Tornado forecasting technology has increased the average warning time to 13 minutes from a few minutes in the 1980s, but a high number of false warnings had led to a general public that may not act to mitigate damage and destruction.

Typically, tornadoes, or violently rotating columns of air, kill about 80 Americans and cause $400 million in property damage annually. The year 2011, however, was particularly devastating, with 1,782 tornadoes claiming 549 lives. A so-called “Super Outbreak” April 25-28 directly cause 324 deaths, or more than half of that year’s twister-related fatalities. The outbreak spawned 360 tornadoes across 21 states form Texas to New York, with Alabama and Mississippi being severely affected.

Though tornadoes can occur virtually anywhere, they are a decidedly American problem, as the vast majority takes place in the United States, and every state averages at least one twister per year.

Any thunderstorm is capable of developing a tornado, but the most severe twisters are created inside supercell thunderstorms, which are defined by a rotating updraft.

Texas is in what’s known as “Tornado Alley,” a swath of the country that stretches from the Lone Star state to eastern South Dakota in the north, and from Kansas west to eastern Colorado. Tornado season begins in early spring as warm air from the Gulf of Mexico pushes north and collides with cool air off the Rocky Mountains and Canada.

Forecasters issue watches for storms capable of producing tornadoes, and later update with a warning if a twister is spotted on the ground or indicated by radar.

Tornadoes are measured on the Enhanced Fujita scale, ranking from EF0-EF5. An EF0 tornado includes winds of 65-85 miles per hour while an EF5 includes winds more than 200 miles per hour. An EF1 may topple trees and sign boards while the EF5 will move a strong-frame home from its foundation and carry it some distance.

Most tornado deaths are caused by flying debris, which is why people are advised to go to a basement or an interior room in the home if one is approaching. People who live in mobile homes are advised to seek shelter underground or in a permanent building.

What You Should Know

  • Tornadoes tend to follow a fairly set pattern, though aberrations do occur. They typically move from the southwest to the northeast, though they have been reported in all directions. Most tornadoes occur between 3 p.m. and 9 p.m., though they have occurred at all parts of the day. Tornadoes that occur between midnight and daybreak cause 2.5 times the number of deaths, likely because people may not be aware and take cover, and because of the difficulty in spotting them at night.
  • For those who live in the most tornado-prone areas, an understanding of the way tornados “usually” occur may lead to complacency. In addition, many myths about tornado safety have not been replaced with fact, leading to confusion. Valuable time often is wasted when those in the path of the storm should be seeking shelter instead.
  • In early 2012, the National Weather Service released a new tornado warning system, designed to overcome the delays that occurred during the Joplin, Mo., tornadoes. During that outbreak, a study found that a majority of residents did not heed the first warning, but looked for additional confirmation. The new system includes a standard tornado warning; a potentially dangerous situation tornado warning, meaning that one has been spotted on the ground; and a tornado emergency, which means that a large tornado is on the ground and headed towards a populated area.

How You Can Help

Donors hoping to mitigate the effects of future tornadoes and provide long-term recovery solutions could:

  • Support improving the accuracy of prediction and warning systems. Though many improvements have been made, tornadoes remain difficult to predict. Improved warning systems, such as those that call a home or wireless phone, are more reliable than warning sirens.  FEMA introduced the Wireless Emergency Alert system, which allows text messages to be delivered via wireless phones in the event of an emergency. All new wireless phones are expected to be WEA-enabled by 2014; some existing phones on the market cannot be upgraded to receive these messages.  The National Weather Service can send severe weather alerts during a tornado.
  • Help fund informational programs for areas most vulnerable. Some simple steps, such as anchoring manufactured homes to concrete foundations or reinforcing garage doors, can help a structure withstand a tornado. However, overcoming misinformation related to tornadoes also is key. Myths related to tornadoes must be debunked.
  • Fund research into improved structures. In the areas most vulnerable to tornadoes, codes are aimed at building homes to withstand winds of 80 miles per hour, roughly equivalent to an EF0 tornado. Improved building methods could help many structures stand, reducing future death and destruction.
  • Encourage individual preparation plans, even at the family/business level. Each family member should know where to go in the house during a tornado warning, as well as how to understand community warning systems (sirens, texts, etc.). Homes also should be equipped with crank-style radios. Diseased and damaged tree limbs should be removed, and in preparation for coming story, lawn furniture, trash cans, hanging plants, and other items that might become projectiles should be secured. In addition, simple low-cost solutions such as hurricane clips in the rafters can help reduce damage. In businesses, each employee should know where to seek shelter and how to secure hazardous materials onsite. A plan should be in place to account for the whereabouts of all personnel, as well as methods of protecting workers during and immediately after the storm.
  • In the immediate after-math of a devastating tornado, needs often are met by an outpouring of response. But full recovery can take years.  Tornadoes don’t discriminate, leveling government buildings, businesses, and homes. When schools are damaged, particularly in small communities, life can’t return to normal. When businesses are damaged, the community’s economy suffers. Long-term recovery efforts must focus on creating a plan to minimize future damage, such as strengthening buildings and building codes, helping disadvantaged populations to receive legal aid to navigate FEMA rules, and providing low-interest loans to small businesses.

Learn More