Severe Weather Awareness Week: Tornadoes

Anyone who lives in Central Alabama really needs no introduction to tornadoes. A tornado is a violently rotating column of air usually descending from thunderstorms that makes contact with the ground. Wind speeds with a tornado can be as weak as 65 mph but can reach upward of 200 mph and beyond. The fastest wind speed ever recorded in a tornado was 318 mph in one that hit Moore, Oklahoma, in 1999.

Even though tornadoes can develop during any time of the year in Central Alabama, we have two peak seasons: the spring months of March through May, and the fall months of November through mid-December.

Tornadoes come in all shapes and sizes, but in Alabama they are usually hard to see because they are rain-wrapped or hidden by the terrain. This makes them very dangerous. Your safety depends on being constantly aware during severe weather events.

Understanding tornado alerts
What is the difference between a Tornado Watch and a Tornado Warning issued by the National Weather Service?

  • A Tornado Watch means that tornadoes are possible in and near the watch area. Be ready to act quickly if a warning is issued or if you believe a tornado is approaching.
  • A Tornado Warning means a tornado has been sighted or indicated by radar. Take action! There is imminent danger to life and property.

Tornado watches are issued by the Storm Prediction Center. The area of a watch is typically large, covering numerous counties or even states.

Warnings are issued by your local forecast office. Warnings encompass a much smaller area, usually including parts of a few counties at most. Warnings are issued when a tornado is observed by a person on there are definite signs on radar.

What to do during a tornado

Be prepared! Acting quickly is key to minimizing impacts and staying safe.

  • Stay weather aware: During a severe weather threat, pay close attention to your reliable sources of watches and warnings and be ready to act in case a warning is issued.
  • In your home: If a tornado warning is issued for your location, go to your basement, safe room or an interior room on the lowest floor, away from windows. Get under something sturdy. Put on a helmet if possible.
  • At work or school: Proceed to the designated shelter area. Stay away from windows and do not go to large, open rooms such as auditoriums, cafeterias or gymnasiums.
  • Outdoors: Seek shelter inside a sturdy building immediately. Sheds and storage facilities are not safe.
  • In a vehicle: You are not safe at all inside a vehicle during a tornado. Drive to a substantial structure and go inside. If one is unavailable, stay in the car, buckle up and get down, or seek shelter in a low-lying area such as a ditch or ravine.

For more detailed information, review our severe weather safety tips.

It’s very important to have a personal severe weather safety plan for you and your family.

The tornadoes of April 27, 2011, killed 247 people and devastated Alabama towns and communities. (file)

What to do after a tornado

  • Stay informed: Continue to listen to local television or radio coverage or NOAA Weather Radio to stay updated about tornado watches and warnings. Multiple rounds of thunderstorms capable of producing tornadoes are possible during severe weather outbreaks.
  • Contact family and loved ones: Let your family and close friends know that you’re okay so they can help spread the word. Text messages or social media are more reliable forms of communication than phone calls.
  • Assess the damage: After the threat for tornadoes has ended, check to see if your property has been damaged. When walking through storm damage, wear long pants, a long-sleeved shirt and sturdy shoes. Contact local authorities if you see power lines down. Stay out of damaged buildings. Be aware of insurance scammers if your property has been damaged.
  • Help your neighbor: If you come across people who are injured and you are properly trained, provide first aid to victims if needed until emergency responders arrive.

Don’t disregard severe thunderstorm warnings, because severe thunderstorms can produce tornadoes with little or no advance notice.

Read James Spann’s shopping list of must-have items for your severe weather safety kit, Scott Martin’s safety tips for severe thunderstorms and flooding, and additional safety tips for bad weather.

For more weather news and information from James Spann, Scott Martin and other members of the James Spann team, visit AlabamaWx.

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