The savage violence of a tornado is heart-stopping; the death and destruction it can leave behind is heartbreaking. And while the arrival of a hurricane is preceded by days of warning, tornadoes strike suddenly. Those in the path of a tornado may have 15 minutes' warning, if that. That makes safety precautions for tornadoes critical for survival.

Every spring, the weather headlines drive home the necessity of preparing for tornadoes, and this year has been no different. April 2019 was a record month for tornadoes in the United States with nearly double the number of preliminary tornado reports for the month, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). And the chaos has continued into May, creating what USA Today called a "stuck" weather pattern that has created hundreds of almost nonstop storms, resulting in seven deaths in the last week alone and disastrous flooding. The count of preliminary reports of tornadoes — those seen but not confirmed until a damage assessment is done — makes this one of the most active tornado stretches in about eight years.

What can you do to protect your family from something like that?

Before a storm

  • If you live in an area at high risk for tornadoes, consider building a safe room in your home. A safe room must be able to withstand high winds and flying debris. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provides free plans for building a safe room in your basement or by reinforcing a bedroom closet or bathroom. You can download safe room information and plans on FEMA's website.
  • Pack an emergency preparedness kit that will meet the needs of you and your family for three days. The kit, of course, will be handy in the wake of any disaster. An emergency preparedness kit needs to include food and water for each member of your family for three days, a battery-powered or hand-crank radio, flashlight, spare batteries, first aid kit, can opener, local maps, moist towelettes, toilet paper, garbage bags and plastic ties for personal sanitation. Other items to consider include sleeping bags or blankets, paper towels, books, puzzles and games for children and pet food for family pets. FEMA has a complete list of recommended items for an emergency kit online.
  • Buy a NOAA weather radio and keep it on your nightstand. The radio will sound a loud alert when the National Weather Service issues a tornado warning for your area. This should give you time to gather your family in the safest spot in the house.
  • Be alert for threatening weather. Look for the following danger signs: dark, greenish sky, large hail, a large, dark, rotating cloud, a loud roar.

Safety precautions during a storm

  • Act quickly after a tornado warning. A warning means that a twister has been identified in your area.
  • In a public building such as a store or office, go to a designated shelter area such as a safe room, basement, storm cellar or the lowest building level.
  • If there is no basement, go to the center of an interior room such as a bathroom or closet on the lowest level away from corners, windows, doors and outside walls.
  • At home, go to a basement or the most interior room on the first floor.
  • If you’re in a mobile home, get out immediately and go to the lowest floor of a nearby building or a storm shelter.
  • If caught in the open, lie flat in a nearby ditch or depression and cover your head with your hands to protect yourself from flying debris. Flying debris from tornadoes causes the most fatalities and injuries.

Safety precautions after a storm

tornado damage in New Orleans The aftermath of a tornado in New Orleans. (Photo: Mark Gstohl/Flickr)

  • Be alert to hazards created by tornado damage such gas leaks, broken glass and exposed electrical wiring.
  • Check for injuries, but don’t try to move someone who is seriously injured unless they are in immediate danger of death or further injury.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with new information since it was first published in August 2011.

Tornado safety: Before, during and after the storm
Those in the path of a tornado may have a 15-minute warning, if that. Preparation is critical for survival.