When it comes to a tornado warning vs watch, the power is in the meaning. Both obviously deal with a tornado. But do you know exactly what each entails? In today’s article, we are going to dive into the details of a tornado warning vs watch.
Additionally, we are going to go over all the details of how to prepare for a tornado warning vs watch. Before we dive into the specifics of a tornado warning vs watch, we need to know the ins and outs of what makes a tornado a tornado.
Let’s get started.
What is a Tornado?
A tornado warning vs watch. Both deal with a tornado, but do you know exactly what that entails? A tornado is a destructive rotating cylinder of wind that’s produced by a thunderstorm. It’s usually visible as a funnel cloud, but not always.
When there is a thunderstorm with a lot of lightning and hail, then there is a higher risk of a tornado being produced. A thunderstorm is not the only instance when a tornado can be produced. A tornado can develop during a hurricane or tropical storm as it moves onto land as well.An average of 1,200 tornadoes occur in the United States every year. Each year, tornadoes can bring with them devastating destruction that can take years to recover from.
Tornadoes do not discriminate in their destruction and will often rip through anything in their path. They have the power to rip off roofs, demolish homes, and even pick up cars and toss them around.
Tornadoes produce winds up to 300 mph, and they can create damage paths more than 50 miles long and 1 mile wide. They strike quickly, with little warning, and can appear transparent until they’ve picked up dust and debris. Though tornadoes can travel in any direction, they typically move from southwest to northeast.
See below closeup footage of Salina Kansas EF4 tornado on April 14, 2012.
Where do Tornadoes Happen?
Although tornadoes can (and have) hit every state, there are areas that have a higher chance of seeing a tornado. For example, the notorious “Tornado Alley” is home to many of the tornadoes that happen in the United States.
Tornado Alley describes the Great Plains of the central United States. The lack of mountains and the flat lands makes this area the premiere location to spot a tornado.
Also, this is the primary area where cold, dry air coming down from Canada meets the moist, warm air that is coming up from Mexico. This clash in air temperature comes together to create thunderstorms that will in turn produce a tornado.
Lastly, although tornadoes can occur during any time in the day, many studies have recorded tornadoes to likely happen in the spring and summer, and in the evening between 3 p.m. and 9 p.m.
A Tornado Warning vs Watch
While a tornado in any context is scary, there is a distinction between a tornado warning vs watch when you hear the national weather service declare an alert.
Tornado Watch: Meaning
A tornado watch simply means that conditions are favorable for the production of tornadoes in a specific area. When you hear this, you should be aware that a tornado may happen in the watch area, but one has not happened yet.
The watch area may refer to a county, multiple counties, or an entire state. Usually, a watch can cover around 25,000 square miles. A tornado watch is not necessarily followed by a tornado warning, but you should stay tuned to the local radio/TV for more info and prepare for the worst.
A tornado watch is usually issued by the Norman, Oklahoma-based Storm Prediction Center (SPC), a sub-unit of the National Weather Service (NWS).
There are eight more National Centers for Environmental Prediction in the U.S. beside the SPC, including the National Hurricane Center (NHC), the Weather Prediction Center (WPC), and the Ocean Prediction Center (OPC).
The SPC issues around 1,000 severe thunderstorm and tornado watches each year. The agency does not issue tornado warnings. IT only predicts possible tornadoes and "severe thunderstorms". The NHC issues watches for hurricanes and tropical storms.
According to the SPC,
A Tornado Watch includes the large hail and damaging wind threats, as well as the possibility of multiple tornadoes or a single intense tornado."
An Introduction to Thunderstorms and Severe Weather Prediction by the SPC (click image to enlarge)
Tornado Warning: Meaning
A tornado warning means a tornado has been either sighted (by a trained individual or by a LEO) or spotted by a weather radar. A tornado warning means that a tornado is on its way and you should seek shelter for you and your loved ones.
Currently, the average lead time for a tornado warning is just 13 minutes (although NOAA is working on improving the times). This means that you only have 10 minutes on average to get away from the tornado's path.
All severe thunderstorm and tornado warnings are issued by the local NWS offices. You can check the agency's page to find the closest NWSO in your area.
Important Note: A tornado warning may be issued without a tornado watch in effect.
Tornado warnings include data on the current location of the storms and what towns or cities are in its path. If the tornado is bundled with torrential rain, the warning may be accompanied by a Flash Flood Warning. If there's a "&" symbol at the bottom of the tornado warning, it means that a severe weather report led to the warning.
The local NWFO that issued the warning is legally obliged to follow up with constant weather updates and info on the tornado's location, severity, and direction. The NWFO will also notify the population when the warning is no longer in effect.
How to Prepare
Whether or not you live in a tornado prone area, you should always have a tornado plan in place. Having a plan in place can be the difference between life or death. Here are the top things to consider in your tornado plan.
Know Where to Shelter
Your first step in preparation is to Identify a location you can use as a shelter. The location you choose should be on the lowest level floor in your home.
It should also be located towards the center of your home away from any windows and doors. To be even more prepared, you should have a refuge in mind when you are away from your home as well. Think about shelters in at your workplace, school, and anywhere else that you frequently spend time.
Some ideal locations include an underground basement, storm cellar, or safe room.
Have a First Aid Kit
In addition to a first aid kit, you can put together an emergency kit to use in case of a tornado. Emergency kits can be helpful in the event that you find yourself stuck for a couple or hours or even days after the tornado has occurred.
Ready.gov has published a list of the supplies they recommend including in a tornado emergency kit. The recommendation includes the following.
- Enough food and water for several days
- Battery-powered radio
- Flashlight, and extra batteries
- Sleeping bag, warm blanket, and extra clothes
- Manual can opener and mess kits or utensils
- Supplies for any babies or pets in the household
If you have extras, you should also include necessary medications, glasses or contacts, and any other medical supplies you need on a daily basis.
Make sure you maintain and restock your emergency kit as necessary, and update it if your family situation changes and you need to add extra supplies.
When you are outside of your home, it’s a good idea to keep a smaller version of your emergency kit in your office and vehicle as well.
Securely Store Important Documents
Keep important family documents like insurance policies, identification cards or paperwork, and bank account records in a portable, waterproof container.
This container should be one that you can bring with you into your shelter. Another option would be to secure your documents in a waterproof and fireproof safe.
This way you can leave it behind but still have your documents stay safe. Protecting your documents will make your life a little easier post-tornado.
Get the Right Equipment
No matter where you live, everyone should invest in an NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) weather radio. This type of radio will automatically turn on and play an alert if a dangerous weather event may occur.
An NOAA radio will go off at any time, including the middle of the night, or when you might not otherwise know that a watch or warning has been issued. Also, this type of radio will distinguish between a tornado warning vs watch so that you know exactly what to expect.
Now that you know how to prepare for a tornado, lets go over the specifics of what to do during a tornado warning vs watch alert.
What to Do During a Tornado Watch
If a tornado watch has been issued for your area, it means that the current conditions indicate a tornado is possible and you should get prepared. Here are some tips to keep in mind that will allow you to stay prepared.
Stay Close to Your NOAA Radio
Keep your NOAA radio close-by so you can be aware of any alerts or updates from the National Weather Service. Watches usually cover a much larger area than warnings, so it's possible that a tornado isn't as likely in your neighborhood. However, you should still be ready to act quickly.
Turn of Water and Appliances
Assuming you already have a supply of clean water for drinking and sanitation, you should shut off your water to prevent flooding. Also, unplug your electronics and turn off any lights that you’re not actively using.
Don’t use the stove, oven, or shower during a tornado watch or severe thunderstorm. In the event that a tornado watch turns into a tornado warning, you do not want to run the risk of leaving an appliance, such as the stove, as this could lead to an unintentional fire.
If you're not at home or near a visible source of shelter, try to get to one as soon as possible. Also, avoid high-traffic areas, bridges, and tunnels.
Keep Your Eyes and Ears Open
Lastly, pay attention to how the weather is changing around you. Keep an eye out for dark green or orange-gray skies. You will also want to pay attention to the clouds. Large, low funnel-shaped clouds or ones that are rotating should be cause for concern.
Other factors to watch out for include large hail and increasing wind speeds. Lastly, a curious factor to keep an ear out for is a loud roar. Many tornado survivors describe the sound of a tornado as similar to a freight train, so if you hear that noise, take cover immediately.
What to Do During a Tornado Warning
A main distinction between a tornado warning vs watch is that tornado warnings cover smaller areas (towns, cities) than watches do. And because tornado warnings mean that a tornado has actually been cited or picked up by radar, it is imperative that you take action as soon as possible.
Your first priority should be finding shelter. If you’ve already chosen a designated shelter, and you’re close, you should head there immediately. If you haven’t identified a location, or you’re too far away to reach it safely, you need to find an alternative.
The best alternative is to get to the building’s lowest level. If you’re in an office building, school, store, or house without a basement, then find an interior room without any outside walls or windows, if possible. Stay in the center of the room and away from corners and doors.
Some of the most ideal places to hunker down include bathrooms, closets, and interior hallways or stairwells.
If you have the ability to cover yourself with a mattress or other soft object, then you should do that too. Also, never use an elevator during a tornado warning, as there’s a chance the power will go out and leave you stranded between floors.
If there are any windows in your shelter, close them and cover them with shutters if possible. Protect your head and body with pillows, blankets, or a bicycle helmet.
If you’re in a mobile home, get out immediately and go to a nearby building or structure with a sturdier foundation.
On the Road
If you're driving when you hear the tornado warning, and there aren't any nearby shelters, stay in your vehicle and keep driving. Buckle your seatbelt and try to get to a sturdy building. Do not try to outrun a tornado, though.
If you see the tornado or your car is hit by any flying debris, pull over and park immediately. Stay in the vehicle, roll up the windows, and put your head down.
Cover yourself with any available blankets or clothing. Never park under a highway overpass or bridge, as there's a good chance the winds will be stronger under there.
If you’re outside without any nearby shelter or vehicles, lie down in the lowest place you can find. Ditches, ravines, and depressions are good places to hunker down. Cover your head with your hands or jacket and wait until you hear the all-clear.
What to Do After a Tornado
Once a tornado has passed, you are not out of the clear just yet. Here are a couple of tips to keep in mind after the storm is over.
If you’re trapped, do not try to move around or kick up dust. This will only put yourself at risk of further injury. Instead, tap on a pipe or wall that leads outside, or use a whistle or other noisy item to get someone’s attention.
If you are looking for survivors, stay out of damaged buildings and homes until a professional or local official has declared it safe.
If you don’t have power, use flashlights or battery-powered lanterns. Try to avoid using candles or open flames as this might accidentally cause a fire.
If you have a signal, you can use text or social media to check on your friends and family or to get yourself help if you're trapped or injured. If you have an emergency radio, use it to listen for updates and instructions from local officials.
Assess the Aftermath
Stay away from debris and downed power lines. If you're involved in cleanup efforts, wear protective clothing and use extreme caution. Do what you can to prevent further damage to your home or the home that you're cleaning up, as insurance typically doesn't cover any damage caused by the after-effects of a tornado.
Make sure you take photographs of your property damage before you start cleaning up.
Final Thoughts on a Tornado Warning Vs Watch
Tornadoes are a terrifying weather phenomenon, but you can remove some of the fear and danger by being prepared. FEMA provides a guide for building or retrofitting a storm and tornado shelter, and they also sell prefabricated shelters online.
If the idea of creating your own tornado emergency kit is too daunting, you can buy supplies and pre-made kits online from retailers like Amazon.
If you buy one of these kits, pay attention to the customer reviews. The reviews will help you can get an idea of how extensive it is and what the quality is like of that tornado aid kit.
If you live with family (especially kids), create a tornado plan with them and make sure everyone memorizes it. Tornadoes frequently hit without much warning, so it’s essential that every member of your family knows what to do and where to go if a tornado warning is issued.
Now that the tornado warning vs watch definition has been cleared, you are one step closer to staying safe in the event of an emergency. For many tornado survivors, having the proper knowledge can be the difference between life and death.