Science has greatly improved the art of predicting tornadoes, and that advanced warning, along with home preparedness, saves lives.
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Tornadoes occur most frequently in the famed Tornado Alley region of the Central Plains, from South Dakota down into Texas, while Florida and neighboring states along the Gulf Coast also get hit hard by the powerful storms. FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, says the peak tornado months are March through May in the southern states and from late spring through early summer in the North.
Tornadoes have touched down in every state in the U.S., according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA. So it's prudent for most Americans to have a basic tornado plan.
Know the Signs
It's important to know when there might be a tornado versus when there actually is one in your area. NOAA's National Weather Service will issue a tornado watch when conditions are right for a tornado to form, though none have been detected. A tornado warning is when a twister has been spotted or radar indicates one.
Tune into the local weather for any alerts during a tornado watch. You can buy a NOAA radio transmitter for about $80 that gives detailed information during severe weather. Some also are equipped with alarms when warnings are issued.
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Know where your house is located in relation to other parts of the county or city, so you know if you're affected by a watch or warning, says Greg Carbin, warning coordination meteorologist at NOAA's storm prediction center in Norman, Okla.
During a watch, keep an eye on the windows. Tornado signs include very dark, low-hanging clouds, frequent lightning and large hail, Carbin says. Often, the electricity will cut out right before a tornado hits because nearby transformers were struck first.
"But in many parts of the country, because of terrain and trees it's very hard to see the tornado before you feel it," Carbin says.
Protect Your Family
Designate one room in your house as the safe room during a tornado. You'd be most protected in a specially designed storm shelter underground. The concrete walls of these rooms are reinforced with steel or Kevlar and protect occupants from flying debris and high winds.
Most homes don't have these storm shelters. The next best place is in a basement under stairs or sturdy furniture to help protect from falling debris, says Greg Forbes, a severe weather expert at The Weather Channel.
If your home doesn't have a basement, get to the most interior, windowless room on the first floor. The goal is to get low and put as many walls between you and the outside. A closet or bathroom works best. Carbin says steel piping helps to reinforce bathroom walls, and there's also been evidence that getting in a bathtub can be protective.
If there's time, put on a bike or sports helmet. Head trauma has been the main cause of death in the most recent outbreaks of tornadoes, says Forbes. Shield your body and head with blankets, pillows or even a mattress. Put pets in carriers.
It's best to gather extra padding and protective gear during a tornado watch. As soon as the watch turns into a warning, get in your safe location immediately. Don't bother moving a mattress or collecting pillows, says Forbes.
For those who live in mobile homes, locate a nearby sturdy building where you can seek cover when a tornado watch is issued. Mobile homes provide very little protection against tornadoes. Apartment residents should get to the lowest floor possible, and find a windowless area.
Make sure everyone in the family knows which room (or building) is the designated safe place and when they should take cover.
Prepare your home
Efforts to protect your home from tornadoes must be done largely at the construction stage. Many homes in areas prone to tornadoes are built to the local building code, which may stand up to the weakest of tornado winds -- up to 90 miles per hour -- but will start to buckle in higher winds, says Forbes.
Homes built to hurricane building codes, such as those on the Gulf Coast, can withstand stronger tornadoes, though they are no match for the fiercest twisters. The roofs on these homes typically are strapped to the walls, and the walls are bolted to the foundation, says Forbes.
The Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety says anyone renovating an existing home or putting on a new roof should use the occasion to make sure connections are firm. The group has found that homes with strong connections between the roof and walls and walls and foundation have a better chance of withstanding tornadoes.
On its website, The Weather Channel advises homeowners to install impact-resistant windows and patio doors and attach exterior doors to their frames with three hinges and have deadbolts for the doors. Keep up on maintenance to the roof, gutters and outside walls. Cut down dead or diseased trees and limbs near the house.
Bring deck furniture, planters, and any other loose furniture or equipment inside when a tornado watch is called, but only if you have time.
"Realistically, if winds get above 100 miles per hour, the house is going to begin to fail in some places," Forbes says. "It's more of a matter of saving yourself."