Severe Weather Awareness Week: Tornado Safety

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Tornadoes are certainly no stranger to the Tennessee Valley.

Number of tornadoes by county, based off of data from 1950-2015 (Source: National Weather Service in Birmingham)

Number of tornadoes by county, based off of data from 1950-2015 (Source: National Weather Service in Birmingham)

From 1950 through 2015, over 500 tornadoes have touched down in northern Alabama, per the National Weather Service in Birmingham.

Southern Tennessee is sees its share of tornado activity as well.

According to, over 130 tornadoes have touched down in Wayne County east into Franklin, Moore, and Marion counties between 1950 an 2010.

And it's important to note that tornadoes can occur year round in the Southeast, including northern Alabama and southern Tennessee.


In fact spring is often a peak season for tornadoes in the Valley, but a second peak also occurs in the fall, during the months of September through December.

Tornadoes vs Funnel Clouds vs Water Spouts

By definition, a tornado is a violently rotating column of air in contact with the surface of the ground, and it spawns from a cumulonimbus cloud. Wind speeds within a tornado can reach well over 200 mph.

April 27, 2011, tornado seen from Fort Payne

April 27, 2011, tornado seen from Fort Payne

A funnel cloud is a condensation cloud associated with a violently rotating column of air that has not yet made contact with the ground. A tornado is not a tornado until it reaches the ground; until then, it is considered a funnel cloud. Nevertheless, funnel clouds mean that a tornado is in process of forming, and they should be considered as dangerous.

A waterspout is a tornado that forms over water. Once the waterspout moves over land, it is considered a tornado. Waterspouts should be considered dangerous, considering the wind damage they can cause due to debris.

Tornado safety: How to protect yourself before, during and after a tornado

Tornado alerts come in two forms: a tornado WATCH and a tornado WARNING.

Example of a tornado watch.

A tornado watch means that atmospheric conditions are favorable for tornadoes to occur. Watches can be issued hours in advance of the anticipated severe weather, and they can span an entire state or region.

In contrast, a tornado warning means that a tornado is imminent or is already occurring.

Example of a tornado warning.

Example of a tornado warning.

Warnings are issued when the National Weather Service detects a thunderstorm that is capable of producing a tornado (usually denoted as "doppler indicated") or a tornado has been sited by trained spotters. Warnings can last anywhere from half an hour to just over an hour, and they usually span an entire county or two.

During a tornado WATCH, be sure to monitor your weather radio or Live Alert 19 app for any changes in weather conditions. Gather your emergency kit and get ready to take action to head to safety; you should already have a place in mind to head to, and if not, determine where the closest shelter area would be located for your area.

(MORE: List of Tennessee Valley Tornado Shelters)

Valley Head community tornado shelter, located on Alabama Highway 117. (Photo: Jake Reed/WHNT News 19)

Valley Head community tornado shelter, located on Alabama Highway 117. (Photo: Jake Reed/WHNT News 19)

During a tornado WARNING, the time to act is NOW:

  • If you are outdoors, head for a sturdy building or tornado shelter immediately.
  • If you are on the road, do not try to outrun the tornado. Tornadoes can lift heavy oil-tankers filled with fuel, so lofting a car or truck is no issue for these storms. If possible, get out of the vehicle and find a low-lying area or ditch; lie as close to the ground as possible while protecting your head, face, and neck. The weakest winds in a tornado are located closest to the ground, so moving to the lowest level possible is the best thing to do in this situation.
  • If you are indoors during a tornado WARNING, stay inside and immediately move to the lowest floor or basement level of your building, preferably in a central room or closet. Avoid being near windows and skylights since debris lofted within the wind can shatter or break the glass and potentially injure you. Be sure to grab a jacket or blanket to protect your head, and make sure you have shoes on -- you do not want to walk through debris with bare feet once the storm has passed.

(MORE: Is your tornado "safe place" actually safe?)

If you see any storm damage due to high winds, hail or a tornado, wait until the danger passes and then snap a picture through the Live Alert 19 app (you can also email us a Please be sure to include your name and city/town/location. Your damage reports help ensure that forecasters at the National Weather Service as well as at WHNT News 19 provide the most detailed record of what occurred from the storms, which helps improve our forecasting abilities for future storms.


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