Tornado preparedness: How to get ready for tornado season in Texas

December 17, 2021

Learn about Texas tornado season, Tornado Alley, and other tornado facts you need to create a tornado preparedness plan! 

Tornado in tornado alley 
Tornadoes can happen almost anywhere, but are a fairly common occurrence in Texas! The key to staying safe and minimizing damage in the event of a tornado is having a tornado preparedness plan. The more you know about tornados and the more you prepare your family and your home for a severe weather strike, the more peace of mind you'll have during tornado season. Here are a few other tornado facts you should know:

Facts about tornados 

Tornadoes occur when a rotating column of air extends from the base of a thunderstorm and comes in contact with the earth. They vary in shapes and sizes, with most being around 250 feet across and traveling a few miles before they dissipate. Tornadoes are a common occurrence in many areas of the United States with some states like Texas, Kansas, Nebraska, and Oklahoma more directly affected by them on a regular basis.

How do tornadoes form? 

A tornado is a type of whirlwind or vortex - a vertical spinning column of air. There are many types of these weather phenomenon that may look similar, but behave differently and have different causes, or are caused by different environmental conditions. 

For example, dust devils look like a very small, weak tornado, but are caused by entirely different factors. Similarly, waterspouts and landspouts appear very much like a tornado, but do not have the same intensity because the parent cloud above is not a supercell with a mesocyclone. 

Supercell tornadoes. A supercell is a type of intense thunderstorm with a rotating section called a mesocyclone. A mesocyclone is essentially a vertical rotating column of air within a thunderstorm that is formed by a combination of wind shear (wind moving in opposite directions) and an updraft (rapidly rising column of air), and in some cases, a rotating updraft. These mesocyclones can be filled with potential energy - energy that can be unleashed in the for of a powerful tornado. Still, only around 20% of supercell thunderstorms produce tornadoes, and experts are still not entirely sure why that is the case. 

If the conditions are right, this column of air can stretch and elongate, extending to the ground. Once it has, this is considered a tornado, specifically a mesocyclonic tornado. Visually, the base of the thunderstorm will begin to lower, which is called a wall cloud. As the condensation follows the spinning column of air, it takes the shape of a funnel, which is called a funnel cloud. Although most tornadoes have a visible condensation tube connecting the cloud and the ground, this is not always the case - it is possible for a tornado to be on the ground without a visible funnel. 

Hurricane and tropical storm tornadoes. In addition to supercell thunderstorms, tornadoes can also form in and around hurricanes. Because hurricanes bring tons of violent winds and moist warm air, they often have all the ingredients needed to make a tornado, although they are typically short-lived and weaker than their supercell counterparts. 

When is tornado season? 

Tornado season refers to the time of year when tornadoes are most likely to occur, which is late spring and sometimes in early fall. Because tornadoes generally need a combination of warm moist air, cool dry air, and wind shear, spring is the perfect time of the year. The summer is generally too hot, and the winter too cold. 

That having been said, winter isn't always too cold, and neither is fall, especially in Texas. If the weather in late fall, such as December, more resembles spring than it does fall or winter, we can see a explosion of tornado activity late in the year.

The tornado outbreak in the midwest on December 10-11th 2021 is a prime example of late season tornado activity. Record-breaking warm temperatures across the south came into contact with a cold front from Canada, resulting in one of the most destructive December tornado outbreaks in US history - well outside of traditional tornado season. 

Tornado wind speed, size, and duration

Like many weather phenomenon, tornadoes can vary significantly in terms of wind speed, size, and duration. 

Tornado wind speed. The average wind speed of a tornado rarely tops out at above 110 mph, but the most severe tornado can surpass 300 mph. A tornado's winds are capable of uprooting trees, flattening buildings, and destroying roads. They may also turn debris into projectiles, which can be dangerous for both people and their property. While the average tornado is capable of tearing a home apart, the most intense tornadoes can sweep it away entirely, leaving nothing but a concrete slab behind.

Tornado size. Most tornadoes are about 250 feet across, but occasionally they can become monsters, growing up to 2.6 miles in diameter. The difference in size between tornadoes can vary substantially, but even the same tornado can fluctuate over its lifecycle.

Tornado duration. A tornado can be as brief as a few minutes and as long as several hours, all depending on the structure of the parent storm. A storm will usually stop producing a tornado when the stream of rain-cooled air cholks off its access to warm moist air. The vast majority of tornadoes will die out in around 10 minutes, if a storm has access to plenty of warm moist air flowing into it, it can continue to produce a tornado for hours. 

Tornado distance. Throughout the duration of a tornado, most tend to travel no more than 15 miles. In very rare circumstances, long-lived tornadoes can travel well over a hundred miles, crossing over state lines like the 1925 Tri-State tornado, which covered 219 miles during its 7 hour life. 

What is the Enhanced Fujita scale (EF)? 

We know that tornadoes can vary significantly in terms of their wind speed, but how do scientists determine that? Unlike larger weather phenomenon like hurricanes, tornadoes are small and short lived, relatively speaking. Additionally, they are obviously very dangerous, and when these factors combine, it makes it very difficult to accurately and consistently measure wind speeds. 

Because they are so small, radar has difficulty measuring the velocity at ground level, and because they are so powerful, most instruments capable of measuring wind speed would be completely destroyed if you could manage to place it in the path of the tornado in the first place. 

For these reasons, experts rely on a rating system called the Enhanced Fujita scale, or EF scale, which ranks the intensity of tornadoes on a scale from EF0 to EF5, the latter being the most intense. Rather than attempting to measure wind speed directly, the EF scale relies on a damage survey to estimate the intensity. This is a complex process, but it generally involves associating certain types of damage to structures and vegetation with a certain wind speed. For example, a less intense tornado would not typically be capable of stripping the bark from a tree, but a more intense tornado would. Therefore, if the damage survey reveals such damage, they can safely assign a wind speed and rank it. 

The following is a general overview of what each rank in the EF scale entails.

EF 0: Weak, light damage, 65-85 mph. Broken branches and limbs, sign boards damaged

EF 1:
Weak, moderate damage, 96-110 mph. Roof surfaces peeled, mobile homes pushed off foundations, moving cars pushed off of roads.

EF 2: Strong, considerable damage, 111-135 mph. Roofs torn off of houses, mobile homes destroyed, trees snapped or uprooted.

EF 3: Strong, severe damage,136-165 mph. Roofs and some walls on well-constructed houses torn off, trains overturned, most trees in a forested area snapped or uprooted.

EF 4: Violent, devastating damage, 166-200 mph. Well-constructed houses leveled, structures with weak foundations blown away, cars thrown, large missiles generated.

EF 5: Violent, incredible damage, 200+ mph. Strong framed houses lifted and thrown considerable distances, homes reduced to nothing but a concrete slab, cars thrown several hundred feet or more, trees debarked, in some cases ground-scouring and peeled asphalt.

Where do tornadoes happen? 

The United States is a regular hotbed for tornado activity. In fact, North America (United States and parts of Canada) have more tornadoes in a year than any other place on earth, with an average of 1,200 reported every year in the U.S. 

Still, tornadoes can happen virtually anywhere on the planet. Although they typically take place over uninhabited rural land, they can just as easily tear through major cities. They can cut through forests, move over hills and mountains, cross lakes and rivers, and destroy multi-story buildings in a city just as easily as a barn in the country. 

Every state in the US has experienced a tornado at one point or another, but some states have far more each year than others. States east of the Rocky Mountains and west of the Appalachian are among the highest in terms of frequency, specifically those in what is known as Tornado Alley.

What is Tornado Alley?

Tornado Alley refers to an area of the central United States where tornadoes are most common, specifically spanning the states of Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Kansas, South Dakota, Iowa, and Nebraska.

The name “Tornado Alley” was coined in 1952 as the title of a research project to study severe weather spanning Texas and Oklahoma. The main area of tornado alley extends from the northern part of Texas and up through South Dakota, though the official boundaries are not clearly defined.

This area has some of the most favorable conditions in the world for tornadoes to form. Cool dry air from Canada streams in across the Rockies into the high plains while warm moist air from the Gulf of Mexico blows north to meet it. When these elements merge, powerful thunderstorms often erupt and can easily spawn tornadoes.

Recently, however, evidence is mounting that says Tornado Alley is on the move eastward. Over the years, powerful tornadoes have been increasing in frequency in states like Missouri, Illinois, Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Alabama.

Tornado Alley in Texas

More tornadoes have been recorded in Texas than in any other state, though that is largely attributed to its size. Still, an average of 132 tornadoes touch down in Texas each year, and over 8,000 have touched down here total. The peak of tornado season in Texas is May and June, but they can form any time of the year. Texas tornado season begins to ramp up in March and on average, May sees the most out of any given month. As we move from June to July, there is typically a sharp drop.

Most Texas tornadoes occur in the northern part of the state around cities like Dallas and the Red River Valley generally - that is considered the southern part of Tornado Alley. The panhandle can experience more frequent tornadoes, but so can some coastal cities like Victoria and Houston. The top five affected counties are Harris, Hale, Galveston, Jefferson, and Nueces.  

Luckily, there are some steps you can take to prepare yourself and your home for a tornado.

Tornado Preparedness 101: Getting your family ready for a tornado

The most important thing to remember when preparing for a tornado is that you need to quickly get yourself and your family to a safe place. In addition to securing a safe shelter, there are a few other things you should include in your tornado preparedness plan.

Here are a few things you should do before a tornado strikes:

Be informed

Do you know the specific risks for your area or type of residence? A huge part of being prepared is being informed about what could happen if a tornado strikes. In addition to being informed, know where to go for the most trusted and up-to-date information and news in the event of an impending disaster.

Stay alert and aware

If an area is under a tornado watch, this means that the area is at risk for tornadoes, and everyone in the area should prepare. A tornado warning means that a tornado funnel has been sighted or detected by radar, and everyone should act immediately to seek shelter.

The National Weather Service is a trusted source of information for tornado warnings. Tune into the NOAA weather radio, which broadcasts weather information 24/7 directly from a nearby National Weather Service office. You can purchase a dedicated NOAA Emergency Radio, such as this one, which will keep you informed when severe weather such as tornadoes are imminent in your area. 

Storm systems that spawn tornadoes are often predicted many days in advance, although its not always 100% accurate when and where. Watch your local weather forecast regularly to be aware of significant weather makers. 

Additionally, you can always check what is known as the "day 1 convective outlook" from NOAA's Storm Prediction Center. This map gives an up-to-date forecast of potential severe weather, such as damaging winds, hail, and tornadoes. 

Know the signs

By learning various methods of identifying a tornado, you can act quickly to get you and your family to safety. Out in the open, a tornado is easy to spot during the day. You'll see a rotating, lowered cloud with a funnel or funnels beginning to form beneath it. 

When a tornado is on the ground and moving through an area, they make a roaring sound, similar to a train or a jet engine. It's important to remember that if you hear a tornado, you likely only have minutes or maybe seconds to act fast and get to a safe place. 

However, when a tornado is considered rain wrapped, it is hiding within a veil of rain falling from the parent thunderstorm. This makes it difficult if not impossible to see. Also, they often occur at night when the only way to see it is through flashes of lightning. In these cases, you can't rely on your eyes to identify a tornado.

Download a weather app to your phone, preferably with doppler radar products and alert capabilities. Some apps show you multiple radar products - we all know radar shows rain intensity, but it can also show things like wind speed. Using a velocity product, you can often spot rotation in the clouds, which can help you detect a possible tornado even when there is no way to see it. This doesn't always mean there is a tornado, but it can help you stay alert and aware even at night and in the rain. 

Make a plan

Develop an emergency tornado preparedness plan with your family ahead of time. If you aren’t together when disaster strikes, everyone should know what to do. Sit down as a family and discuss what you will do if a tornado is approaching when it comes to communication, shelter, and general safety. Don't forget to include any pets in this plan.

You may even want to practice going to a safe shelter. If you don't have a safe room, storm cellar, or storm shelter, the next best option is a small, windowless room on the lowest level in the interior of your home.

Most tornado injuries come from flying debris, so you'll want to be in an interior room away from windows. You also need to be on the lowest floor as wind speed increases substantially even just 10 feet higher.

Find and designate a room as your go-to shelter. Keep it clear of clutter when possible, or at least clear it out if you know that severe weather is possible in the near future. You can also stock it with things like pillows, cushions, or even bike helmets. You can get a NOAA weather radio, too. Have flashlights handy as well as a phone for emergency calls. 

If you are not at home when you get a severe weather warning, find the nearest sturdy building and seek shelter in a windowless room on the lowest floor of the building.

If you're out on the road with no buildings to take shelter in, many people believe that highway overpasses provide adequate shelter. Unfortunately, this is not true and in fact, it can even be more dangerous. As the tornado passes over, the wind can still whip beneath the overpass, even up into the space between the girders, shooting deadly projectiles everywhere. It can create a wind tunnel effect and actually intensify the wind speeds, which can easily suck someone out of hiding. 

If you are on the road with no other options, experts say you have two choices: Either stay in your car, buckle up, duck below the windows and cover your head or get to a place lower than the level of the road (like a ditch), lay flat, and cover your head. Of course, neither of these options are ideal, so it is important to pay attention to the weather forecast and avoid traveling when severe weather is imminent. 

Build a tornado preparedness kit

Build a tornado preparedness kit before any severe weather warnings so that you have the essentials ready to go in case of an emergency. Whether you're putting together an emergency preparedness kit for a hurricane, tornado, or power outage, it's important to pack essentials like food, water, flashlights, and extra batteries. 

Additionally, be sure to have first aid supplies, copies of important documents, and medications with you as well. Consider packing essential supplies in a waterproof container for safekeeping, or you can also pack smaller supplies into a backpack so you can easily grab them and go if needed. 

You'll also want to have certain items on hand in your tornado shelter, such as the NOAA emergency radio, a flashlight, a phone, and a whistle to signal or call for help.

Getting your home prepared for a tornado

In addition to the tornado preparedness tips above, there are some other important steps you can take beforehand to prepare your home and the surrounding areas to reduce damage in the event of a severe storm. While nothing will stop a direct hit from a powerful tornado, most homes that are damaged by a tornado event only experience a small portion of the damaging winds. So, while minor improvements may not seem to make a difference, they absolutely can and do.

Check on your roof

Have you lived in your home for many years? Keep in mind that as shingles age, they are more likely to be weakened when subjected to strong wind or the elements in general.

Older shingles or ones that haven’t been properly installed will more easily allow water to get into your home. If you’re replacing old shingles, look into purchasing impact-resistant shingles for some extra protection.

The roof is often the first thing a tornado tears off, and once it's gone, the wind can easily knock everything else down. If you are in a position to make improvements, there are brackets that can be installed which serve to hold your roof down to the frame of your house. 

Tame your trees

There’s nothing more terrifying than a tree trunk or branch becoming a weapon in a tornado… and crashing right into your home. Take care of any broken limbs as soon as possible to avoid potential damage from them in the event of a tornado. You may also want to do some general landscaping to prevent dangerous debris in the event of severe wind.

Know your utilities

On top of a tornado, no one wants to be dealing with a gas or water leak! Make sure you and your family know how to locate and turn off your main utilities, like water, gas, and electricity. If you have enough warning before a tornado, do your best to shut them off to prevent them from being damaged by a tornado and causing further danger and harm. If you have questions or concerns about how to shut them off safely, reach out to the respective utility company for clarification so that you're not left guessing when a tornado is imminent.

If you are hit by a tornado, be incredibly careful when exiting your home as downed power lines can still be live and are extremely dangerous. 

Don’t create more flying objects

While not intentional, many of the items in your own front yard could cause significant damage if made airborne in a tornado. When landscaping your yard, consider using mulch instead of rocks or gravel. Make sure that larger structures like sheds can be easily tied down, and secure outdoor patio furniture, grills, toys, and any items you cannot bring indoors when they are not in use.

Reinforce weak spots

It’s no secret that high winds can tear through seemingly sound structures. Take stock of areas outside and around your home where damage could occur from wind and flying debris. Consider reinforcing things like garage doors and windows or any other weak spots you find.

Check your gutters

Similar to trees, no one wants to see a flying gutter! Make sure all of your gutter fasteners are tight and in good shape. If you live in an area where hail regularly occurs, consider upgrading your gutters to steel if you currently have less durable vinyl or aluminum gutters.

Does homeowners insurance cover tornado damage?

The short answer is yes, property insurance policies, like home and homeowners insurance, usually pay to repair or replace your house if it’s damaged or destroyed by a storm, fire, or other covered events. Homeowners' insurance usually also covers personal property and items like furniture and clothes.

In some extreme cases, additional living expenses like rent could be covered if you temporarily have to evacuate or can no longer live in your home due to extensive damage. If you want to confirm that your homeowners' insurance policy covers tornado damage, you'll need to review your policy or contact your insurance agent to confirm.

At the end of the day, insurance can play a critical part in providing you with peace of mind before, during, and after a disaster. In addition to the tornado preparedness steps above, having a home or property insurance policy in place with tornado damage coverage can ensure that you're protected in the event of a severe storm.

A tornado forming above a home during tornado season 
To learn more about Germania Insurance and our products, request a free quote online or reach out to your local Germania Authorized Agent today!

by Geoff Ullrich

About the Author

Geoff Ullrich is a writer and Content Marketing Specialist at Germania Insurance.