Tornado / Thunderstorm Health and Safety Tips

Tornado Safety Guidelines

Key Weather Terms

  • TORNADO WATCH - Conditions are favorable for the development of severe thunderstorms with the potential of tornadoes.
  • TORNADO WARNING - Tornado has been sighted or detected on radar. If a Tornado Warning is issued, TAKE SHELTER IMMEDIATELY.

Listen to radio, television, or weather alert radios for National Weather Service bulletins. Weather Alert Radios receive broadcasts and alerts from the local National Weather Service station and are available at most electronics dealers.

Tornado Safety Tips

Most tornado damage is caused by violent winds, and many injuries and deaths result from flying debris. When a tornado threatens, taking immediate action can save your life! STAY AWAY FROM WINDOWS, DOORS, AND OUTSIDE WALLS. PROTECT YOUR HEAD. In homes and small buildings, go to the basement or to an interior part on the lowest level such as closets, bathrooms or interior halls. Get under something sturdy. Do not leave the building until the storm has passed.

In schools, nursing homes, hospitals, factories, and shopping centers, go to pre-designated shelter areas. Interior hallways on the lowest floor are usually best. Avoid auditoriums, gymnasiums, or other structures with wide, free-span roofs.

In high-rise buildings, go to interior small rooms or hallways.

In vehicles or mobile homes, leave them and go to a substantial structure. If there is no shelter nearby, lie flat in the nearest ditch, ravine, or culvert with your hands shielding your head.

In open country, lie flat in the nearest ditch or ravine with your hands shielding your head.

Note: Take a portable radio and flashlight with you when taking shelter.

Tornado Definition and Characteristics

A tornado is a violently rotating column of air which comes in contact with the ground. Tornadoes vary greatly in size, intensity, and appearance. The average movement of a tornado is 30 mph, but speeds of 70 mph have been reported. Wind speeds from 100 to over 300 mph are possible. The width of a tornado may range from a few yards to over a mile; the path of a tornado may range from a few hundred yards to hundreds of miles.

Wisconsin Tornado Facts

Season: Wisconsin's tornado season generally runs from April through September. The greatest numbers of tornadoes have occurred in May, June, and July. Wisconsin averages more than 20 tornadoes per year, although in 2005, there were more than 60 tornadoes in our state.

Time of day: The majority of tornadoes have struck during mid-afternoon or early evening (3 p.m. to 7 p.m.). However, tornadoes may strike at any time, potentially with little or no warning. The devastating Barneveld / Black Earth twister occurred around 1 a.m., without warning.

Movement: Tornadoes usually move from the southwest to the northeast; however, direction of travel may be erratic and change suddenly.

Thunderstorm Information

Tornadoes are only one of many thunderstorm hazards. Others include:

  • Lightning: Kills and injures hundreds annually and starts fires.
  • Winds: Very strong, gusty winds can cause property damage.
  • Rain: Heavy downpours may result in flash floods.
  • Hail: May be very damaging to property and crops.

Follow these safety tips during thunderstorms:

  • Keep calm. Thunderstorms are usually brief; even squall lines pass in a few hours. Stay indoors.
  • Listen to radio, television or weather alert radios for National Weather Service bulletins.
  • When a thunderstorm threatens, go inside a home or large building, or inside an all-metal (not convertible) vehicle.
  • Avoid using the telephone, except for emergencies.

If outside, with no time to reach a safe building or vehicle, follow these rules:

  • Do not stand underneath a natural lightning rod such as a tall, isolated tree in an open area.
  • Avoid projecting above the surrounding landscape, such as standing on a hilltop, in an open field, on the beach, or fishing from a small boat.
  • Get out of and away from open water.
  • Get away from tractors and other metal farm equipment.
  • Get off of and away from motorcycles, scooters, golf carts and bicycles. Put down golf clubs.
  • Stay away from wire fences, clotheslines, metal pipes, rails and other metallic objects that could carry lightning to you from some distance away.
  • Avoid standing in small, isolated sheds or other small structures in open areas.
  • In a forest, seek shelter in a low area under a thick growth of small trees. 
  • In open areas, go to a low place such as a ravine or valley. Be alert for flash floods.

If you're hopelessly isolated in a level field or prairie and you feel your hair stand on end indicating lightning is about to strike, squat low to the ground, on the balls of your feet. Place your hands on your knees with your head between them. Make yourself the smallest target possible and minimize your contact with the ground. Do not lie flat on the ground.

Adapted from National Weather Service, Wisconsin Emergency Management, and Federal Emergency Management Agency publications.

After the Tornado / Storm

Be Aware of Physical Hazards

  • Downed Power Lines
    • Avoid downed power lines especially in wet areas.
    • Report these to your utility as soon as possible.
  • Natural Gas Leaks:  Report immediately, stay out until determined to be safe.
  • Damaged Buildings and Structures
    • Carefully assess before entering.
    • Do not enter alone.
    • Do not attempt to restore or work on power sources without first contacting your utility.
  • Confined Areas: Basements, crawl spaces and other enclosed areas may pose special hazards.
  • Wear Protective Clothing: Use gloves, work boots, goggles, hard hat, as necessary.
  • Avoid Stray and Wild Animals: If bitten, seek immediate medical attention.
  • Emergency Generators: Use only in well-ventilated areas.

Water and Food Safety

Damaged/Unsafe Foods

  • Discard any perishable food left at room temperature for two or more hours.
  • Frozen foods that have thawed should be discarded if not consumed
    immediately or kept refrigerated.

Private Wells

  • If your well service is disrupted, only use water from a known safe source.
  • Test your water for bacteria when power/service is restored before consuming.
  • For testing information, contact your local public health department.

Social Services

If you or someone you know are in need of crisis counseling services or just want someone to talk to, contact your local social/human services staff.

Last Revised: May 17, 2016