Tornado Watch vs. Tornado Warning
A tornado watch means that conditions are favorable for a tornado to develop. Tornado watches typically cover a large area.
A tornado warning means that either a tornado has been spotted or that weather radar has indicated that a tornado is likely. If a tornado warning has been issued, get to shelter immediately.
Well Before Tornado Season
Make certain that your insurance is up-to-date and comprehensive. Your insurance policy will need to be updated if you have changed, added, or removed anything structurally about your home. Make or update an inventory of all contents of your home and store it either online or in a secure place outside your home. Ensure that your contents’ coverage is adequate to pay to replace any and all belongings.
If you live in an area prone to tornadoes, you might look into building a safe room or reinforcing an existing interior room to take shelter in. If you cannot build a safe room, designate an interior room such as the basement or a first-floor bathroom to take shelter in and prepare that room with the supplies you would need for a tornado. If you are in a mobile home, be prepared to evacuate. Know your evacuation location well in advance and make sure that all family members know it as well. Detailed FEMA guidelines on building a safe room are here.
Properly installed and up-to-code storm shutters are the best protection for your windows.
Make certain that your home is up to local building codes. You can retrofit your home to be more resistant to high winds and rains.
- Look into buying and installing an impact resistant garage door. Older and weaker doors run the risk of letting water and debris enter. Garage doors are frequently the first structural element of a house to fail
- Ask a professional to help secure your chimney.
- Identify and repair loose or damaged building components.
- Secure shingles on your roof using roofing cement. Loose shingles can be blown away, creating an opening for wind and water to enter.
- Use caulk to fill in cracks and holes in your home’s exterior, in order to prevent water from getting in.
- Exterior doors need to have three hinges and a deadbolt lock that is at least an inch long at minimum.
Once Tornado Season Arrives
Peak tornado season in the southern United States is March through May. Peak tornado season in the northern United States is late spring through early summer. Tornadoes are most likely to occur between the hours of 3pm and 9pm, however tornadoes can develop at any time and in any location. Tornadoes can also easily cross water. Tornadoes are often accompanied by larger storms carrying wind and rain. Tornadoes can be spawned by hurricanes and other tropical storms.
A major storm threat to houses comes from trees falling on them. Prune or thin the canopy of trees that are close to your house, so that wind can pass more easily through the branches without knocking them over. Remove branches facing your house to reduce weight on that side, since the tree is more likely to fall in the direction with more weight.
Identify top-heavy and tall furniture that are at risk of falling over, such as cabinets and bookcases. Secure them to the wall using L brackets, corner brackets, or aluminum molding. Secure or be ready to secure large appliances with flexible cable, braided wire, or metal strapping.
Prepare to board up your windows. All exterior windows and doors need to be secured no matter which side of the house they’re on, as tornadoes can approach from any direction. Boarding up your windows by attaching plywood, steel, or aluminum to the exterior wall may provide minimal protection in heavy winds, as the board can be torn away by winds getting under it. Duct tape and masking tape will also not prevent windows from breaking. If properly installed, specially developed screens and fabrics may help protect windows.
- Plywood and other methods of boarding should be installed within the window recess after having been cut to fit the window. For plywood, use ⅝ in or ¾ in exterior grade plywood. Use 3- or 4-in heavy-duty barrel bolts to secure the boards into the inset, placed every 18 to 24 inches apart.
- After cutting the panel to fit the window, screw the barrel bolts onto the panel. Place the panel in the window, and mark where the barrel bolts slide against the wall.
- Once all marks have been made, remove the panel and drill the bolt holes into the concrete. Use a drill bit just wide enough for the bolts.
- Mark which window each panel is for, and which side is the top. Store the plywood panels in a cool, dry place when not in use.
Gather enough non-perishable food and water for everyone in your family for at least one week in case power goes out and you are unable to reach the store, taking into account the water needs of any pets. Make sure you have enough hygiene items for at least a week, and extra trash bags to dispose of any waste products. Store at least enough water for one gallon per person per day, to cover drinking, cooking, and sanitary needs. Use plastic, fiberglass, or enamel-lined containers that have been thoroughly washed. Avoid breakable containers such as glass bottles. Seal containers tightly, label with the date sealed, and store in a cool, dark place. Change water out every six months to prevent the buildup of bacteria. Store these items wherever you intend to take shelter.
If you have a smartphone, look into downloading one of many apps available to provide warnings about severe weather or other local alerts directly to your phone. These apps tend to be regional in nature, so do some research online to find a good app for reporting in your area.
When A Tornado Watch has been Issued
Bring all exterior items, e.g. patio furniture, inside that you can. Leave items such as propane tanks outside, but anchor these and any other items left outside. Bring all pets inside. Animals run a severe risk of injury if left outside, and even if they escape injury, they are extremely likely to panic and run away. Move chairs and beds away from windows, mirrors, and picture frames.
Close and board up your windows. Having open windows will allow water and flying debris to enter the home and will increase the chance that your roof will be blown off. No house is built airtight, so differences in air pressure between the inside and outside will quickly equalize.
During and After a Tornado
Our current understanding of structural science and a review of prior tornado damage indicates that the side of a basement, shelter, or house opposite the approach of the tornado will accumulate the least damage. If you do not know the direction of approach, consider taking shelter on the northeast side of your shelter, since most tornadoes will approach from the southwest, or in the middle of your shelter. When walls fail, usually the wall facing the tornado’s approach will collapse inwards while the other three collapse outwards. Take shelter under a sturdy object such as a heavy table and cover yourself with thick blankets, a mattress, or similar to help shield you from debris. If you are in a basement or first-floor room of a multiple story house, mark or otherwise be aware of where heavy furniture is on the floor above you. Heavy objects such as pianos can fall through weakened floors. Be sure that emergency items are in hand or within easy reach, such as flashlights, cell phones, and a battery operated radio.
Continue listening to updates about the tornado from a trusted source, such as the National Weather Service and local news channels. Do not leave your shelter if not given the all-clear unless remaining in your shelter becomes unsafe.
Wear long pants, a long-sleeved shirt, thick gloves, and sturdy shoes when inspecting your home and property for damage. Take pictures of any damage to the building or contents for insurance claims. If your home appears to have suffered structural damage, leave and seek shelter elsewhere.
There is a potential for gas leaks from storm-damaged lines. Do not light candles, gas lanterns, oil lanterns, the fireplace, or other sources of open flame until power is restored and all lines have been checked. Use battery powered flashlights and lanterns for emergency light and to inspect for damage. Also be aware of downed power lines in the neighborhood, do not approach them and avoid any standing water in the area.
If you smell gas or the odor of rotting eggs, hear a blowing noise, or hear a hissing noise, a gas line may have burst. Open a window, get everyone out of the house, and call the gas company or fire department. Report any fallen power lines or broken gas lines to the utility company immediately.
As You Rebuild
Speak to a professional about rebuilding your home to be more tornado-resistant. This can include reinforcing masonry walls; adding anchors, clips, and straps to connections in wood frame buildings; reinforcing your chimney; installing a reinforced garage door; and other improvements.
Bibliography and Additional Resources