Things You Need To Know To Stay Alive During a Tornado

I was 10 when I experienced my first tornado. Let me tell you, I learned what to do in a tornado — and what not to do as well. 
My mom, dad, two brothers, and I lived in Southern California, and road tripped to Arkansas every summer to visit our dad’s family. But this summer vacation turned out to be more eventful than most. It was full of intense weather; the kind of weather I had never experienced. Even when I was young, we called it the vacation from hell.
At first, it was fun —
blue sky with the red horizon of the painted desert in Arizona
Image CC0, by blairelizabethbwn0, via Pixabay
We traveled the painted desert of New Mexico, stopping to admire the alien landscape and buy turquoise from roadside vendors.. When we drove through Texas, it rained frogs! Actual, literal frogs. My brothers and were lying in the top bunk of the camper as we barreled down the highway watching their tiny green bodies bounce off the window.
I thought I must be dreaming.
Upon our arrival in Arkansas, the weather seemed normal — hot and humid like I remembered it from the year before. But something was different: It was so quiet.

Tornadoes Happen Fast

All of us kids were asleep when the tornado hit town. The good thing was: Our parents must have been awake because they moved fast. What I recall is the sound more than anything. When the first twister approached our neighborhood like the roar of a giant train about to crash through the house.
And all I wanted right then was to be back home in my bed.
Instead, I was lying under a king sized mattress stuffed between the walls of the hallway with four adults and too many kids. I didn’t see the tornadoes — only their aftermath. There were three that came through early that morning, and the whole thing lasted for a good two to three hours. You heard right: All of us lying under a mattress for hours. No wonder I had tornado nightmares for years.
Alright, settle in… 
We’re going to go over a few things you NEED to know before we talk about what to do in a tornado.

Supercells, Funnel Clouds, and Tornadoes — Oh My!

Can you imagine a tornado that’s almost a mile wide? Terrifying. But that’s not all: A mile-wide tornado is nothing by today’s standards.
The massive El Reno, Oklahoma Supercell on May 31, 2013, reached a maximum width of 2.6 miles! It traveled a distance of 16.2 miles with wind speeds close to the surface of 295 mph!
A dirt road with a flat horizon and a stormy sky.

How Tornadoes Form

Tornadoes are born from a thunderstorm, with warm moist air moving up from the Gulf of Mexico and cool dry air flowing down from Canada. When these opposite air systems collide: They make the atmosphere unstable. Hot air moves up and crashes into the cold air that is moving horizontally. They create a horizontal wind tunnel that shifts vertically with a massive push of warm air.

Tornadoes also referred to as twisters, are ferociously spinning columns of air in the shape of a funnel that extends all the way from the dark thunderclouds in which they originate to the ground. A tornado’s wind speed can reach 250 miles per hour; that is faster than a race car. These violent gusts have the power to demolish bridges, topple trains, and send automobiles flying. They have also been seen to remove tree bark and drain a riverbed of all its water.

The cold air forces a rapid drop in temperature and the winds kick up. And inside all this action a funnel cloud forms, dropping from the sky. But the crazy part is: This churning wind tunnel doesn’t become a tornado until it hits the ground. Sometimes they appear as a long thin columns.

Other times you feel the wind shift and a change in the air pressure that makes your ears pop before you realize it’s a tornado.

Types of Tornadoes

There isn’t just one kind of tornado. Oh no. Mother nature is much more creative.


As the name implies, this funnel looks like a long thin rope dropping from the sky. Rope tornadoes usually disappear quickly, but they can hang out and cause damage. Although rope tornadoes may look weaker than much larger ones, some get more intense as they narrow and tighten!


You guessed it: This one looks like a cone. It’s wider at the top where it forms in the thunderclouds. Cone tornadoes tend to cause more damage than their kin, the rope tornado.


This formation, similar to the cone tornado, can also occur. The difference is: A stovepipe tornado is the same width from top to bottom. It looks more like a wall.


When the sky looks like it’s dropping, and the tornado appears to be wider than it is tall, be prepared because this is a wedge tornado. The bad news is that this type typically does the most damage. Remember El Reno, Oklahoma? That was a wedge tornado and the widest ever recorded at 2.6 miles!


At times the massive spinning force inside a supercell thunderstorm gives birth to more than one spinning demon. Multi-vortex storms usually let a few rope tornadoes drop down to earth. Every once in a while, the storm will manufacture two independently spinning clouds that cause widespread damage. This second tornado is called a “satellite tornado,” and these are rare.


Waterspouts and landspouts develop without the need for a thunderstorm. Even though a waterspout is technically a tornado, it doesn’t count until it hits land. Best of all: Spouts are generally short-lived.

How Tornadoes Are Rated

There are so many varieties of tornadoes, we needed a way to measure their intensity.
Originally, a research scientist from the University of Chicago, by the name of Dr. Ted Fujita, developed a scale to measure a storms’ intensity. Dr. Fujita’s scale ranges from F0 to F5 and is based on the type of tornado plus the amount of damage it caused.
However, after the National Weather Service developed more technology, the original Fujita scale was “enhanced”. It now reflects more of what we’ve discovered since the good doctor’s findings. Today we measure tornadoes by their Enhanced Fujita rating.
large Tree with ripped off branch caused by strong winds
Image CC, by O12, via Pixabay

Windspeeds: 65 to 85 mph.

What happens: Some damage with pieces of roofs torn off and branches getting broken off of trees — shallow-rooted trees get pushed over.

fallen trees outside the house due to a high intensity of strong winds
Image CC, by skeeze, via Pixabay

Windspeeds:  86 to 110 mph.

What happens: Moderate damage. Roofs get completely ripped off of houses, and motorhomes get turned over. There’s lots of broken glass with doors and windows breaking, and getting thrown into the air like so much debris.

wrecked second floor of a building due to a tornado

Windspeeds:  111 to 135 mph.

What happens: Considerable damage. Even the best-constructed homes will get their roof ripped off. The foundations of framed homes can shift and mobile homes can be totally destroyed. Large trees are snapped or uprooted. Light objects become missiles and cars lift off the ground with the wind’s force.

city rubble left by a tornado

Windspeeds: 136 to 165 mph.

What happens: Serious damage. Whole houses get destroyed. There’s damage to large buildings such as shopping malls and schools. Trains may flip over, and trees get stripped of their bark. Even heavy cars are lifted and thrown. The force is enough to destroy structures that aren’t storm-proofed.

large trees on sidewalk completely uprooted by strong winds
Image CC0, by PublicDomainPictures, via Pixabay

Windspeeds:  166 to 200 mph.

What happens: Devastation happens, leveling houses to their foundations, and cars become bombs shooting through the air.

flat house knocked over by high winds during a hurricane
Image CC0, by paulbr75, via Pixabay

Windspeeds: Over 200 mph.

What happens: Shock and awe. The kind of incredible damage that destroys everything. Phenomena will occur such as a water hose impaling a tree trunk.

Tornado Alley

There are two sections in the United States which have an unusually high frequency of tornadoes. Florida is one and “Tornado Alley” in the south-central United States is the other.
Tornado Alley is located from central Texas to northern Iowa, and Kansas to Nebraska on the east and western Ohio. It is situated in a perfect spot to form the supercell thunderstorms that spawn tornadoes with an EF2 rating and above. The weather conditions are usually ripe for tornadoes from spring to early fall.

Severe Weather Warning

“Outside the rain began to pour in sheets, and the wind howled. Giant pieces of hail began to pelt the building, banging off the skylights so hard that Simpson worried the glass might shatter. Then, as it had earlier in the day, the wind briefly let up. It was then Simpson heard a sound she had dreaded, a sound she couldn’t believe she was actually hearing. It was 2: 40 p.m. and the tornado sirens in Moore started to wail.”

― Holly Bailey, The Mercy of the Sky: The Story of a Tornado

Warning Signs That a Tornado May Develop

  • A dark, greenish-colored sky
  • The wind may die down — the air is still
  • Everything is quiet — even the crickets stop chirping
  • Next comes large hail 
  • Then, a loud roar similar to a freight train 
  • Finally, there may be wall clouds or an approaching cloud of debris 

Thankfully, tornado warning systems are way more advanced than they were in the 1970s. And you won’t believe this: Still, the average time between a tornado warning and it touching down is estimated at 13 minutes! You can see why advanced preparation and having a plan will save your life.

So, here we go.

The National Weather Service is Your Friend

The National Weather Service tracks storms that they fear will turn into tornados. Here’s what you need to know:

Tornado weather is unpredictable. So these severe storm warnings don’t always turn into the worst-case scenario.

Tornado Watch

A tornado watch issued by the National Weather Service may cover parts of a state or have a further reach over several states, depending on the size of the storm system. If a watch is issued, it means it’s time to prepare for severe weather and stay tuned.

Tornado Warning

On the other hand: A tornado warning means there’s a serious threat and it’s time to take shelter and implement your plan. No debate, witnesses have spotted a tornado, or they’ve seen it on the weather radar. Not only that: A warning will go out to all the areas that are in the storm’s path. If you hear a tornado siren, take cover immediately. You don’t have much time for debate.

The safest place to be in a tornado is underground in the basement, a root cellar, or a tornado shelter.

Tornado Plan

Unfortunately, not all of us have a place we can quickly get to, underground. Not to mention: We may not be home. So we need a plan regarding what to do in a tornado.

man showing how he get things done

What To Do in a Tornado

Like my quick-thinking parents, who knew exactly what to do in a tornado, you can make a plan ahead of time that will keep you and your family safe. First of all: It’s wise to listen to NOAA Weather Radio or tune in to local weather on your phone, television, or another device to keep updated.

a Tornado Safety Plan for everyone

Emergency Preparedness List

Know where to tune in to local broadcasting for emergency broadcast information. Think about it: You can also download several emergency preparedness APPs ahead of time, such as the Family Locator. Here’s what you want to do: Prepare a master list with all of the information you need and share it with your family, so everyone knows what to do if you lose track of each other during the event.

a family locator application installed on a mobile phone
e CC0, via Pexels

Everyone can use this list to load the information into their cell phones.

What to Do in a Tornado in a Car or Outside

If you’re outside: find a ditch.


If you’re outside and there’s no cover:

  • Find a ditch or a place that’s lower than the rest of the ground
  • Lie face down and cover your head
  • Pay attention to flooding

If you’re in a mobile home: Get out, even if it’s tied down Even if that means seeking refuge outside.

If you’re home and it’s not a mobile home:

  • Go to a pre-designated area such as the hallway, basement, storm cellar, or the lowest level of the building
  • Stay away from windows and glass
  • Get down on the floor, face down, and cover your head
  • Cover the back of your head with your hands

Listen to NOAA Weather Radio, regular radio, or television for tornado updates.

  • Battery-powered devices are the best, in case the electricity goes out
  • Keep a cell phone charging station handy

Use a flashlight if it’s dark


  • Don’t panic. A clear head can save your life
  • Don’t open the windows in your home
  • Do not use elevators
  • Don’t go to the southwest corner of your shelter. Most tornadoes approach from the southwest
  • Do not light candles, even after the storm has passed. There may be a ruptured gas line
  • Don’t use your car as a shelter
  • Don’t park under an overpass 

It’s more dangerous under the overpass than on open ground because of the wind-tunnel effect which causes the wind to move even faster.

Did I mention: NEVER park beneath a bridge or underpass?

What to Do After a Tornado

You’ve been through a tornado and if that’s not enough: Remain cautious because there is still danger everywhere. The water may be contaminated. Power lines are down, and you want to make sure that the storm has indeed passed.

mark zuckerburg drinking water after a horrific event

Case in point: My aunt popped out from beneath our mattress shelter too soon because she needed a smoke and we all thought the storm had passed. She watched the roof get torn off the house as the third tornado hit, and was nearly struck in the head as a kitchen bowl flew by.

But she lucked out:

Not everyone will be so fortunate if they don’t proceed with caution.

Know Where To Seek Help

You’ve prepared ahead of time, so you know where to seek help because you have all of the emergency numbers. But that’s not enough: Once the tornadoes are gone, there’s a lot of clean up, and likely, injuries.

Things you needed to do After the Storm

Stock Up, Make a Plan and Share It with Your Family

whole Family buying foods and other things needed for storage in their home
Image CC0, by Victoria_Borodinova, via Pixabay

When the tornado is no longer something in your imagination and the time comes, be fearless and ready. Keep a well-stocked pantry with lots of can goods and non-perishable items. Here’s our personal list of favorite foods to keep stocked for an emergency!

Another thing to remember is: Make sure to store at least one gallon of water per person per day for three days, for drinking and personal use. Don’t forget your pets. That’s simple family preparedness, my friend. If you do run out of water, it’s handy to have water purification tablets on hand as well.


“Tornado or no tornado, a girl from Kansas doesn’t let much get to her.”

-Danielle Paige, Dorothy Must Die

Neither does a girl from California, for that matter.

Have you ever experienced a tornado? Do you live in tornado alley? Leave any tips you have in the comments!

Becky is a wildlife enthusiast and pet and livestock care expert with a diploma in canine nutrition. With over a decade of experience in animal welfare, Becky lends her expertise to Simple Family Preparedness through insightful info about pets, livestock, bee keeping, and the practicalities of homesteading.

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