NC State Extension Publications


Tornadoes are violent windstorms characterized by a twisting, funnel-shaped cloud. These naturally occurring phenomena can form as spin-offs of a hurricane or accompany a thunderstorm. While many tornadoes never touch ground or do not affect populated areas, those that do can cause significant property damage in a short time.

Although North Carolina has fewer tornadoes than the Midwest, we still face an average of 31 tornadoes a year. On March 28, 1984, tornadoes took the lives of 42 North Carolinians, and injured 801. On November 28, 1988, a single deadly tornado killed four and injured 154, leaving 982 homeless. This storm stayed on the ground for 83 miles on a path from Raleigh to Northampton County.

More recently in 2011, during the three-day period from April 14-16, more than 177 tornadoes erupted across the country. Thirty of those were confirmed in North Carolina, and left 22 dead in their wake.

In 2014, the National Weather Service issued 81 tornado warnings for North Carolina and recorded 36 tornadoes that killed one and injured 34 people. Combined, the tornadoes caused more than $22 million in damages in North Carolina.

Tornado Watch and Warning: What They Mean

Tornado Watch
A tornado watch indicates that weather conditions may cause tornadoes to develop in your area. A watch does not mean that a tornado has been sighted. The watch may last up to 8 hours. You should be prepared for a possible tornado. You don’t need to move to a shelter, but keep a radio or TV, be alert for threatening weather conditions and have a safe shelter prepared and accessible.

Tornado Warning
Local weather bureau offices issue tornado warnings when a tornado funnel has actually been sighted or indicated by Doppler radar. The warning covers a short period of time and specific small areas. The warning will indicate where the tornado was detected and the area through which it is expected to move. If you are in the expected path of the storm, take shelter immediately.

How to Spot a Tornado

Tornadoes are most common between March and June in North Carolina, although they may occur anytime of the year. Hurricanes may also spawn tornadoes.

It’s important to learn to recognize weather signs. Tornado weather is usually hot, humid and oppressive, with southerly winds. An hour or two before the storm, the clouds may have a greenish-black color, and may seem to bulge down instead of up. Rapidly moving lower clouds may be shot with lace-like lightning.

The funnel of a tornado looks like a spinning, twisting rope at its bottom, and fans out into a rotating funnel-shaped cloud extending down from the base of a thundercloud. It is usually gray or black. A nearby tornado usually sounds like the roar of a jet plane or a freight train.

Tornadoes usually move from southwest to northeast. They may form in a series of two or more, with a large primary tornado and one or more secondary or lesser storms. Heavy rain and hail may add to the damage of the tornado itself.

Some tornado funnels never touch ground. Some touch down, rise again, and touch down in another place.

Where to Go During a Tornado

Knowing what to do during a tornado may mean the difference between life and death. If you hear a tornado warning, seek shelter immediately. Stay away
from windows.

  • In office buildings: Go to an interior hallway on a lower floor, preferably in the basement, or designated shelter area.
  • In factories: Go to the section of the plant offering the greatest protection. Someone should be responsible for disconnecting fuel lines and electric circuits. Keep a lookout posted.
  • In homes: Get to the lowest level of your home in an interior room as far away from exterior walls and windows as possible. If you have no basement, choose an inside wall away from windows and sit flat against it. Central halls, bathrooms and closets are good choices. Get under heavy furniture, if possible, to protect yourself from flying glass and debris. Then, stay away from windows. Keep tuned to a battery-powered radio for latest weather information.
  • In mobile homes: Go to the nearest community shelter or other sturdy building. Moble homes are especially dangerous during high winds and may be overturned. If you cannot get to a shelter or sturdy building, lie flat in the nearest ditch, ravine, or culvert, and cover your head with your hands.
  • In schools: Go to an interior hallway on the lowest floor. Avoid gymnasiums and buildings with large, free-span roofs.
  • In shopping centers: Go to a designated shelter area, or lie flat outside in a ditch or a low protected ground. Do not stay in your car. A tornado can pick it up and toss it.
  • In a car: If you are in the open country, lay flat in the nearest ditch, ravine or culvert, but not where you could be trapped by floodwaters. Do not take shelter under a bridge or overpass.

Tornado Survival Rules

Know the difference between a tornado watch and a tornado warning.

Do not go outside to look for the tornado. Go to a below-ground location, if possible. If not, stay on the lowest level of your house. A storm cellar, root cellar, center laundry room, bathroom with no exterior walls or a center hallway in your house are possible choices. Stay away from windows. Do not run out into the street or turn into the path of the tornado. Wear shoes when you take cover.

Make sure you have something to cover up with. Pillows, rugs, blankets, sleeping bags, or a mattress could help to protect you from falling/flying debris. Above all protect your head, neck and upper body. Wear a helmet (bicycle, football, baseball, motorcycle, hard hat, etc) if you have one.

Listen to instructions on a battery-powered radio. Beware of possible dangers:

  • Flying objects
  • Falling trees
  • Breaking windows
  • Collapsing buildings

Practice a Family Tornado Drill

At home, have a family tornado plan in place and practice a family tornado drill at least once a year. Know where you can take shelter in a matter of seconds and make sure that everyone knows where to go. Make sure that your disaster kit is available and that your shelter area is prepared. Keeping items like extra shoes and helmets in your shelter area is a good idea. Have a pre-determined place to meet after a disaster.

For More Information

For more information on disaster preparedness and recovery visit the NC Disaster Information Center.

Publication date: June 4, 2014

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