Tornado Protection and Survival Guide

What Is A Tornado?

A tornado is a violent windstorm characterized by a twisting, funnel-shaped cloud. It is spawned by a thunderstorm (or sometimes as a result of a hurricane) and produced when cool air overrides a layer of warm air, forcing the warm air to rise rapidly. The damage from a tornado is a result of the high wind velocity and wind-blown debris. Tornado season is generally March through August, although tornadoes can occur at any time of year. They tend to occur in the afternoons and evenings: over 80 percent of all tornadoes strike between noon and midnight.

When a tornado threatens, individuals need to have a safe place to go and time to get there. Even with advances in meteorology, warning times may be short or sometimes not possible. Lives are saved when individuals receive and understand the warning, know what to do, and know the safest place to go.


What Should I Do Before, During and After the Storm?

Preparedness Information to Protect Business, Community and Home

Animals and Emergencies

Fast Facts About Tornadoes

The Fujita- Pearson Tornado Scale

Related Links

What Should I Do Before, During and After the Storm?

Before A Tornado

When a tornado is coming, you have only a short amount of time to make life-or-death decisions. Advance planning and quick response are the keys to surviving a tornado.

Conduct tornado drills each tornado season.

Designate an area in the home as a shelter, and practice having everyone in the family go there in response to a tornado threat.

Discuss with family members the difference between a “tornado watch” and a “tornado warning.”

Before A Tornado Discussion Points:


Have disaster supplies on hand (list)

Develop an emergency communications plan

Tornado Watches and Warnings

Mobile Homes

Tornado Danger Signs

Mitigation includes any activities that prevent an emergency, reduce the chance of an emergency happening, or lessen the damaging effects of unavoidable emergencies. Investing in preventive mitigation steps now, such as checking local building codes and ordinances about wind-resistant designs and strengthening unreinforced masonry, will help reduce the impact of tornadoes in the future.

For more information on mitigation, contact your local emergency management office.


Have disaster supplies on hand (list)

  • Flashlight and extra batteries

  • Portable, battery-operated radio and extra batteries

  • First aid kit and manual

  • Emergency food and water

  • Nonelectric can opener

  • Essential medicines

  • Cash and credit cards

  • Sturdy shoes


Develop an emergency communication plan
In case family members are separated from one another during a tornado (a real possibility during the day when adults are at work and children are at school), have a plan for getting back together.

Ask an out-of-state relative or friend to serve as the “family contact.” After a disaster, it’s often easier to call long distance. Make sure everyone in the family knows the name, address, and phone number of the contact person.


Tornado Watches and Warnings
A tornado watch is issued by the National Weather Service when tornadoes are possible in your area. Remain alert for approaching storms. This is time to remind family members where the safest places within your home are located, and listen to the radio or television for further developments.

A tornado warning is issued when a tornado has been sighted or indicated by weather radar.


Mobile Homes
Mobile homes are particularly vulnerable. A mobile home can overturn very easily even if precautions have been taken to tie down the unit. When a tornado warning is issued, take shelter in a building with a strong foundation. If shelter is not available, lie in ditch or low-lying area a safe distance away from the unit.


Tornado Danger Signs
Learn these tornado danger signs:

  • An approaching cloud of debris can mark the location of a tornado even if a funnel is not visible.

  • Before a tornado hits, the wind may die down and the air may become very still.

  • Tornadoes generally occur near the trailing edge of a thunderstorm. It is not uncommon to see clear, sunlit skies behind a tornado.


During A Tornado

If at home:

  • If you have a tornado safe room or engineered shelter go there immediately.

  • Go at once to a windowless, interior room; storm cellar; basement; or lowest level of the building.

  • If there is no basement, go to an inner hallway or a smaller inner room without windows, such as a bathroom or closet.

  • Get away from the windows.

  • Get under a piece of sturdy furniture such as a workbench or heavy table or desk and hold on to it.

  • Use arms to protect head and neck.

  • If in a mobile home, get out and find shelter elsewhere.

If at work or school:

  • Go to the area designated in your tornado plan.

  • Avoid places with wide-span roofs such as auditoriums, cafeterias, large hallways, or shopping malls.

  • Get under a piece of sturdy furniture such as a workbench or heavy table or desk and hold on to it.

  • Use arms to protect head and neck.

If outdoors:

  • If possible, get inside a building.

  • If shelter is not available or there is no time to get indoors, lie in a ditch or low-lying area or crouch near a strong building. Be aware of the potential for flooding.

  • Use arms to protect head and neck.

If in a car:

  • Never try to out-drive a tornado in a car or truck.

  • Get out of the car immediately and take shelter in a nearby building.

  • If there is no time to get indoors, get out of the car and lie in a ditch or low-lying area away from the vehicle. Be aware of the potential for flooding.


After The Storm

When a tornado is coming, you have only a short amount of time to make life-or-death decisions. Advance planning and quick response are the keys to surviving a tornado.

After a Tornado:

  • Help injured or trapped persons.

  • Give first aid when appropriate.

  • Don’t try to move the seriously injured unless they are in immediate danger of further injury.

  • Call for help.

  • If you smell gas, do not turn on any appliances or switches. This includes using phones, flashlights or a cell phone.

  • Turn on radio or television to get the latest emergency information.

  • Stay out of damaged buildings. Return home only when authorities say it is safe.

  • Use the telephone only for emergency calls.

  • Clean up spilled medicines, bleaches, or gasoline or other flammable liquids immediately. Leave the buildings if you smell gas or chemical fumes.

  • Take pictures of the damage–both to the house and its contents–for insurance purposes.

Remember to help your neighbors who may require special assistance–infants, the elderly, and people with disabilities.


Preparedness Information to Protect Business, Community and Home

Preparedness planning involves those efforts undertaken before a tornado to prepare for or improve capability to respond to the event and to better protect from tornado damage.

Protecting Your Business

Protecting Your Community

Protecting Your Home

Protecting Your Business

FEMA has found that enhancing construction minimizes property damage to homes in areas prone to hurricane force winds, and those same techniques can be just as effective in guarding against damage from moderate to severe tornadoes. Also, proper construction techniques and materials based on the most current model building codes can be used in both new construction and into existing construction to reduce the damage from low to moderate intensity tornadoes.

In addition to building damages, businesses also suffer from loss of inventory, business interruption and loss of wages for their employees when a building is damaged. Businesses, especially small businesses, often do not re-open from these combined losses creating a substantial impact on the owner, the workers, and the community.

Property Protection

  • Use threaded fasteners to attach metal roof decking. Welds are often insufficient to carry uplift loads.

  • Reduce the number of windborne missiles generated from roofs on essential facilities (e.g., hospitals) and buildings such as schools, by avoiding the use of aggregate and paver roof surfaces.

  • Use enhanced wind design for the roof coverings on essential facilities for those buildings located in tornado-prone areas.

  • Use adequate ties to foundations and roofs when reinforcing concrete and partially reinforced masonry. Make ties between concrete and other materials with drilled-in fasteners or cast-in-place fasteners.

  • Engineer and construct masonry walls to support the specific architecture of the building (i.e., exterior wall panels, parapets, and decorative finishes). Diaphragm action to resist wind generated shear forces must be maintained and reinforcement must be properly placed in concrete and masonry walls to reduce the possibility of collapse during high wind storms.

  • Use anchors in precast concrete buildings to prevent the uplift of hollow core planks and other precast elements during high winds.

  • Avoid the use of powder-driven anchors to attach bottom plates of walls to concrete unless they are very closely spaced to achieve sufficient pull-out resistance.

  • Minimize the creation of windborne debris, by appropriately designing, manufacturing, and installing architectural features.


Protecting Your Community

Communities can plan for future tornadoes through promoting sustainable construction and tornado-resistant communities. Mitigation is achieved when a community actively seeks and applies methods and approaches that lessen the degree of damage, injuries, and loss of life that may be sustained from tornadoes. There are several ways to reduce the effects of tornadoes, including:

  • Design buildings to the most current version of model building codes and engineering standards that provide greater protection against high winds.

  • Build engineered shelter(s) to provide better protection and safe refuge in the event of a strong or violent wind storm or tornado.

Property Protection

  • State and local governments should adopt the most current edition of a model building code to better address structural and architectural issues related to moderately high wind events.

  • Minimize the creation of windborne debris, by appropriately designing, manufacturing, and installing architectural features. To accomplish this, the local community may want to further regulate these features to ensure a reduction in potential debris materials.

Shelters and Warning

  • Designate “safe places” in public buildings.

  • Determine which areas at important facilities such as schools and daycare centers are the best locations for occupants during a storm. An assessment should be made to identify and provide directions to the designated “safe place.”

  • Retrofit or add shelters to existing essential facilities that offer inadequate protection.

  • Incorporate the design of shelters in the construction of new essential facilities.

  • Evaluate the need for tornado plans and shelters in essential facilities and other establishments serving the public (e.g., schools, hospitals, and critical facilities).

  • Provide for a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA ) weather radio in continuous operation in all facilities for public accommodation. In addition, all buildings in tornado-prone areas should have a tornado refuge plan of where to send people.

  • Consider the need for adopting ordinances and regulations that promote disaster-resistant communities by incorporating tornado shelters into new construction and communities.

  • Keep up-to-date lists of addresses with shelters, to assist Fire departments and Emergency Services agencies in checking after a tornado to see if people are trapped inside.

  • Determine how to accommodate individuals with special needs both in the emergency plan for the shelter and in the design of the shelter, including complying with the American with Disabilities Act (ADA.)


Protecting Your Home

“Building Better” can greatly improve your odds against the threat of severe damage to your home from tornadoes.

The US Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has found that enhancing construction minimizes property damage to homes in areas prone to hurricane force winds, and those same techniques can be just as effective in guarding against damage from moderate to severe tornadoes. Also, proper construction techniques and materials based on the most current model building codes can be used in both new construction and into existing construction to reduce the damage from low to moderate intensity tornadoes.

Property Protection

Manufactured Housing


Property Protection

  • Use common connections in wood frame buildings, such as anchors, clips, and straps to provide a continuous load path for all loads-not just gravity loads.

  • Reinforce masonry walls that provide structural support to a building to resist gravity, lateral, and uplift loads.

  • Garage doors are highly susceptible to wind damage. Existing garage doors can be retrofitted to improve the wind resistance, particularly double-wide garage doors. Use of retrofits and installation of new reinforced doors should better resist wind forces and, as a result, reduce roof and wall damage.

  • Simplify construction to reduce uplift loads by incorporating simple roof geometries (such as hip and gable roofs with no dormers).

  • Use adequate ties to foundations and roofs when reinforcing concrete and partially reinforced masonry. Make ties between concrete and other materials with drilled-in fasteners or cast-in-place fasteners.

  • Use ring or screw-shank nails to fasten brick ties to increase nail pull-out resistance and prevent failure of brick veneer.

  • Secure your chimney. Masonry chimneys that extend more than 6 feet above the roof or have a width of 40 inches or more, should have continuous vertical reinforcing steel placed in the corners to provide greater resistance to wind loads.


Manufactured Housing

  • Permanently connect manufactured homes to its foundation to decrease damage from high winds. Significant differences in damages have not been observed between newer double-wide manufactured houses on permanent foundations and site built houses.

  • Permanent foundations for double-wide manufactured housing perform better than both double-wide and single units on non-permanent foundations. Of those manufactured houses on non-permanent foundations, double-wide units appear to offer a greater level of protection. This is because these units are harder to overturn and have interior rooms, while rooms in single units all have at least one exterior walls

  • Seek shelter in a more secure location during storms is most important for occupants of manufactured homes. In the event of such storms, occupants of manufactured homes should follow the direction of emergency management and law enforcement officials and exit their home and seek shelter in storm cellars, basements, or above-ground shelters, when instructed to do so.



Shelters are the best means of providing near absolute protection for individuals who are attempting to take refuge during a tornado.

Using existing hurricane-resistant technologies (e.g., straps, clips, etc.), can provide a significantly increased level of protection for individuals taking shelter from tornadoes in their home.

Shelter doors. At a minimum, shelter doors should be constructed of 14 gauge hollow metal and be held by six points of connection (three hinges and three deadbolts.) Ventilation openings should be constructed of heavy gauge steel or protected by heavy gauge shrouds or saddles to prevent their removal by the storm and the entrance of debris through the remaining openings. Below-grade portions of the shelter should be waterproof. All shelters should provide access to persons with disabilities.


Animals and Emergencies

Photo of a man holding a kitten. Photo by David Gatley, FEMA; FEMA Urban Search and Rescue operations, North Topsail Island, NC; Hurricane Fran, 1996Animals. To some people they’re like children. To others they’re an important way to earn a living. To many of us, they’re a big part of our lives. But when it comes to emergencies, animals, whether they’re house pets, livestock, or in the wild, have often been overlooked by emergency planners and the general public. But that’s changing here in the United States and elsewhere.

Pets and Disasters

Make arrangements for your pets as part of your household disaster planning. If you must evacuate your home, Always take your pets with you. But remember pets will not be allowed in public emergency shelters.





Contact your local animal shelter, humane society, veterinarian or emergency management office for information on caring for pets in an emergency. Find out if there will be any shelters set-up to take pets in an emergency. Also, see if your veterinarian will accept your pet in an emergency.

Decide on safe locations in your house where you could leave your pet in an emergency.

You will need a pet carrier that allows your pet to stand up and turn around inside. Put familiar items such as the pet’s normal bedding and favorite toys inside. Train your pet to become comfortable with the carrier. Use a variety of training methods such as feeding it in the carrier or placing a favorite toy or blanket inside.

If your pet is on medication or a special diet, find out from your veterinarian what you should do in case you have to leave it alone for several days. Try and get an extra supply of medications.

Make sure your pet has a properly fitted collar that includes current license and rabies tags.

  • Including an identification tag that has your name, address, and phone number.

  • If your dog normally wears a chain link “choker” collar, have a leather or nylon collar available if you have to leave him alone for several days.

Keep your pet’s shots current and know where the records are.

Most kennels require proof of current rabies and distemper vaccinations before accepting a pet.

Contact motels and hotels in communities outside of your area and find out if they will accept pets in an emergency.

When assembling emergency supplies for the household, include items for pets.

  • Extra food (The food should be dry and relatively unappealing to prevent overeating. Store the food in sturdy containers.)

  • Kitty litter

  • Large capacity self-feeder and water dispenser

  • Extra medications

Trained Guide Dogs. In most states, trained guide dogs for the blind, hearing impaired or handicapped will be allowed to stay in emergency shelters with their owners. Check with local emergency management officials for more information.



Bring your pets inside immediately.

Animals have instincts about severe weather changes and will often isolate themselves if they are afraid. Bringing them inside early can stop them from running away. Never leave a pet outside or tied up during a storm.

Separate dogs and cats.

Even if your dogs and cats normally get along, the anxiety of an emergency situation can cause pets to act irrationally.

Keep small pets away from cats and dogs.

If you evacuate and plan to take your pets, remember to bring your pet’s medical records and medicines with your emergency supplies.

Birds. Birds must eat daily to survive. In an emergency, you may have to take your birds with you. Talk with your veterinarian or local pet store about special food dispensers that regulate the amount of food a bird is given. Make sure that the bird is caged and the cage is covered by a thin cloth or sheet to provide security and filtered light.



If after a disaster you have to leave town, take your pets with you. Pets are unlikely to survive on their own.

In the first few days after the disaster, leash your pets when they go outside. Always maintain close contact. Familiar scents and landmarks may be altered and your pet may become confused and lost. Also, snakes and other dangerous animals may be brought into the area with flood areas. Downed power lines are a hazard.

The behavior of your pets may change after an emergency. Normally quiet and friendly pets may become aggressive or defensive. Watch animals closely. Leash dogs and place them in a fenced yard with access to shelter and water.


Disaster Planning Tips for Pets, Livestock and Wildlife

Not only are pets affected by disaster, but the other animals in the disaster area are affected as well. The Humane Society of the United States (Human Society) offers disaster planning tips for pets, livestock and wildlife.

All animals should have some form of identification that will help facilitate their return.

Your disaster plan should include a list of emergency phone numbers for local agencies that can assist you if disaster strikes — including your veterinarian, state veterinarian, local animal shelter, animal care and control, county extension service, local agricultural schools and the American Red Cross. These numbers should be kept with your disaster kit in a secure, but easily accessible place.


Whether it’s a large-scale natural catastrophe or an unforeseen emergency that causes you to leave your home temporarily, everyone’s family can benefit from having a household evacuation plan in place before disaster strikes. Every disaster plan must include your pets!

The Humane Society offers the following tips to pet owners designing an emergency safety plan:

  • If you evacuate your home, DO NOT LEAVE YOUR PETS BEHIND! Pets most likely cannot survive on their own; and if by some remote chance they do, you may not be able to find them when you return.

  • For public health reasons, many emergency shelters cannot accept pets. Find out which motels and hotels in your area allow pets — well in advance of needing them. Include your local animal shelter’s number in your list of emergency numbers — they might be able to provide information concerning pets during a disaster.

  • Make sure identification tags are up to date and securely fastened to your pet’s collar. If possible, attach the address and/or phone number of your evacuation site. If your pet gets lost, his tag is his ticket home. Make sure you have a current photo of your pet for identification purposes.

  • Make sure you have a secure pet carrier, leash or harness for your pet so that if he panics, he can’t escape.

  • Take pet food, bottled water, medications, veterinary records, cat litter/pan, can opener, food dishes, first aid kit and other supplies with you in case they’re not available later. While the sun is still shining, consider packing a “pet survival” kit which could be easily deployed if disaster hits.

  • If you are unable to return to your home right away, you may need to board your pet. Most boarding kennels, veterinarians and animal shelters will need your pet’s medical records to make sure all vaccinations are current. Include copies in your “pet survival” kit along with a photo of your pet.

  • If it is impossible to take your pet with you to temporary shelter, contact friends, family, veterinarians, or boarding kennels to arrange for care. Make sure medical and feeding information, food, medicine and other supplies accompany your pet to his foster home. NOTE: Some animal shelters will provide temporary foster care for owned pets in times of disaster, but this should be considered only as a last resort.

  • If you have no alternative but to leave your pet at home, there are some precautions you must take, but remember that leaving your pet at home alone can place your animal in great danger! Confine your pet to a safe area inside — NEVER leave your pet chained outside! Place a notice outside in a visible area, advising what pets are in the house and where they are located. Provide a phone number where you or a contact can be reached as well as the name and number of your vet.



The Humane Society offers these basic tips for people who have livestock on their property:

  • EVACUATE LIVESTOCK WHENEVER POSSIBLE. Arrangements for evacuation, including routes and host sites, should be made in advance. Alternate routes should be mapped out in case the planned route is inaccessible.

  • The evacuation sites should have or be able to readily obtain food, water, veterinary care, handling equipment and facilities.

  • Trucks, trailers, and other vehicles suitable for transporting livestock (appropriate for transporting each specific type of animal) should be available along with experienced handlers and drivers to transport them. Whenever possible, the animals should be accustomed to these vehicles in advance so they’re less frightened and easier to move.

If evacuation is not possible, a decision must be made whether to move large animals to available shelter or turn them outside. This decision should be determined based on the type of disaster and the soundness and location of the shelter (structure).



  • Wild animals often seek higher ground which, during floods, eventually become submerged (i.e., island) and the animals become stranded. If the island is large enough and provides suitable shelter, you can leave food appropriate to the species (i.e., sunflower seeds for squirrels). Animals have a flight response and will flee from anyone approaching too closely. If the animal threatens to rush into the water, back away from the island or you may frighten the animal into jumping into the water to escape from you.

  • Wildlife often seek refuge from flood waters on upper levels of a home and may remain inside even after the water recedes. If you meet a rat or snake face to face, be careful but don’t panic. Open a window or other escape route and the animal will probably leave on its own. Never attempt to capture a wild animal unless you have the training, protective clothing, restraint equipment and caging necessary to perform the job.

  • Beware of an increased number of snakes and other predators who will try to feed on the carcasses of reptiles, amphibians and small mammals who have been drowned or crushed in their burrows or under rocks.

  • Often, during natural disasters, mosquitoes and dead animal carcasses may present disease problems. Outbreaks of anthrax, encephalitis and other diseases may occur. Contact your local emergency management office for help!

  • If you see an injured or stranded animal in need of assistance, or you need help with evicting an animal from your home, please contact your local animal control office or animal shelter!


Fast Facts About Tornadoes


  • Tornadoes can be nearly invisible, marked only by swirling debris at the base of the funnel. Some are composed almost entirely of windblown dust and still others are composed of several mini-funnels.

  • On average, the United States experiences 100,000 thunderstorms each year. Approximately 1,000 tornadoes develop from these storms.

  • Although tornadoes do occur throughout the world, the United States experiences the most intense and devastating tornadoes.

  • Tornadoes produce the most violent winds on earth. Tornado winds can approach speeds as high as 300 miles per hour, travel distances over 100 miles and reach heights over 60,000 feet above ground.

  • In November 1988, 121 tornadoes struck 15 south central states, resulting in 14 lives lost and damages reaching $108 million.

  • According to the National Weather Service, about 42 people are killed because of tornadoes each year.


                                                                                      The Fujita – Pearson Tornado Scale


Wind Speed (mph)

Characteristic Damage



chimney damage, tree branches broken



mobile homes pushed off foundation or overturned



considerable damage, mobile homes demolished, trees uprooted



roofs and walls torn down, trains overturned, cars thrown



well-constructed walls leveled



homes lifted off foundation and carried considerable distances, autos thrown as far as 100 meters


Related Links

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA )

National Weather Service

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)

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