Fundamentals are key to saving lives when tornadoes strike

As the spring severe weather season thunders in, the American Meteorological Society is urging everyone to learn more about the threat and danger of tornadoes, to have an action plan in case one touches down nearby, to understand the severe weather warning process, and to follow basic safety rules. The goal is simple – to save lives and property.

“These fundamental steps will save lives,” said Dennis McCarthy, meteorologist in charge of the National Weather Service Forecast Office in Norman, Okla., and one of the authors of an updated AMS statement on tornado preparedness and safety released today. “We know that education, planning, awareness, applying safety rules, and choosing the right shelter are the keys to saving lives during one of nature’s most violent threats.”

Each year nearly 1,200 tornadoes are reported in the United States and an average of 55 people die annually as a result of twisters. While improvements in detection and warning systems, increased public awareness, and advances in communication technologies are helping to reduce the number of deaths and injuries, further reducing casualties and damage is possible, added McCarthy.

“The more a person understands about the storms, the geography and the watches and warnings, and where to go for safety, the more likely they are to survive a tornado,” added McCarthy.

Specifically the AMS statement recommends: education, planning, awareness, basic safety rules, and shelters. Education focuses on increasing everyone’s understanding of tornadoes, local geography and the severe weather warning process. Developing action plans for tornado emergencies is equally important. Families, individuals, groups and organizations such as hospitals, schools, churches, businesses and theaters need site specific plans that allow for quick action when a tornado develops.

General awareness of current and changing weather conditions and access to the latest information also contribute greatly to reducing risk during tornadoes. Checking local weather forecasts for severe weather potential, especially during the severe weather season, and staying on top of those forecasts, can mean the difference between life and death, McCarthy said.

The primary dangers associated with tornadoes are extremely high winds, debris propelled by the high wind, destruction of mobile homes, collapse of buildings, and overturning or tossing of vehicles. Some safety rules to avoid these dangers include

* Go to the lowest place available in a shelter or sturdy building such as a basement or interior room away from windows and exterior doors.
* Get inside something or under a sturdy object such as stairs, a bathtub, a workbench or cover yourself with a mattress, coats or blankets.
* Avoid large buildings such as gymnasiums, auditoriums, churches and factories with large, expansive roofs and walls that can collapse. If caught in these types of buildings, go to a small, interior room.
* Evacuate mobile homes and campers for more sturdy shelter.
* Motorists should use all available information to avoid approaching tornadoes. The safest action is to abandon the vehicle for a sturdy building.
* Do not use overpasses as reliable protection. Overpasses often produce a wind tunnel effect that can be very dangerous.
* The traditional advice to lie in a ditch or culvert should only be considered as a last resort if quick access to a building or shelter is not possible.

In addition to addressing the elements for reducing risk during tornadoes, the AMS is calling on government agencies, community leaders, private industry, the media and the general public to do even more.

“We encourage government agencies and the media to continue education efforts. We believe government and community leaders should work to upgrade building codes for even safer homes. We want to see shelters where they are needed such as crowded outdoor facilities and mobile home communities. And we want every community to have a reliable first-warning system that will alert them even in the middle of the night such as an ‘instant on’ feature on a radio or television or a weather radio,” said Jeff Kimpel, AMS president. “It’s not too much to ask – even if it saves just one life.”

The AMS, founded in 1919, is a scientific and professional organization that promotes the development and dissemination of information on atmospheric, oceanic, and hydrologic sciences. The Society publishes nine well-respected scientific journals, sponsors scientific conferences, and supports public education programs across the country. Additional information on the AMS and the complete policy statement is available on the Internet at

Additional information on the tornadoes and severe weather is available at