Although tornados occur in many parts of the world, these destructive forces of
nature are found most frequently in the United States east of the Rocky
Mountains during the spring and summer months. In an average year, 1200
tornadoes are reported nationwide, resulting in 70 deaths and over 1,500
injuries. Tornados, violently rotating columns of air that extend from a
thunderstorm to the ground, are capable of tremendous destruction with wind
speeds of 250 mph or more. Damage paths can be in excess of one mile wide and 50
miles long. Once a tornado in Broken Bow, Oklahoma, carried a motel sign 30
miles and dropped it in Arkansas!
Tornadoes come in all shapes and sizes and
can occur anywhere in the U.S. at any time of the year. Peak tornado season in
the Northeast U.S. is May - July, and twisters are most likely to occur between
3 PM - 9 PM. They last anywhere from a few seconds to more than an hour - but
most last less than 10 minutes.
While Western Pennsylvania rarely sees
tornados, we have had a few encounters with their deadly power. On May 31, 1985
a line of violent storms with multiple funnel clouds left 65 dead, destroyed
1,009 homes and caused an estimated $375 million in damage in western PA.
Sixteen people were injured by a twister that touched down in Mount Washington
on June 2, 1998 - one of 14 tornados reported that day in Allegheny, Beaver,
Fayette, Somerset and Westmoreland counties. Tornados do happen here in the
western Pennsylvania area, and there is no such thing as guaranteed safety
inside a tornado. Freak accidents happen, and the most violent tornadoes can
level and blow away almost any house and its occupants. Extremely violent F5
tornadoes are very rare, however. Most tornadoes are actually much weaker and
can be survived by following these safety tips:
Tornado Safety Rules
- In a house with a basement:
Avoid windows. Get in the basement and under some kind of sturdy protection
(heavy table or work bench), or cover yourself with a mattress or sleeping
bag. Know where very heavy objects rest on the floor above (pianos,
refrigerators, waterbeds, etc.) and do not go under them. They may fall down
through a weakened floor and crush you.
- In a house with no basement, a dorm, or an
Avoid windows. Go to the lowest floor, small center room (like a bathroom or
closet), under a stairwell, or in an interior hallway with no windows. Crouch
as low as possible to the floor, facing down; and cover your head with your
hands. A bath tub may offer a shell of partial protection. Even in an interior
room, you should cover yourself with some sort of thick padding (mattress,
blankets, etc.), to protect against falling debris in case the roof and
- In an office building, hospital, nursing home or
Go directly to an enclosed, windowless area in the center of the
building -- away from glass. Then, crouch down and cover your head. Interior
stairwells are usually good places to take shelter, and if not crowded, allow
you to get to a lower level quickly. Stay off the elevators; you could be
trapped in them if the power is lost.
- In a mobile home:
Get out! Even if your home is tied down, you are probably safer
outside, even if the only alternative is to seek shelter out in the open. Most
tornadoes can destroy even tied-down mobile homes; and it is best not to play
the low odds that yours will make it. If your community has a tornado shelter,
go there fast. If there is a sturdy permanent building within easy running
distance, seek shelter there. Otherwise, lie flat on low ground away from your
home, protecting your head. If possible, use open ground away from trees and
cars, which can be blown onto you.
- At school:
Follow the drill! Go to the interior hall or room in an orderly way
as you are told. Crouch low, head down, and protect the back of your head with
your arms. Stay away from windows and large open rooms like gyms and
- In a car or truck:
Vehicles are extremely dangerous in a tornado. If the tornado is visible, far
away, and the traffic is light, you may be able to drive out of its path by
moving at right angles to the tornado. Otherwise, get out and seek shelter in
a sturdy building. If in the open country, run to low ground, such as a ditch,
away from any trees or cars. Lie flat and face-down, protecting the back of
your head with your arms. Avoid seeking shelter under bridges, which can
create deadly traffic hazards while offering little protection against flying
- In the open outdoors:
If possible, seek shelter in a sturdy building. If not, lie flat and face-down
on low ground, protecting the back of your head with your arms. Get as far
away from trees and cars as you can; they may be blown onto you in a tornado.
- In a shopping mall or large store:
Do not panic. Watch for others. Move as quickly as possible to an interior
bathroom, storage room or other small enclosed area, away from windows.
- In a church or theater:
Do not panic. If possible, move quickly but orderly to an interior bathroom or
hallway, away from windows. Crouch face-down and protect your head with your
arms. If there is no time to do that, get under the seats or pews, protecting
your head with your arms or hands.
Occasionally, tornadoes develop so rapidly that advance warning is not
possible. Remain alert for signs of an approaching tornado such as a dark,
often greenish sky, large hail, or a loud roar similar to a freight train.
and facts courtesy of the NOAA
Used with permission.