Recognizing Tornado Signs & Staying Safe: Essential Tips

Signs of a Tornado

Few things can strike fear into a person more than the blast of a tornado siren. An average of 1,200 tornadoes strike in the United States each year.

With proper tornado safety training and learning the signs of a tornado, we can all be better prepared to protect our families and homes when a funnel cloud forms. 

Preparing for a Tornado

If you live in an area where tornadoes are likely, such as the Midwest or the Southeastern United States, you need to have a family plan for what to do in case of a tornado.

No matter where you go during a tornado, always crouch down with your head between your legs and your arms over the head. 

Safety plan at home

Building House Concrete Storage Cellar or Tornado Shelter Interior Room.

You should have a family safety plan at home with detailed information about where to go in case of a tornado emergency. A basement or safe room are the best places to seek shelter (make other plans if you don’t have basements such as your bathroom).

If you live a tornado prone state like Illinois or Alabama, you may also have an above or below ground shelter.

Stay away from windows and try to hide under a strong piece of furniture, like a desk. Get helmets for every family member to wear, as flying debris can be deadly. 

If you’re in an apartment or home with no basement or safe room, go to the lowest floor you can and find an interior room, like a closet or bathroom.

Cover yourself with a mattress or several pillows in case the ceiling above you crashes down.

Safety plan at school

Talk to your children’s school principal about the plan for tornadoes during a school day. Make sure you know where the children will be taken and how to pick up your child after a storm. 

Safety plan at work

Make sure you know the workplace emergency plan in case of a tornado. If your company doesn’t do drills, ask for one. It helps to run through the scenario to make sure everyone knows what to do during a storm. 

Safety plan outside

If you are outside when a tornado is coming, you don’t have a lot of great options. Try to get into a building. If you can’t, avoid going in a car as the winds of a tornado can easily pick up a car. Your best option is to lie down on the ground with your face in the dirt and put your hands over your head for protection. Do not seek shelter under a highway overpass. 

Tornado Safety Kit

You’ll need to have a safety kit in your safe place at home. Be sure to put aside long pants, long-sleeved shirts, and sturdy shoes so you can walk through debris. A first aid kit should also be in your safe place. Add a portable phone charger to the list as well. 

What Are the Signs that a Tornado is Coming?


There are several signs of a tornado coming that shouldn’t be overlooked, well before the sirens go off. Here are 6 signs of a tornado. 

1. The sky might tell you 

The skies can turn an eerie shade of green before a tornado forms. While green skies do not guarantee a tornado is going to form, it’s a good indicator that a severe storm capable of producing tornadoes is nearby. If you’re in an area that is flat enough, you also might see the tornado miles away. 

Another sign of a tornado formation is a wall cloudA wall cloud drops from the main cloud of the thunderstorm (not to be confused with a hurricane’s eye wall). The wall cloud is just below the base of the larger cloud and most tornadoes will form from the rotation within the wall cloud. 

A wall cloud is not to be confused with a shelf cloudA shelf cloud is formed as a large storm is approaching an area and generally covers the entire horizon.

Remember in the movie Independence Day when the alien ships slowly moved over the major cities? That’s what a shelf cloud does. 

2. Your mobile device will tell you

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the United States Government, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) teamed up to provide mobile carriers with Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA). If you have a WEA -enabled device, this setting is automatically turned on. 

For iOS devices, go to SETTINGS and then NOTIFICATIONS and scroll down to GOVERNMENT ALERTS

For Android devices, go to SETTINGS and search for EMERGENCY ALERTS.

For those of you worried about being tracked by the government, FEMA states, “WEAs do not track your location. They are broadcast from area cell towers to mobile phones within the defined geographic location. Every WEA-capable phone within range receives the message.”

3. NOAA will tell you 

The downside of the WEA devices is that if a tornado knocks down a cell phone tower, you’re not going to get those alerts. That’s why it’s imperative for everyone to own a NOAA Weather Radio and have fresh batteries installed with a few backup batteries ready.

NOAA Weather Radio - Emergency NOAA/AM/FM Battery Operated Portable Radio with Best Reception and Longest Lasting Transistor. Powered by 2 AA Battery with Mono Headphone Socket, by Vondior (Silver)

Check with a local meteorologist or the National Weather Service to make sure it’s programmed correctly. 

4. Your dog might tell you

The barometric pressure drop that happens before a severe thunderstorm can make a dog miserable. It hurts their highly-sensitive ears. With four times the hearing range, your dog hears thunder long before you do.

Even the change in static electricity can be picked up by a perceptive pooch. Dogs will pace, pant, dig, or try to run when a storm is approaching or overhead. 

Many stories have been told about dogs who paced and whined all day, and then a tornado or severe storm moved through.

Take Champ, for example, an English setter from Nebraska who once saved his family’s life by sensing trouble and headed for the basement. 

“He wouldn’t come out,” Brad Stickleman told CBS News in 2000. “We knew something was in the air.”

The Stickleman’s home was in a rural area where tornado warnings couldn’t be heard. Champ saved their lives that day even though the home was a total loss. 

5. Your ears will tell you 

Two things happen before or during a tornado. It either gets eerily silent or incredibly loud. 

“It sounded like a freight train!”

How many times have you heard that on the local news in the aftermath of a tornado? However, it’s true. A tornado can sound like a freight train coming. The noise is consistent and intense, not like a rush of quick wind.

Weather experts say it can also sound like you’re in a car driving fast with all the windows rolled down. 

You’ve heard of the phrase “The Calm Before The Storm”, right? Sometimes, right before a tornado hits, it will get quiet and calm. The winds stop briefly. The rain tapers off. Then all hell breaks loose. 

6. Tornado sirens will tell you

If you live in a community with tornado sirens, they will go off when there is a tornado warning issued. Some states, like Florida, do not have tornado sirens. I recommend calling your local weather office to see if sirens are in your area. 

The sirens are becoming somewhat of an “old” technology for the following reasons: 

  • Limited Range: They are designed to only be heard outside. You cannot hear them inside.
  • Outdated: Newer technology provides warnings with detailed information before the sirens go off. 
  • No Data: The siren only gives a sense of urgency. It doesn’t provide information. 

Still, sirens are a great reinforcement that a tornado emergency is imminent. 

Types of Tornadoes 

As if one tornado isn’t bad enough, we know there are four types of tornadoes that can happen.

  • Cone Tornado: This formation is most commonly associated with tornadoes. It’s shaped like a cone. Wide at the top where it meets the stormcloud and narrows as it heads down to the earth.
  • Wedge Tornado: These tornadoes are still somewhat cone-shaped, but are at least 1/2 a mile wide at the base. Wedge tornadoes are generally the most destructive and deadly tornadoes in the group. 
  • Rope Tornado: A long and narrow tornado that looks like a rope. Most tornadoes start as a rope and build from there. 
  • Multi-Vortex Tornado: Also known as “sisters.” This is when more than one funnel cloud comes down out of a storm cloud.

The Difference Between a Tornado Watch and a Tornado Warning

There’s a big difference between a tornado watch and a tornado warning. A good way to remember it is that a tornado watch means “watch out,” as weather experts determine the atmosphere is ripe for the potential of tornado-producing storms.

A watch might be issued hours or a day ahead of time so we have time to prepare for the storm.

A tornado warning means a tornado has been spotted in your area. A warning generally gets issued with only a few minutes of a heads-up. Tornado warnings can be issued in two ways. 

  • Radar indicated: Meteorologists watching the radar can see the rotation of a storm that strongly suggests a tornado is on the ground.
  • Spotter indicated: A storm spotter has visually seen a tornado on the ground and alerts the National Weather Service. 

Will I Always be Able to See a Tornado?

The videos we see on the news and online show really dynamic funnel clouds, generally with someone in the background saying “Wow!” Not all tornadoes are that easy to see. In fact, some are invisible.

A rain-wrapped tornado is very hard to see, especially at night, because the rain blocks the view of the funnel cloud.

In fact, the main reason we see funnel clouds is because of all the dirt and debris it picks up. You might not see the tornado, but notice flashes of blue or white light. This is most likely a tornado knocking down power poles or transformers. 

What to do if a Tornado Strikes

Too many people do the wrong things when a tornado warning is issued.

  • DO NOT GO OUTSIDE: They go outside, hoping to get a look. Leave that to the professional storm chasers. Get to your safe place. 
  • DO NOT OPEN WINDOWS: It’s a myth that a house will explode if the windows aren’t open. 
  • DO NOT WAIT: Waiting until the last minute to go to your safe place could put you in the path of flying debris. 

Make sure your pets are on a leash as they could get scared and try to run away during a tornado. A crate is another great option to keep them from running off. 

What to do After a Tornado Strikes

The immediate urge after a tornado is to see the damage. Don’t move and keep listening to the NOAA weather radio. Just because one tornado went through doesn’t mean a second one isn’t on the way. 

  • Check on the family: Make sure everyone in your family is safe and provide any necessary first aid for cuts or abrasions.
  • Survey the damage: If it is safe to do so, survey the damage of your home. Take pictures if you can, especially for a faster insurance claim. But if the structure is unstable, leave.
  • Check on neighbors: Tornadoes can be very hit or miss in their path of destruction. One home might have minor damage while another is leveled. See if there are any trapped people in your area. If there are, call 911. Do not enter an unstable structure for any reason.
  • Post Updates: You can post updates on social media to let your loved one know you are okay. 

If a tornado does a lot of damage, the Red Cross will be called out to assist with housing, clothing, and cleanup. 

How Tornado Damage is Assessed

Emergency management can tell how serious a tornado was by how much damage the twister left behind. While there are estimated wind speeds with the different levels of tornadoes, the destruction is mainly what gives it a rating on the Enhanced Fujita Scale.

Storms are ranked from F0 to F5, according to the National Weather Service: 

  • EF0: Minimal damage. Branches are broken off trees. Street signs might be knocked down.
  • EF1: Moderate damage. Shingles could come off the roof. A mobile home might be moved from its foundation. 
  • EF2: Considerable damage. Large trees are uprooted. Roofs can be torn off homes. 
  • EF3: Severe damage. A train can be blown off the tracks. Roofs and interior walls can be torn apart. 
  • EF4: Devastating damage. A home can be leveled. Cars can become projectiles. 
  • EF5: Incredible damage. Homes can be destroyed and debris can be carried for miles. The bark is ripped off trees. 

There is a challenge to this measurement. Say a tornado hits a wide-open space with no buildings, trees, or power lines. There’s little damage to be able to tell how intense the tornado was, and it can’t be measured on the Enhanced Fujita scale. 

Does Any Other Weather Event Mimic Tornado Damage?

A less talked about weather event that can cause tornado-like damage is a microburstThis happens when a powerful draft comes straight down out of a thunderstorm, hitting an area with winds up to 100 mph.

A microburst is not a tornado, as there is no rotation to it, but the sudden force of winds can feel an awful lot like one. Microbursts can happen in the few seconds it takes for a radar scan to complete one loop, leaving them nearly impossible to predict in many cases. 

Another similar event is a gustnado. This is when rotating winds on the leading edge of a storm spin up, but they are not connected to the thunderstorm cloud or a wall

Gustnados can happen during severe thunderstorms, even when a tornado doesn’t form. The damage from a gustnado can be at F0 or F1 levels. It’s a very short-lived phenomenon. 

If you’re scared by this information

Don’t be scared, be prepared. There have only been 59 EF-5 tornadoes since 1959. They are not common but they are devastating when they happen. The odds of your neighborhood getting hit by an EF4 or EF5 tornadoes are 1 in 3.3 million. Most tornadoes are EF0 or EF1. 

If you’re intrigued by this information

The National Weather Service is always looking for new storm spotters. You take a class to learn about spotting storms and then you are added to the official list. This program is free and available to anyone over 18 who is capable of viewing and reporting storm information. 

Being a storm spotter does not make you a storm chaser. A storm chaser is a much more dangerous job that requires training in atmospheric science and hands-on experience with other trained storm chasers. 

By Anita Brown

Anita Brown is our go-to contributor to our emergency preparedness website. Anita brings a wealth of personal experience and professional expertise to the table, having weathered several awful natural disasters. Anita is currently working towards obtaining her Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) certification.