What is a tornado and what should I do if one strikes?
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(KTXL) — The United States averages 1,200 tornadoes per year, with the majority occurring in the Central Plains and the southeastern U.S., according to the National Weather Service.

However, they have been reported in all 50 states. If tornado development is possible in your state, here’s what to do and several resources to help keep you safe and informed, according to the NWS.

What is a tornado?

The NWS describes a tornado as a “violently rotating column of air extending from the base of a thunderstorm down to the ground.”

The majority of tornadoes last for a few minutes and have wind speeds of less than 100 mph, although the strongest can last for more than an hour with winds up to 300 mph, which is rare.

Although all thunderstorms can produce tornadoes, supercells are the type of storm that are most commonly associated with them. These storms have a strong updraft, along with rotation.

Tornadoes are measured with the Enhanced Fujita Scale by their estimated wind speeds and related damages. Depending on what structures are affected, meteorologists can better estimate the wind speeds.

EF Rating 3 Second Gust (mph)
0 65-85
1 86-110
2 111-135
3 136-165
4 166-200
5 Over 200
Information from the National Weather Service

What needs to happen for a tornado to form?

The NWS states that tornadoes form due to warm moist air near the ground mixing with cooler dry air overhead combined with a change in wind speed and/or direction with height creating an unstable airmass. This promotes the development of strong updrafts while wind shear further increases the strength of the updraft, which elevates the rotation of the winds, creating a tornado.

Tornado watch vs warning

With a tornado watch, the NWS advises that a tornado is possible in and near the designated area and that residents should be ready to act quickly if one does form.

A tornado warning is issued when one has been sighted or indicated by weather radar and there is an “imminent danger to life and property.”

What should I do if a Tornado Warning is issued?

The NWS advises that people move indoors, preferably to the lowest floor of a building and to a room or area farthest away from the outer windows or doors.

If in a vehicle or outdoors, people should move to the nearest shelter and protect themselves from flying debris.

The NWS also advises that people be familiar with how their local government issues alerts, be it via television or radio communications, cell phone alerts or physical sirens.

What to do if a tornado strikes?

The NWS lists specific instructions for how to respond to an active tornado depending on where you are when it strikes. Everyone is advised to monitor local news or NOAA Weather Radio to stay updated during the tornado.

At home, people should head to the basement, a safe room, or to an interior room away from windows.

At work or school, people should head to the designated tornado shelter location or wherever previous drills have indicated. People should avoid windows and large rooms, such as cafeterias or gyms.

Outside, people should immediately head to the nearest shelter or sturdy building. The NWS advises that sheds, storage facilities, mobile homes, or tents are not considered safe.

In a vehicle: The NWS advises that being in a vehicle is not safe and that occupants should drive to the nearest shelter.

If unable to reach a shelter, people should get down in the vehicle and cover their heads or abandon the vehicle and head to a low-lying area, such as a ditch or ravine.

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