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. Peak tornado season in the state is between March-May, however tornadoes may occur at any time.

Tornado Watch and Warning: What They Mean

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Tornado Watch

A tornado watch indicates that weather conditions are favorable for the development of storms which may produce tornadoes 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. If you live in a mobile home, you should stay updated on current weather conditions and be prepared to move to a more study shelter at a moments notice if storms approach your area. Find a friend or family member living in a sturdy home to spend the night with if the watch extends overnight.

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

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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 tornado is rotating funnel-shaped cloud extending down from the base of a thundercloud. It is usually gray or black. In North Carolina, tornados are often not visable and may be obscured by the storm. 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

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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. Stay away from windows. Keep tuned to a battery-powered radio for latest weather information. Always wear shoes and it is a good idea to wear a helmet of some type to protect your head.
  • In mobile homes: Go to the nearest community shelter or other sturdy building in advance of the storm. 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.
  • In a car: Vehicles are very dangerous during a tornado. Seek shelter in a sturdy building if time allows. If you are caught in your vehicle, stay in the car with your seatbelt on. Duck below the windows and cover your head with your hands, a coat or blanket. If you are on an elevated roadway and you can get noticably lower, you may choose to leave your vehicle and lie flat in that area. Do NOT seek shelter under a bridge.
  • Outdoors or in an open area: Seek shelter on a sturdy building. If you cannot find shelter, lie flat and face-down in a low-lying area. Cover your head with your arms. Try to stay away from trees other objects that may be blown over you.

Tornado Survival Rules

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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

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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. If you live in a mobile home, it is critical that you have a plan for a nearby place to shelter. 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

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


Carolina SkyWatcher, National Weather Srvice, Newport/Morehead City NC.

Find more information at the following NC State Extension websites:

Publication date: April 19, 2019
Revised: Jan. 24, 2024

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