Tornado and Severe Weather Preparedness
Updated: Jun 25, 2021
By Will O’Neil
With “Severe Weather Season” here, there are a few things that you should know about severe weather and how to prepare for it.
Information About Severe Weather
Watches vs Warnings
One thing that is sometimes confusing to people is the difference between a watch and a warning. Here are the exact definitions of these from the National Weather Service (NWS) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA):
Watch: “Issued when conditions are favorable for a particular severe weather hazard within the next several hours” (NWS/NOAA)
Warning: “Issued when a particular severe weather hazard is imminent or occurring. Take immediate action to protect life and property” (NWS/NOAA)
So what does this mean? A watch essentially means that the conditions are there for severe weather/tornadoes to form, but they are not actively happening. A non-meteorological example of this would be when you are making a cake. You would have all the ingredients to make the cake, but the ingredients have not been used to make a cake yet. This would then be called a “Cake Watch” if that was an actual thing. In meteorology, this means that the atmosphere has the conditions that support the formation of severe weather, but it is not actively forming/occurring. This is when we get Severe Thunderstorm/Tornado Watches.
However, a warning means that severe weather/a tornado is forming or has already formed. With the cake example, this would be when the ingredients for the cake have been put together and are actively making the cake, or the cake has been finished. This would then be a “Cake Warning”. In meteorology, we get this when there is actively severe weather occurring or there is a tornado that is imminent or on the ground.
Now, we will talk about the different types of warnings
Severe Thunderstorm and Tornado Warnings
When we get strong storms in the southeast, you may sometimes see that Severe Thunderstorm Warnings and Tornado Warnings are often issued. You may ask though, what do each of these mean? Here is the definition of each of these.
Severe Thunderstorm Warning: “A thunderstorm that produces a tornado, damaging winds of 58 mph or higher, and/or quarter (1 inch) size hail or larger” (NWS/NOAA)
Tornado Warning: “Issued when a tornado is indicated by the WSR-88D radar or sighted by spotters; therefore, people in the affected area should seek safe shelter immediately” (NWS/NOAA)
So we see that a Severe Thunderstorm Warning is usually issued before a Tornado Warning, since most of the time, winds above 58 mph or hail that is 1 inch in diameter are observed before a tornado (even though that is not always the case). Most people often brush off Severe Thunderstorm Warnings because they often do not lead to any noticeable damage. However, it is still important to take them seriously because they can still blow over trees which can lead to damage to property and even death. When a Severe Thunderstorm is issued, it is a good idea to get to shelter, such as your home, but it does not necessarily mean that you need to get to your tornado safe place. Tornado Warnings are also very important, which most of the time require more attention. They are issued using polygons, where anything inside of the polygon is under the warning. We will talk later on about what to do if you are under a Tornado Warning.
Next, we will talk about how the Storm Prediction Center sets their Severe Weather Risk Categories and what each category means.
Severe Weather Risk Categories:
When severe weather is in the forecast, the Storm Prediction Center will issue categorical outlooks for each day. These are classified as:
Thunderstorms: “No severe thunderstorms expected, lightning/flooding threats exist with all thunderstorms” (NWS/NOAA)
1 - MARGINAL (MRGL): “Isolated severe thunderstorms possible, limited in duration and/or coverage and/or intensity” (NWS/NOAA)
2 - SLIGHT (SLGT): “Scattered severe storms possible, short-lived and/or not widespread, isolated intense storms possible” (NWS/NOAA)
3 - ENHANCED (ENH): “Numerous severe storms possible, more persistent and/or widespread, a few intense” (NWS/NOAA)
4 - MODERATE (MDT): “Widespread severe storms likely, long-lived, widespread and intense” (NWS/NOAA)
5 - HIGH (HIGH): “Widespread severe storms expected, long-lived, very widespread and particularly intense” (NWS/NOAA)
These categories are important to understand because a marginal risk of severe weather can still bring severe weather and tornadoes to an area, even though it may not impact a widespread area. If you are in an area that is under a severe risk, it is important to remain “weather aware” (more on that below).
Now that we have talked about watches/warnings, the difference between Severe Thunderstorms and Tornadoes, and the Severe Risk Categories, we will now talk about how to prepare for severe weather and tornadoes.
How to Prepare for Severe Weather
Step 1: Learn where your house is on a map and the county that you live in
Surprisingly, many people cannot point out where their house is on a map. That is a major problem when it comes to severe weather because warnings are issued by the county. Also, broadcast meteorologists typically name off cities are areas that are in the path of the storm, and if you are not in a small town, it may not be something that is named. This is why it is important to know where you live in relation to other cities and areas. Knowing where you live in relation to other places also helps to know if the storm is approaching your area if you are not yet in the polygon. With AthensGAWeather, we will be mentioning places on the map just like meteorologists on TV do.
Step 2: Know how you are going to get warnings
One of the major problems with tornado warnings in general is that people will rely on tornado sirens to alert them if there is a warning. However, these are designed to alert people who are outside and not people that are in their houses. For this reason, you will need to make sure you have another way to get tornado warnings. First, you can get warnings through your phone. One method of getting warnings through your phone is by turning on Emergency Alerts in settings (that is for iPhone). Also, you can download the Red Cross’s Tornado App, and it will send you alerts for different areas that you can select. Another important thing that you should have in your home is a NOAA Weather Radio. Chief Meteorologist James Spann of ABC 33/40 in Birmingham, Alabama says that every household should have one of these, and if James Spann says to do something regarding severe weather, it is a good idea to do whatever that is. You can find these on the internet on most of the popular sites (Amazon, Walmart, etc.). These are good to have because they sound very loudly when there is a tornado warning issued. It is a good idea to have multiple methods to get warnings in case one of them fails to alert you. It is better to be safe than sorry when it comes to severe weather because being safe can save your life.
Step 3: Know what to do if you are under a tornado warning
When tornadoes hit, they can range in the amount of destruction that they cause based on the strength of the storm. Most of the damage with tornadoes are caused the higher you get from the surface. For this reason, it is necessary for everyone to have a safe place that they can go if there is a tornado warning. The best place to go/best things to do/bring are:
The lowest level of your home/building you are in (basement preferred, but the first floor is fine if you don’t have a basement)
An small, interior room that is away from windows (such as a hallway, bathroom, or closet)
Protect yourself with certain items (Wear a helmet, bring pillows and blankets with you as well). Protect your head first because most deaths are caused by blunt force trauma to the head.
Exit a mobile home and go to your designated storm shelter if you have time. If you don’t have time to get to a structure, lie down in a ditch
If you are stuck in a car, you have three options, depending on the situation. If a tornado is visible, far off in the distance, and visibility remains good, drive as fast as safely possible in right angles to the tornado. If there is an area much lower than the road such as a ditch, pull over and lie down in the ditch, covering your head. While ditches are certainly far from safe due to risks from flying debris, flooding, and lightning, it may be safer than staying in your car. Your third option is to remain in your vehicle with the seatbelt on and fastened. Duck below windows and cover your head with your hands, a jacket, or a blanket. Do not go under an overpass. They may seem safe, but they are one of the worst places you can be in a tornado. Also, wear shoes in case you have to climb through debris after the storm has passed.
Now, if there is severe weather in the forecast, you should know where your shelter is, how to get alerts, and where your home is on a map to get updates from our live streams.
NWS/NOAA: Severe Weather Preparedness (https://www.weather.gov/ind/preparedness)
NWS/NOAA: Severe Weather Definitions (https://www.weather.gov/bgm/severedefinitions#:~:text=Severe%20Thunderstorm%20Warning,should%20seek%20safe%20shelter%20immediately.)
CNN: 4 Tornado Safety Tips that could Save Your Life (https://www.cnn.com/2019/03/04/us/tornado-safety-tips-wxc)