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Know the difference between a tornado watch, a tornado warning and a tornado emergency

They are most common in the US Plains and Southeast, but have been reported in all 50 states. They can happen anytime during the day or night, so knowing the difference between a tornado watch and warning could mean the difference between life and death.

A tornado watch is issued by the Storm Prediction Center. It means that conditions are favorable for a potential tornado. “This highlights an area and usually alerts for the next four to six hours where risk is increasing,” said Bill Bunting, chief of forecast operations at the prediction center.

If a tornado watch is issued, you should have your supplies, choose a safe place and have a plan in place — just in case a tornado develops. This does not mean there is a tornado. This only means to be on watch and stay informed about the weather in your area in case things intensify.

Tornado warning

A tornado warning means a tornado has been sighted, or that there is a strong indication on radar that a tornado is in progress. “When a particular area (is) under an immediate risk, then the local office will issue a warning and that’s the call to action,” said Bunting.

If a tornado warning is issued for your area, you should immediately seek shelter and get to your safe place until the tornado threat has passed. This means a tornado is imminent.

Simply put:

  • Tornado watch — Be on watch in case storms strengthen. Be alert.
  • Tornado warning — Take action. Seek shelter immediately. A tornado has been spotted or indicated by weather radar.

Some have used light-hearted ways to help explain the difference.

While there’s nothing humorous about tornado alerts, if it helps remember the difference between a watch and a warning, then it’s worth it.

Tornadoes kill an average of 75 to 80 people in the US every year and without these warnings in place, that number could be much greater, according to Bunting.

Tornado emergency

There’s a third type of tornado alert that trumps them all. The tornado emergency was added in 1999 and it’s basically a tornado warning on steroids. If a tornado is in progress and will have a significant impact to human life, with catastrophic destruction to property, a tornado emergency will be issued.

This is the highest alert level given to a tornado event. “It was an idea that came to the staff during a critical moment when a violent tornado moved into an area,” said Bunting.

He’s talking about the Moore, Oklahoma, tornado in May 1999. It was a violent EF5 tornado that killed 36 people. It had the strongest winds ever recorded on the planet at 301 mph.

“It’s the strongest message we can send out of the office. it’s a way to amplify the message best we can,” said Bunting.

The Storm Prediction Center urges people not to wait for a tornado emergency to be issued to take action. Take every storm seriously. They can change intensity quickly.

The center and the National Weather Service has spent countless hours trying to educate the public about the difference in these two terms, but many times there is still confusion when a tornado alert is issued.

That’s especially true for someone who has recently moved from an area that doesn’t experience many tornadoes. That’s why having a safety plan in place is key. “Often times the minutes you save by getting into a safe place can make the difference in life and death,” said Bunting.

Tornado safety

First and foremost, you and your family should have a plan in place in case there is ever a tornado warning issued for your area. Have a small interior room or closet on the lowest level of your home designated as your tornado safe place.

There should be no windows in the room and it should be away from any outside walls. It’s a good idea to have a flashlight and a way to receive alerts while in the room. This could be in the form of a weather radio or your smartphone. Also make sure every family member has a helmet and shoes in the room.

“When a warning is issued is not the time to think about a safely plan. Put that in now so you know what to do when a warning is issued,” said Bunting.

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