Storm Safety 2020: Tornadoes

Photo of author

By Scott Roberts

Earlier this week: Preparedness Still to come: Lightning | Wind & Hail | Flooding

Feature Photo Credit: Cate Eighmey Photography. Taken May 19, 2012 in Harper County, KS (see the story)


A tornado is a violently rotating column of air extending from the base of a thunderstorm down to the ground. Tornadoes are capable of completely destroying well-made structures, uprooting trees, and hurling objects through the air like deadly missiles. Tornadoes can occur at any time of day or night and at any time of the year. Although tornadoes are most common in the Central Plains and the southeastern United States, they have been reported in all 50 states.

Ok, so that’s the technical definition of a tornado. When I’m spotting storms, there are parts of that definition that become very important. For example, if you were calling this in to the National Weather Service, what would you report? (Remember, “violently rotating column of air in contact with the ground”)

storm,tornado,tornado warning,tornado watch,shelter
A tornado is a violently-rotating column of air in contact with the ground. Is this a tornado?
(Taken by Matthew Harding near Hudson, KS in 2019)

The answer: it is NOT a tornado. It took four of us, experienced chasers all, several minutes of watching this, to decide the right thing to call in to NWS Dodge City was a very large, slowly rotating wall cloud but no tornado. And in fact, this storm was beginning to dissipate. As I recall, the storm dropped some hail as it moved into NWS Wichita’s warning area as it crossed the Stafford/Barton county line, and by the time it transited southeast Barton County into Rice county it stopped generating warnings.

Watch vs. Warning

The National Weather Service is the agency tasked with issuing severe weather watches and warnings. Private companies, broadcast radio/TV and social media DO NOT issue warnings for the general public. Responsible broadcasters and online media simply report the warnings as issued by the NWS.

A glaring example of the misuse of privately-generated warning information in ways that confuse the public is the Kansas Turnpike. They have engaged with a private vendor to forecast weather conditions for the turnpike’s property…and this entity DOES issue warnings for their clients. It happens every year — a stretch of the Turnpike is listed in a warning on their signs, but it is NOT in an official warning — or the Turnpike is warning for severe thunderstorms while the sirens are sounding for a tornado warning for the property on either side of the roadway.

The point is, trust official sources, those whose reporting is traceable directly back to the National Weather Service.

NWS has produced a great watch vs. warning page at While researching this post I came across a couple of graphics that also help explain:

storm,tornado,tornado warning,tornado watch,shelter
storm,tornado,tornado warning,tornado watch,shelter

Finding Shelter

In spite of my harangue on the Kansas Turnpike Authority for their unofficial warning display system and the confusion it causes, I have to give them kudos for having an excellent system of tornado shelters. I posted a detailed article about them a couple of years ago – Shelter from the Storm. That post also outlines some ways to find out, if you’re new to the area, where your nearest shelter is.

storm,tornado,tornado warning,tornado watch,shelter

Duke has the right idea. Shelter should always be on the lowest level of the building, with as many walls as possible between you and the outside. If you don’t have a basement an interior bathroom, inside the tub with blankets a mattress or the like covering you is a much better option than most any other location in the house.

Get DOWN — basement or lowest level. As many walls between you and the outside as possible (in this, an interior closet would be a potentially safer shelter than a bathroom with an exterior wall).

Get UNDER something heavy — a workbench bolted to the basement wall, a mattress in the tub, pull all the clothes in the closet down on you — the idea being to put more mass and protection between you and any flying debris.

COVER your head. It is better to have your back strafed by flying glass or debris than to have the same thing in your ears, eyes, neck, or hair. A construction hard hat, football or baseball helmet is just fine.

KEEP in shelter until the warning is over

storm,tornado,tornado warning,tornado watch,shelter
You did take a portable radio to the shelter with you, didn’t you?

It’s easy to make light of this, but I worry that some day we’re going to have a major tornado and learn afterward that additional deaths occurred because people left shelter too early and were strafed by 100-mph rear-flank storm winds. If you don’t have a way to know the warning is over, please wait as long as you can, then wait more.

Shelter Must-Haves

Yesterday’s post gave a lot of general helps and resources. These are the few things I want you to remember if you have to run for shelter in the middle of the night:

  • Sturdy shoes — not flip-flops, sandals, or other lightweight shoes. You may come out of the shelter into an environment very much like a construction site, with exposed debris, nails, electrical wires and other hazards. Sturdy shoes, laced up, every time.
  • Portable Radio or Weather Alert Radio — to know when the storm is past and it’s safe to come out.
  • Pets — do the best you can to bring them into shelter with you if possible. If the worst happens, they will be a good source of emotional support as you recover.
  • ID and cash — you’ll need to prove who you are at some point, and depending on the level of damages ATMs and electronic sales may not be possible.

Please see yesterday’s article for more resources, and set your family and pets up with a disaster kit. Burn the above things in your mind, though, for those times you get awakened in the night by the tornado sirens.

And let’s not do this….

storm,tornado,tornado warning,tornado watch,shelter

and this might not be such a hot idea either….

storm,tornado,tornado warning,tornado watch,shelter

(something tells me Photoshop played a role in those graphics….)

.st1{display:none}Members Get More

Additional details are available for these membership levels: Basic Enthusiast
Log In Join Now


Keep Up to Date - Enable Notifications OK No thanks