What Is a Tornado Warning: How to Stay Safe

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Tornado season lasts from March until the middle of June and affects most of the United States. But when a storm's brewing, how do you know when it's serious? 

Tornado warning or tornado watch

A tornado watch is a weather alert that means the weather conditions could spawn tornados. During a tornado watch, stay prepared and go to NOAA Weather Radio or your local television station to stay informed.

A tornado warning means that there has been a tornado detected by weather radar or one has been spotted. With this weather warning, you should take shelter immediately. 1


You can remember the difference using the "taco" system. A "taco warning" includes all the ingredients needed to make a taco, but not yet assembled. A "taco watch" means it is fully assembled and present. 

tornado taco warning versus watch

How to stay safe during a tornado watch

Whether you've heard the warning on a storm radio, online reports, or your local news broadcast, when a tornado watch is in effect, you need to take shelter immediately. 

Where to take shelter:

  • If you're home go into the basement, tornado shelter, or a central room without exterior walls like a hallway, closet, or bathroom. If you live in a mobile home or trailer, seek shelter with a neighbor, friend, or relative close by. 
  • If you're in a vehicle, seek shelter in the nearest structure and do not try to outrun the storm. Avoid highway overpasses and bridges as they can collapse under the high winds and debris. 
  • At work, the mall, or other businesses, get away from windows and exterior doors and go to the lowest level of the building. Get under a heavy table or workbench if you can, or cover your head with your hands.
  • If you can’t find shelter, lay down in a low-lying area like a culvert, ditch, gully, or ravine away from trees. Cover your head and neck with your hands or an object like a book, laptop, bike helmet, or pillow for protection.2
  • If you’re bed-bound or unable to take shelter, cover your body the best you can with blankets and pillows to protect yourself from flying debris. Make sure to cover your head well.
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How do I know if there is a tornado warning?


Image: WFAA

Even if you don’t live in Tornado-Alley, there are many ways to know if there’s a tornado warning:

  • Listen for the outdoor warning system that lets residents know when there is an emergency. These outdoor warning sirens will sound during a tornado warning. Don’t just rely on tornado sirens, though. Sometimes they malfunction.
  • Check out the National Weather Services’ map of current weather warnings and watches.
  • Turn on your local AM or FM radio station or switch to a local television station. The Emergency Alert System will issue a notification (preceded by a loud beeping noise) if there is a tornado warning.
  • Make sure your phone can get Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEAs). These are official alerts from the government about national emergencies and public safety, child abductions, and National Weather Service warnings sent to your phone as texts. In your phone’s settings, the service will likely be called Government Alerts or Emergency Alert Messages.
  • Ask Alexa, “Alexa, is there a tornado warning around me?” The voice assistant will let you know. Unfortunately, this doesn't work well with Google Assistant.

Image: WFFA

How to prepare for tornado warnings

To be ready for a tornado, you need a solid plan. This starts with a safe location. Once you have that figured out, share the plan with everyone you live with.

If you’re an apartment dweller

You’ll need to go to the lowest level of the building, in an interior room. Ideally, the basement is best.

No basement? Then a storage closet or bathroom on the first floor will work. Just make sure the room doesn’t have outside walls or windows like skylights. Ask your building manager if there is a tornado sheltering plan in place.

If you live in a trailer or mobile home

Your best bet is to make a plan to visit nearby neighbors, friends, or relatives during a tornado warning. I lived in a trailer growing up and we always booked it over to my grandparents' houses during a tornado warning. Once you’re there, go to a room on the lowest level with interior walls, no window, and where nothing heavy can fall on you.

Another option is to see if your community has a tornado shelter. Often, old fallout shelters from the Cold War are used as community tornado shelters. Call your local fire department’s non-emergency line. They should be able to point you in the right direction.

If you live in a house

Figure out the best area to hide out in. It will be a hallway, bathroom, or other room with no exterior walls or windows. You’ll also want to make sure there’s nothing heavy that can fall on you.

Alina Bradford
Written by
Alina Bradford
Alina is a safety and security expert that has contributed her insights to CNET, CBS, Digital Trends, MTV, Top Ten Reviews, and many others. Her goal is to make safety and security gadgets less mystifying one article at a time. In the early 2000s, Alina worked as a volunteer firefighter, earning her first responder certification and paving the way to her current career. Her activities aren’t nearly as dangerous today. Her hobbies include fixing up her 100-year-old house, doing artsy stuff, and going to the lake with her family.

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