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Every year in the United States, we go through various natural disasters. as we approach Spring, tornadoes become some of the most common in certain parts of the country. Deadly tornado events in Georgia and Alabama underscore the importance of being prepared. Although a little early in the season, tornadoes are always a possibility and they can be deadly.


A tornado is a violently rotating column of air that is in contact with both the surface of the earth and the thunderstorm (sometimes called a “supercell”) that spawned it. From a distance, tornadoes usually appear in the form of a dark funnel with all sorts of flying debris in and around it. Because of rainfall, they may be difficult to see when close up, but certainly can be felt as all hell breaks loose.

A tornado (also called a “twister”) may have winds of up to 300 miles per hour, and can travel for a number of miles before petering out. They may be accompanied by rain and hail. As they pass, they emit a roaring sound that will remind you of a passing train (and nature’s fury). In the early 1980s,  I experienced this exact phenomenon personally when I lost some roof tiles and several trees in what authorities called a “minor event”. We survived it, but you never forget that sound).

Tornadoes are especially dangerous because of their unpredictability and rapid formation. This contrasts with hurricanes, which, thanks to modern technology, usually come with several days warning. Therefore, it pays to have a plan of action in advance of the storm and, of course, supplies.

If you fail to plan ways to protect yourself and your family, you may find yourself having to treat significant traumatic injuries in the immediate aftermath. Later on, flooding may contaminate your water supplies and expose you to serious infectious disease. The unprepared family will have a lot of headaches and, tragically, heartaches, if they don’t plan.


There are almost a thousand tornadoes in the United States every year, more than are reported in any other country. Most of these occur in “Tornado Alley”, an area that includes Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas, Arkansas, Alabama, and neighboring states. Spring and early summer are the peak seasons.

Injuries from tornadoes usually come as a result of trauma from all the flying debris that is carried along with it. Strong winds can carry large objects and fling them around in a manner that is hard to believe; Indeed, there is a report that, in 1931, an 83 ton train was lifted and thrown 80 feet from the tracks.

Tornadoes are categorized by something called the Enhanced Fujita Scale, from level 0-5, based on the amount of damage caused:

F0 Light: broken tree branches, mild structural damage, some trees uprooted
F1 Moderate: broken windows, small tree trunks broken, overturned mobile homes, destruction of carports or toolsheds, roof tiles missing
F2 Considerable: mobile homes destroyed, major structural damage to frame homes due to flying debris, some large trees snapped in half or uprooted
F3 Severe: Roofs torn from homes, small frame homes destroyed, most trees snapped and uprooted
F4 Devastating: strong structure building damaged or destroyed or lifted from foundations, cars lifted and blown away, even large debris airborne
F5 Incredible: larger building lifted from foundations, trees snapped, uprooted and debarked, multi-ton debris becomes airborne missiles

There have been about 60 EF5 tornadoes recorded, with wind speeds of between 260 mph (420 km/h) and 318 mph (512 km/h).


Although some places may have sirens or other methods of warning you of an approaching tornado, it is important to have a plan for your family to weather the storm. Face it, having a plan before a tornado approaches is the most likely way you’ll survive the event. Children should be taught where to find the medical kits and, if mature enough, how to turn off gas and electricity. Giving your loved ones experience in the use of a fire extinguisher and some training in the treatment of injuries would be highly useful as well.

If you see a twister funnel, take shelter immediately. If you live in a mobile home, however, leave! They are especially vulnerable to damage from the winds. If you live in a mobile home and there’s time, get to the nearest building that has a tornado shelter; underground shelters are best. If you live in Tornado Alley, consider putting together your own underground shelter (check the link below). At the very least, find out your municipality’s (and your children’s school) tornado plan and shelter locations.

Unlike bunkers and other structures built for long-term protection, a tornado shelter has to provide safety for just a short period of time. As such, it doesn’t have to be very large; 8-10 square feet per person would be acceptable. Despite this, be sure to consider ventilation and the comfort or special needs of those using the shelter.

If you don’t have a shelter, find a place in the house where family members can go if a tornado is headed your way. Basements, bathrooms, closets or inside rooms on the first floor are the best options. Stay away from rooms with windows, these can easily shatter from impact due to flying debris. For added protection, get under a heavy object such as a sturdy table. Covering up your body with a sleeping bag or mattress will provide an additional shield. Discuss this plan of action with each and every member of your family  in such a way that they will know this process by heart. Planning home tornado drills would be a great way for kids to learn what to do if a twister comes your way.

If you’re in a car and can drive to a shelter, do so. Although you may be hesitant to leave your vehicle, remember that they can be easily tossed around by the winds; you may be safer if there is a culvert or other protected area lower than the roadway. In town, though, leaving the car to enter a sturdy building is an appropriate course of action. If there is no other shelter, your car will protect you from some of the flying debris. Keep your seat beat on, put you head down below the level of the windows, and cover yourself with something.

If you are caught outside when the tornado hits, stay away from wooded areas if you can. Torn branches and other debris become missiles, so an open field or ditch may be safer. Lying down flat in a low spot in the ground will give you some protection. Make sure to cover your head if at all possible, even if it’s just with your hands.

If you have enough time, fill up that bathtub with water just in case, you’ll 1 gallon of water per day for every member of your family. I don’t have to tell you that you should have food and medical supplies stored up, also.  Having a noisemaker on you (like a loud whistle)  just in case you’re buried under debris will save you some energy (or just save you, period). This way, rescuers can hear you even if you’re stuck in your cellar.

For aftermath supplies, have the standard items like non-perishable food, water, an alternate shelter like a tent, a weather radio, and a good medical kit that concentrates on dealing with traumatic injury. For other items, something similar to our winter survival list would be a good start.


A time-honored tornado myth states that if you open windows, it’ll prevent the roof from being blown off. In truth, opening the windows during a twister could potentially be lethal. It’s really a matter of simple physics. The roofs on most well constructed houses are held together by steel “L” brackets, a lot of nails, and 2×4 wood beams (or trusses). A window is nothing more than about a 1/4 inch pane of glass! This simply isn’t true.

Would you be ready if that tornado siren goes off? Armed with a plan of action, you will. Evaluate your home for weak and strong points, educate your loved ones on the right strategy, and you’ll have a head start on weathering that storm.

Joe Alton, M.D.

Did you know?  Tornadoes rotate counterclockwise in the Northern Hemisphere, but clockwise in the Southern Hemisphere!

Joe Alton MD

Find out more about natural disasters and 150 other medical topics in the Book Excellence Award winner in Medicine “The Survival Medicine Handbook: The Essential Guide for When Help is Not on the Way“, now in its 700 page third edition! Also, our new book “Alton’s Antibiotics and Infectious Disease: The Layman’s Guide…” and check out our entire line of medical kits and supplies at!

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Hey, don’t forget to check out our entire line of quality medical kits and individual supplies at Also, our Book Excellence Award-winning 700-page SURVIVAL MEDICINE HANDBOOK: THE ESSENTIAL GUIDE FOR WHEN HELP IS NOT ON THE WAY is now available in black and white on Amazon and in color and color spiral-bound versions at

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