colorless gas that can cause sudden illness and death if you breathe it – from these sources can build up in your home, garage or camper and poison the people and animals inside. Seek prompt medical attention if you suspect CO poisoning and are feeling dizzy, light-headed or nauseated.
- Hang up displaced telephone receivers that may have been knocked off by the tornado, but stay off the telephone, except to report an emergency.
- Cooperate fully with public safety officials.
- Respond to requests for volunteer assistance by police, fire fighters, emergency management and relief organizations, but do not go into damaged areas unless assistance has been requested. Your presence could hamper relief efforts and you could endanger yourself.
Inspecting the Damage
- After a tornado, be aware of possible structural, electrical or gas-leak hazards in your home. Contact your local city or county building inspectors for information on structural safety codes and standards. They may also offer suggestions on finding a qualified contractor to do work for you.
- In general, if you suspect any damage to your home, shut off electrical power, natural gas and propane tanks to avoid fire, electrocution or explosions.
- If it is dark when you are inspecting your home, use a flashlight rather than a candle or torch to avoid the risk of fire or explosion in a damaged home.
- If you see frayed wiring or sparks, or if there is an odor of something burning, you should immediately shut off the electrical system at the main circuit breaker if you have not done so already.
- If you smell gas or suspect a leak, turn off the main gas valve, open all windows and leave the house immediately. Notify the fire department by dialing 9-1-1 and do not turn on the lights, light matches, smoke or do anything that could cause a spark. Do not return to your house until you are told it is safe to do so.
Safety During Cleanup
- Wear sturdy shoes or boots, long sleeves and gloves.
- Learn proper safety procedures and operating instructions before operating any gas-powered or electric-powered saws or tools.
- Clean up spilled medicines, drugs, flammable liquids and other potentially hazardous materials.
The extent of destruction caused by tornadoes depends on the tornado’s intensity, size, path, time of day, and amount of time it is on the ground. Wind from tornadoes can reach more than 300 miles per hour, and damage paths can be more than 1 mile wide and 50 miles long. Wind from tornadoes can destroy buildings and trees, transform debris into deadly projectiles, and roll vehicles.
- They may strike quickly, with little or no warning.
- They may appear nearly transparent until dust and debris are picked up or a cloud forms in the funnel.
- The average tornado moves Southwest to Northeast, but tornadoes have been known to move in any direction.
- Tornadoes can accompany tropical storms and hurricanes as they move onto land.
- Waterspouts are tornadoes that form over water.
Familiarize yourself with these terms to help identify a tornado hazard:
- Tornado Watch – Tornadoes are possible. When there is a Watch, move to be near enough to a shelter or sturdy building to be able to get there quickly in a few minutes if there is a Warning or if you see signs of a tornado approaching. Remain alert for approaching storms. Watch the sky and stay tuned to NOAA Weather Radio, commercial radio or television for information.
- Tornado Warning – A tornado has been sighted or indicated by weather radar. Take shelter immediately.
When the Storm Comes (Video)
Tornado Playbook (PDF)
Taking Shelter from the Storm: Building a Safe Room Inside Your House (publication PDF)
American Red Cross (link)