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Tornado Myths, Facts, and Safety

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Global Climate Monitoring

National Climatic Data Center, Asheville, North Carolina, 28801, USA
Last updated: 17 August 2006

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Tornado Myths and Facts

No place in the United States (or even the world - except maybe Antarctica) is completely safe from tornadoes. Every one of the United States has experienced at least one documented tornado, and many states are hit multiple times each year by a twister. A tornado may occur at any time of day, and on any day of the year. It may hit in the middle of the night, or in the middle of winter. However, the most common timing for a tornado is in the late afternoon of warmer months.

Unfortunately, for most communities outside of Tornado Alley (in the central and Midwest US), a tornado is such a remote possibility, that cities or towns may not have warning systems in place, and few people are prepared when a tornado does strike. However, knowing what to do in case of a tornado warning can save your life and the lives of your family.

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Safety: [ Preparation | Watches | Warnings | Outdoors | Afterwards ]
Tornado Myths and Facts

"When confronted by a tornado warning, you should open all the windows in your house to equalize the pressure."

MYTH: This just wastes valuable time. Don't worry about equalizing the pressure, the roof ripping off and the pickup truck smashing through the front wall will equalize the pressure for you.

"I live in a big city, a tornado wouldn't hit a big city."

MYTH: Tornadoes have hit several large cities, including Dallas, Oklahoma City, Wichita Falls, St. Louis, Miami, and Salt Lake City. In fact, an urban tornado will have a lot more debris to toss around than a rural twister.

A tornado approaches downtown Dallas, TX on 02 April, 1957
Picture of the 1957 Dallas Tornado
Click to visit NOAA library page

The path of the May 3, 1999 F5 tornado that tore through downtown Oklahoma City
Image of the path of 1999 Oklahoma City twister
From KFOR-TV, Oklahoma

"Tornadoes don't happen in the mountains."

MYTH: Tornadoes do occur in the mountains. Damage from an F3 tornado was documented above 10,000 feet, and a hiker in the mountains of Utah photographed a weak tornado in the mountains.

"Tornadoes may occur in the middle of the night and even during the winter."

FACT: Although the likelihood is lower at night and during colder months, tornadoes have caused death and destruction during these times of day and year. Violent tornadoes, while very unlikely during the winter months, do occasionally occur at night. When severe weather is forecast, ensure your NOAA weather radio is on and working properly before you go to bed.

"My city doesn't get tornadoes because it is protected by a river."

MYTH: Many tornadoes have crossed rivers and even gone on to cause widespread damage to riverside cities. For example, the Nachez, Mississippi tornado of 1840 tracked directly down the Mississippi River, killing hundreds, mostly on the water. Others have crossed large rivers without losing speed (they momentarily became water spouts) and devastated cities that folklore had thought immune to tornadoes. An example was the Waco, TX tornado of 1953 that crossed the Brazos River, or the Great St. Louis Cyclone of 1896 that jumped the Mississippi River.

"Tornadoes have picked people and items up, carried them some distance and then set them down without injury or damage."

FACT: People and animals have been transported up to a quarter mile or more without serious injury. Fragile items, such as sets of fine china, or glass-ware have been blown from houses and recovered, miles away, without any damage. However, given the quantity of airborne debris, these occurrences are the exception, rather than the norm.

"Hiding under a freeway overpass will protect me from a tornado."

MYTH: While the concrete and re-bar in the bridge may offer some protection against flying debris, the overpass also acts as a wind tunnel and may actually serve to collect debris. When you abandon your vehicle at the overpass and climb up the sides, you are doing two things that are hazardous. First, you are blocking the roadway with your vehicle. When the tornado turns all the parked vehicles into a mangled, twisted ball and wedges them under the overpass, how will emergency vehicles get through? Second, the winds in a tornado tend to be faster with height. By climbing up off the ground, you place yourself in even greater danger from the tornado and flying debris. When coupled with the accelerated winds due to the wind tunnel (Venturi Effect), these winds can easily exceed 300 mph. Unfortunately, at least three people hiding under underpasses during tornadoes have already been killed, and dozens have been injured by flying debris. If you realize you won't be able to outrun an approaching tornado, you are much safer to abandon your vehicle, and take shelter in a road-side ditch or other low spot (see Tornado Safety). For more information on the use of highway overpasses for shelter, please see this NWS discussion on highway overpasses. Note: If a highway overpass is your only shelter option, only consider it if the overpass has sturdy roadway supports, next to which (at ground level) you can take shelter. Avoid the smooth concrete, support-less spans at all costs.

"I can outrun a tornado, especially in a vehicle."

MYTH: Tornadoes can move at up to 70 mph or more and shift directions erratically and without warning. It is unwise to try to outrace a tornado. It is better to abandon your vehicle and seek shelter immediately.

"While there is no such thing as a category 6 hurricane (the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Scale only goes to category 5), there can be an F6 tornado."

FACT: The Fujita Tornado Damage Intensity Scale actually goes up to F12! The F12 level only begins at wind speeds exceeding Mach 1.0 (or around 738 mph at -3°C), so the probability of a tornado having winds of this speed is infinitesimally small. Could a tornado be an F6? Yes, however, the Fujita scale is based on wind speeds that are estimated from the damage the tornado produced (because no one has been able to stick an anemometer into a tornado to measure the actual wind speeds). Since the winds of an F5 tornado (up to 319 mph) are sufficient to completely destroy just about everything in its path, an F6 really wouldn't do much more damage than that, and therefore could not be definitively labeled as an F6. When accurate measurements of wind speed inside an extreme tornado are eventually obtained, it is not impossible that they may exceed 319 mph.

"Tornadoes are more likely to hit a mobile home park."

MYTH: Not so. It just seems that way for two reasons. First, mobile home parks are a ubiquitous part of our landscape. There are tens of thousands of mobile homes in tornado alley, so there is a pretty good likelihood that some of them will be in the path of a tornado. Unfortunately, the second factor is that mobile homes offer little to no protection against even the weakest tornadoes, so when a tornado does strike a mobile home park, the damage is more likely to be significant. Winds that would only lift some shingles on a frame house can easily flip a mobile home.

"Strong, sturdy brick or stone buildings will protect me from a tornado."

MYTH: While such buildings will provide more protection in a tornado than a mobile home or timber frame structure, the winds of a tornado can easily launch a 2x4 through a brick wall, and can cause even the sturdiest of buildings to experience roof or wall failure.

Remnants of a brick building after a tornado hit St. Louis, MO on 27 May, 1896
Picture of building damage from the St. Louis Tornado
Click to visit NOAA Library Page

"To keep from being sucked into the tornado, can tie myself to a well pipe, just like they did in the movie "Twister"."

MYTH: While it is unlikely that a tornado will dislodge a deeply buried pipe, the rope you tie around yourself is more likely to act as a combination tetherball and cheese slicer. Lighter winds will likely cause you to be whipped around at the end of the rope, banging against anything within the radius of the rope. Stronger winds inside the tornado are just as likely to pull your body from the rope (and possibly not in one piece).

"A tornado can drive a straw through a telephone pole."

FACT: The forces inside a tornado are incredible, and still poorly understood. But they are certainly strong enough to turn otherwise harmless items into deadly missiles.

Anything can become a deadly projectile.
Picture of an LP record through telephone pole
Click to visit NOAA Photo Library

"A tornado is not coming directly at me, I am safe."

MYTH: Tornados have been known to act erratically, often changing directions quickly. Sturdy shelter is the only safe place to be during a tornado. Although it may be tempting to follow a tornado to get a cool photo, please leave the tornado chasing to trained meteorologists.

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Safety: [ Preparation | Watches | Warnings | Outdoors | Afterwards ]
Tornado Safety
  • Get a NOAA Weather Radio. While the local media (radio or television) are a great source of relaying NWS tornado watches and warnings, they are only useful if you happen to have them turned on. The NOAA weather radio is on standby all the time, and will sound an alarm the moment a tornado watch or warning has been issued. If you are expecting severe weather, turn up the volume so you can clearly hear the alert (especially important if you are a sound sleeper).

  • Have a plan. If a tornado warning is issued, or you spot a tornado heading for you, what will you do - if you are at home, at work, in your vehicle. Spend a moment to think about it and review it each spring. During imminent danger is not the time to have to think up a plan.

  • If your home does not have a safe place that can be used as a tornado shelter (as is the case with mobile homes), find out where in your neighborhood is recommended as a tornado shelter. Most properly managed mobile home parks should have a severe weather plan in place, and such a plan is useful for any neighborhood or subdivision. At work, ask your employer for a copy of their severe weather safety plan. They should have a location where employees can seek shelter in the event of a tornado or other severe weather.

  • Put together a tornado/severe weather kit. At the least, the kit should include:
  • a battery powered radio (preferably with weather channels)
  • a flashlight in working order (do not store with batteries installed) - there are battery-less flashlights now available
  • immediate first aid needs (bandages, antibiotic wipes, tweezers, etc.)
  • food (energy bars) and bottle of water
  • emergency blanket (foil lined to retain warmth)
  • large marking pen or bottle of spray paint (to write your address on the driveway, remains of structures for rescue personnel)
  • copies of any critical medical records
  • whistle (to help rescuers locate you)

  • Place your tornado kit inside the place you have designated as your tornado shelter.

  • If you own a home with a concrete foundation, a water/fireproof safe, bolted to the house foundation, for storage of any irreplaceable documents can be a good choice. These documents should be in the safe at all times. Do not wait until a tornado warning is issued before trying to put things in the safe.

  • Practice a tornado drill at least once per year for your family, school, or workplace. Ensure everyone knows what to do without having to think about it.

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Safety: [ Preparation | Watches | Warnings | Outdoors | Afterwards ]
When a watch is issued

A watch is issued when atmospheric conditions are favorable for the formation of tornado producing thunderstorms. You should prepare to execute your emergency plan.

  • Check that your emergency kit is in place and check the battery operated devices within

  • Check to be sure that your shelter and the path to the shelter are accessible

  • Monitor NOAA Weather Radio or local media outlets for the latest information

  • Continue about your normal business

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Safety: [ Preparation | Watches | Warnings | Outdoors | Afterwards
When a warning is issued

A warning means that a tornado has been identified and you are in immediate danger from it.

  • Seek shelter immediately. A shelter should be someplace that has sturdy and/or reinforced walls, preferably in the interior and underground (or lowest level) of a building. In tornado alley, many homes and businesses have dedicated storm cellars or clearly identified tornado shelters with a sign similar to the following:
    Image of Tornado Shelter Sign

  • FEMA advocates the creation of a Safe Room for surviving tornadoes or other disasters. Unfortunately, the construction of such rooms, especially in older structures or mobile homes may be impractical or cost prohibitive. However, many rooms in existing structures are safer places than others.

  • No room is safe in a mobile home. Evacuate the home and go to a designated storm shelter.
  • In a home or building with a designated storm shelter, go there immediately.
  • In a house or building with a basement, go to the basement. Current guidance is to shelter in the northeast corner of the basement. If the basement has a small interior room (such as a bathroom or closet) this should be your shelter.
  • In a house or building with a slab foundation (no basement), seek shelter toward the middle of the structure, in a small room (such as a bathroom or closet) on the lowest floor. The stout walls and possible plumbing pipes in the walls may offer additional protection.

  • If you live or work with a vision or hearing impaired person, inform them of the tornado warning, and if necessary, guide them to shelter. If you live or work with an otherwise physically disabled individual, recognize that they may need assistance to get to shelter.

  • If you are in charge of safety for many people (e.g., workplace, school, etc.), you should enact your tornado safety plan. Such a plan involves getting everyone in the building to safety immediately. If you are unsure how to develop such a plan, please visit the following website for developing a tornado safety plan. Although designed for schools, it will work for most workplaces. Also, most modern fire alarm systems can be enhanced to sound a unique "seek shelter" alarm that is distinctly different from a fire alarm. Such alarms can save much time in alerting all building occupants of an approaching tornado.

  • When you are in shelter, assume a safety position. In general, this should be on your knees, bent over with your head against a wall and covered with your arms. If you are restricted to a wheel chair or cannot otherwise assume the standard safety position, you should place yourself in such a way that you are offered maximum protection from the structure around you. Others sheltering with you should assist you in getting into a safe position.

    Accepted tornado safety position
    Image of the standard tornado safety position for a person
    Click to visit the tornado safety page of the Indiana Dept. of Education

  • Do not waste any time trying to save personal belongings or opening windows, at the moment of a tornado, the only things that are irreplaceable are your life and the lives of those around you.

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Safety: [ Preparation | Watches | Warnings | Outdoors | Afterwards ]
Outdoor safety
  • If you have time, get to a sturdy structure for shelter. Hail and lightning also often accompany tornadoes.

  • If you have no time, or there are no sturdy structures nearby, find a low place in the landscape and lay down. Do not shelter under a highway overpass if it can be avoided.

  • If you are in a car, it is recommended that you abandon your vehicle to seek shelter. You will generally be safer outside the vehicle than in it.

    Wreckage of a car on I-40 in Oklahoma after a direct hit by an F5 tornado
    Wreckage of a car hit by a tornado
    From KFOR-TV News (03 May, 1999)

  • Stay as low as possible. Not only do winds increase with height above the ground, but the more exposed your body is, the more likely you will be struck by flying debris and seriously injured or killed.

  • Avoid sheltering by solitary objects or groups of trees. Lightning often occurs with tornadoes.

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Safety: [ Preparation | Watches | Warnings | Outdoors | Afterwards ]
  • A tornado will usually pass very quickly and the whole ordeal, while seemingly endless, will be over within 5 or 10 minutes. Now is the time to assess the situation.

  • Assess your injuries (if any).

  • If you are not trapped or seriously injured, see to those who sheltered with you. Apply first aid if able.

  • Call for rescue help on a cell phone if able (it is likely that local land lines will be out of service).

  • If you are not trapped or seriously injured, help to look for anyone who may be.

  • If you are trapped, do not panic. You may be in a dangerous situation, and panicked movements may cause further injury. Call for help. If you have a cell phone, it may still work.

  • If there are few visible reference points remaining above ground, attempt to mark existing landmarks with addresses so rescue personnel can navigate and respond effectively.

  • When trained emergency responders arrive, comply with their directives.

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