Texas may be known as the Lone Star State, but it is also the southernmost tip of a row of states known as Tornado Alley due to the high volume of cyclones that occur in these areas.
Although tornadoes can happen on any continent, most happen within the United States and occur between April and June. Between 2017 and 2019, the U.S. averaged more than 1,300 tornadoes a year, and Texas topped the list of states with an average 138 per year.
As with other weather events and natural disasters, we cannot prevent tornadoes, but we can prepare for them to mitigate damage.
How tornadoes form
Tornadoes are violent columns of air extending from the sky to the ground and can range in intensity from damaging tree limbs to leaving paths of devastation. Many tornadoes are the result of supercell thunderstorms, which have up drafting winds that rotate around a vertical axis. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), these strong updrafts cause a horizontally rotating cylinder of air that gets narrower, stretches vertically, and spins faster, eventually becoming a tornado.
Tornadoes are classified using the Enhanced Fujita (EF) Scale, which was developed in 2007 as a modification to the Fujita (F) Scale to include damage indicators. An EF0 tornado may cause surface damage to roofs and trees, while an EF2 may tear off a roof and snap trees. An EF5 tornado has the potential to destroy well-built frame houses or throw vehicles a mile.
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Prepare your facilities, staff, and students
Tornadoes may not be the most frequent type of storm we experience across the state, but as part of multi-hazard planning, schools should recognize the dangers posed by tornadoes and include procedures for addressing them in their emergency operations plan.
Emergency preparedness and planning should follow staff and students wherever they are. These emergency plans should address major events on campus, such as graduation and for off-campus activities such as staff and students traveling for field trips or out-of-town events.
Understand how your buildings and vehicles may be affected. Even the lowest rated tornado can affect buildings by peeling the surface off some types of roofs. Additionally, items such as trees, signage, and playground equipment can be pulled up and become flying debris that causes impact damage.
Train staff on emergency procedures. Practice tornado drills that have staff and students sheltering in safe locations in the interior of buildings. Ensure auxiliary staff are included in planning and practicing so that they understand how to respond. This should include people who are working in a campus kitchen, driving a bus, cleaning school facilities, and working at non-instructional facility. Training for different work groups may vary due to their tasks, locations, and communication procedures.
Monitor weather reports. Use dependable sources for weather information, and ensure they are available during non-routine school activities. While mobile apps, internet sites, and local news stations are helpful, a NOAA weather radio should be used at each campus and non-instructional facility to receive direct information from the National Weather Service.
Understand the terminology and warning signs. It is important to understand the difference in severity of threat. A tornado watch means that weather conditions potentially could form tornadoes.
A tornado warning means a tornado has developed. A funnel cloud is not the only indication that a tornado may be forming, some tornadoes may seem invisible since the funnel becomes visible as a storm picks up debris.
You should also watch for the following:
- Dark, greenish sky
- Wall clouds
- Hail followed by wind shift and/or stillness in the air
- Loud, roaring sound like a freight train
- Rising wall of debris
Survive during a tornado
According to NOAA, you have on average 13 minutes to get to a safe place when a tornado threatens. It may be difficult to identify safe shelter locations for different facilities. The National Weather Service provides useful information for buildings and vehicles, and can be contacted to support a shelter assessment. Districts may reach out to their regional weather service office to schedule these assessments.
As you write and practice your emergency operations plans, take these tips into consideration.
- Sheltering options: Look for internal rooms within structurally-sound buildings. Flying debris can be one of the biggest hazards, so it’s safest to put as many walls between you and the storm as possible.
- Portable building safety: These are vulnerable to high winds and flying debris. Evacuating students and staff to a main building should be done quickly to minimize the time they are exposed to the storm. This process should be practiced as part of severe weather drills.
- Stand-alone gym and auditorium safety: While these may be able to accommodate large numbers of students and staff, but large open-span areas can have weaker structures that may not hold up against strong winds.
Recovering after a tornado
If your school was affected by a tornado, please consider the safety of your staff and students first. Once their well-being has been confirmed, turn to your property and vehicles to assess the damage. Use caution as some buildings may not be safe to enter.
Contact the Fund to report a report a claim as soon as possible. Call 800.482.7276 if you need assistance. Our adjusters will walk you through the process to repair or replace damaged items. The Fund’s property coverage agreement requires members to give notice of loss, damage, or aesthetic impairment as soon as possible. Damage older than 365 days could result in coverage denial.
We’re here to support our members and help you prepare for, respond to, mitigate against, and recover from natural disasters like tornadoes. For more information, contact TASB Emergency Management and School Security Consultant Melanie Moss at 512. 505.2868 or email@example.com. For information about the Fund’s claims process, contact TASB Claims Manager Robert Piña at Robert.firstname.lastname@example.org.