Most Violent of All Storms - The Tornado

Ralph LaPlant

Back in about 1985 I had the opportunity to attend a Skywarn program. The purpose of this course is to identify tornadoes as they form, so the public can be made aware of the situation as soon as possible. The course was informative, and as I walked away from it, I had the attitude that I could identify tornadoes as they form. Later, I enrolled in the advance and instructor’s courses to learn more. All of this plus the fact I was raised in Anoka Minnesota where a tornado in 1939 leveled the town and sports teams were subsequently name “Tornados” and in my time was in a “tornado alley,” have intensified my tornado awareness and knowledge.
    About three or four months after my Skywarn training I was awakened at about 4:30 PM by a horrible, roaring noise. I went to my front porch and as I was attempting to close a window, as it was raining very hard and the sky was green, the strongest wind I have ever experienced blew, breaking the glass and leaving shards of glass in my hand, chest, and leg. I was taken by ambulance to a hospital where I was stitched for my wounds.
Upon my discharge from the hospital, I realized the moral of this story is that no matter how trained you are, you can always be caught off guard. I most certainly was, and as a result, will attempt to pass along to you some information about tornadoes, hoping that you can, to a degree, be prepared for them if and when they approach. Please remember that any and all can happen near tornados, no two tornados act the same and what I write here may help. I assume no liability as a result of you reading this, passing this information along to others and practicing what is written here.  Now... moving on.
    Tornadoes develop as the result of changes in wind direction as a thunderstorm develops. Winds increase and as a result, a horizontal spinning effect is created in the lower atmosphere. Rising air from the thunderstorm changes this horizontal spinning air to vertical. Now there is a two to six mile wide area of rotation. At the base of the thunderstorm cloud is a wall cloud. If it is rotating, you can usually predict that a tornado will result. If it does, strong straight-line winds and softball sized hail may develop.  
    Tornadoes are classified as weak, strong, or violent. Weak tornadoes make up 69% of all tornadoes, cause less than 5% of tornado deaths, and last, usually, at maximum, just over ten minutes. The winds associated with them are less than 100 mile per hours.
    Moderate tornadoes make up 29% of all tornadoes and cause 30% of the deaths. They have winds between 110 and 205 miles per hour.
    Lastly, we have the violent tornadoes. Fortunately these make up only 2% of tornadoes. The problem is that even though they are relatively uncommon, they cause 70% of all tornado-related deaths.
    Tornadoes can last over one hour and can, again, have winds greater than 205 miles per hour! Annually, on the average, there are about 80 deaths and 1,500 injured from tornadoes.
    Tornadoes occur year around. The highest worldwide incidence is in North America, where in the Mississippi River Valley, the tornado rate is especially high. In southern states, most tornadoes occur between March and May. (Texas has the most, which is about 15 to 20 percent of the annual nation-wide average of 1,000 tornadoes) In Minnesota most tornadoes occur from May through July. Tornadoes are most likely to occur between 3 and 9 PM, but have occurred at all hours. They can move in any direction, but often move from southwest to northeast. They can remain still or travel up to 70 miles per hour with the average speed being 30 miles per hour. They become visible as they pick up debris.  
    The best thing anyone can do to survive a tornado is to prepare for one. You and your family should have a plan and practice it. This plan should include a designated place for everyone to go to in case of a tornado warning and a place to go, if need be, after the adverse activity is over.
    You should have available, in the area you are most likely to be during a tornado, the following minimum supplies and equipment: a first aid kit (with training as to its use), a radio and flashlight with good batteries and a fire extinguisher. In case you are shut off from outside services, I would suggest a three-day supply of water (one gallon per person per day), personal medications, blankets, food that will not spoil and sanitation supplies. Check these supplies on a frequent basis to assure they are still there and in good condition.
    When there is a possibility of tornadoes in your area, a tornado watch will be issued. During these watches, you need to be tuned into the radio or television for updates. If the formation stages of a tornado have been seen (a rotating wall cloud), or there is an indication on RADAR of a tornado, or a tornado has actually been seen, a tornado warning is issued. If you have no access to a radio or TV, you need to listen for a loud roar that sounds like a train and look for large hail, a dark (possibly greenish) sky, or a wall cloud that rotates. This is where your plan comes into effect.
    One of the myths about tornadoes is that you should have windows opened to neutralize the low pressure caused by a tornado. The fact is that violent winds and debris slamming into buildings causes most structural damage. Opening windows could allow damaging winds to enter a structure. Immediately go to a safe place, leaving the windows alone, as shelter is the priority.  
    Where should you go during a tornado? Ideally you should go to a basement, if you have one. If none is available, go to an interior room or hallway on the lowest level of the building. Get under a sturdy piece of furniture. Stay away from windows (I learned that the hard way!). If caught in a vehicle, get out of it and lie in a nearby ditch or depression. Mobile homes are especially vulnerable. Leave them and seek a better shelter. Flying debris causes most tornado-related deaths.
It is believed that the word tornado comes for the Spanish tronada, which means thunderstorm. They are also called twisters, funnels, or cyclones. Over water they are called waterspouts.
Be careful! Have a plan before a tornado strikes. Being alert to the signs of tornado activity and having a safe place to go with needed supplies will increase your chances of surviving the most violent of all storms. I suggest you read more to learn more about these storms.


from Andrea Thompson, Our Amazing Planet
Opening window will equalize pressure - not true and a waste of potentially vital time to seek shelter
The southwest corner of a basement is the safest corner - not true as no corner is safer than others
When you are on the road, the best place to ride out a tornado is under a bridge - NO, NO, NO! Dangerous debris can be blown under bridges and you can be blown out from underneath and possibly in the tornado itself
Tornadoes never cross hills, rivers, roads and the like - They make “no-never-mind” as to the terrain having crossed even the Mississippi River
Tornados avoid big cities - Tell that to the people of folks in Birmingham and Tuscaloosa Alabama when on April of 2011 a tornado killed 65 and injured 1,500