A tornado is a violently rotating column of air extending from the base of a thunderstorm down to the ground. Tornadoes are capable of completely destroying well-made structures, uprooting trees and hurling objects through the air like deadly missiles. Tornadoes can occur at any time of day or night and at any time of the year. Although tornadoes are most common in the Central Plains and southeastern United States, they have been reported in all 50 states. This website is designed to teach you how to stay safe in a tornado. If you know what to do before, during, and after a tornado you can increase your chances of survival. You'll also find links to research, past events and other topics of interest. Download our free Thunderstorms, Lightning and Tornado booklet for more information.
A thunderstorm is considered severe if it produces hail at least 1 inch in diameter or has wind gusts of at least 58 miles per hour. Every thunderstorm produces lightning, which kills more people some years than tornadoes or hurricanes. Heavy rain from thunderstorms can cause flash flooding. High winds can damage homes and blow down trees and utility poles, causing widespread power outages. Every year people are killed or seriously injured because they didn't hear or ignored severe thunderstorms warnings. The information in this section, combined with timely watches and warnings about severe weather, could save your life.
Listen to local news or NOAA Weather Radio for emergency updates. Watch for signs of a storm, like darkening skies, lightning flashes or increasing wind. If you can hear thunder, you are close enough to be in danger from lightning. If thunder roars, go indoors! Don't wait for rain. Lightning can strike out of a clear blue sky. Learn more about lightning safety.
Avoid electrical equipment and corded telephones. Cordless phones, cell phones and other wireless handheld devices are safe to use. Keep away from windows. If you are driving, try to safely exit the roadway and park. Stay in the vehicle and turn on the emergency flashers until the heavy rain ends. If you are outside and cannot reach a safe building, avoid high ground; water; tall, isolated trees; and metal objects such as fences or bleachers. Picnic shelters, dugouts and sheds are NOT safe.
Lightning and Flood Threats
While much of the focus during severe weather is on tornadoes, wind and hail, there are actually more deaths caused each year by flooding and lightning, which are also commonly associated with severe weather. If you hear thunder or see lightning, head inside immediately! When Thunder Roars Go Indoors! Heavy rainfall from thunderstorms can quickly cause rivers and streams to overrun their banks and cause street flooding in cities. Remember, if you encounter a flooded roadway, do NOT drive or walk into it. Turn Around Don't Drown! Visit weather.gov/lightningsafety and weather.gov/floodsafety for more safety tips and information.
What is the difference between a WATCH and a WARNING issued by the National Weather Service?
Tornado Watch: Be Prepared! Tornadoes are possible in and near the watch area. Review and discuss your emergency plans and check supplies and your safe room. Be ready to act quickly if a warning is issued or you suspect a tornado is approaching. Acting early helps to save lives! Watches are issued by the Storm Prediction Center for counties where tornadoes may occur. The watch area is typically large, covering numerous counties or even states.
Tornado Warning: Take Action! A tornado has been sighted or indicated by weather radar. There is imminent danger to life and property. Move to an interior room on the lowest floor of a sturdy building. Avoid windows. If in a mobile home, a vehicle, or outdoors, move to the closest substantial shelter and protect yourself from flying debris. Warnings are issued by your local forecast office. Warnings typically encompass a much smaller area (around the size of a city or small county) that may be impacted by a tornado identified by a forecaster on Radar or by a trained spotter/law enforcement who is watching the storm.
Severe Thunderstorm Watch: Be Prepared! Severe thunderstorms are possible in and near the watch area. Stay informed and be ready to act if a severe thunderstorm warning is issued. Watches are issued by the Storm Prediction Center for counties where severe thunderstorms may occur. The watch area is typically large, covering numerous counties or even states.
Severe Thunderstorm Warning: Take Action! Severe weather has been reported by spotters or indicated by radar. Warnings indicate imminent danger to life and property. Take shelter in a substantial building. Get out of mobile homes that can blow over in high winds. Warnings are issued by your local forecast office. Warnings typically encompass a much smaller area (around the size of a city or county) that may be impacted by an on-going severe thunderstorm.