What to Do When There Is a Tornado Warning

The National Weather Service issues two types of tornado alerts: warnings and watches. Both can be broadcast on local news, in phone alerts, on the service’s website or on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s weather radio. Tornado sirens are also used in some communities, but their meanings vary across the country.

A tornado warning is the most urgent alert, and if you receive one, you should immediately take shelter. A warning is usually focused on a smaller area, like a city or small county, than a tornado watch is. It is issued after a weather forecaster spots a tornado on a radar or a trained spotter sees one.

Do not look outside for the tornado, which can be hidden by rain and hail, or try to record a video of it.

“The time it can take to seek visual confirmation is time you are losing to respond,” said Deanna Hence, an assistant professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

A tornado watch can cover several counties or states and indicates that a region is experiencing the conditions needed for a tornado to form.

This type of alert signals that you should have something nearby to notify you if a tornado does form. It also provides an opportunity to make sure your safety plan can be acted on: Is your cellphone charged? Is that extra food you stored in your basement still there? If it’s nighttime, will you be able to hear alerts if you fall asleep?

If you receive a tornado warning, the general rules are:

  • If you are outside, go inside.

  • If you are at home, go to the basement or an inner room without windows, such as a hallway or closet, on the lowest floor. It is also a good idea to shield your head and neck with your arms, hide under a heavy table and cover yourself with a mattress or blanket.

  • Mobile homes are not safe, and neither are large, empty rooms such as auditoriums, big-box stores and cafeterias, which are vulnerable to collapse.

People should identify the best place to shelter well before severe weather is in the forecast. The federal government provides many in-depth resources about identifying safe shelters.

If you live in a mobile home, make sure you know of a sound structure that you can reach quickly. If you cannot identify a safe place, ask local officials or emergency responders where you can seek shelter before a storm is even in the forecast; they want you to have this information.

If you are in a vehicle during a tornado warning, get down and cover your head, or abandon your vehicle and seek shelter in a low-lying area, such as a ditch or a ravine — but be aware that it could flood. If possible, cover your head and neck with your arms, and cover your body with a coat or blanket.

It is not safe to stay in your vehicle. An automobile can collapse, debris can penetrate it or — in extreme tornadoes — the vehicle can be picked up and flung.

Also, do not try to drive away from a tornado. You can be stopped by traffic, and the tornado is likely to be surrounded by other nasty weather than can make driving very dangerous.