Traveling in Tornado Alley : A Guide for Visitors

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I grew up in North Texas, so how to respond when there is a possibility of a tornado is second nature to me.  However, talking with travelers from other parts of the world I realized that not everyone knows what to do if they are on a trip and threatened with severe weather.

What is Tornado Alley?

Tornado Alley is the portion of the US that tornadoes happen the most often (see diagram).  Texas leads the nation with the most tornadoes.  Kansas and Oklahoma are the states that have the most tornadoes per square mile.

Large cities in Tornado Alley are Dallas/Fort Worth, Oklahoma City, Wichita, Amarillo, Omaha, Lincoln, Des Moines, Sioux Falls, and Cedar Rapids.

When Do Tornadoes Occur?

There is still some mystery to tornadoes that scientists haven’t figured out.  But they happen in rotating thunderstorms when the air is sufficiently unstable.

For the air to be unstable enough for a tornado to occur, the dewpoint usually needs to be over 60 degrees F, and most commonly is over 65 degrees F.  Dew point is figured using a calculation between temperature and relative humidity.  Here’s a handy online calculator.  For instance, right now we’re in a tornado watch in Fort Worth.  The temperature is 81 degrees, and the RH is 61 percent.  That would give us a dewpoint of 66.   The peak season for tornadoes is May – July, and the peak time of day is 4-9 pm.  But remember, just because it isn’t a likely time of year or day for a tornado to occur doesn’t mean it can’t!

Tornado Watch vs. Tornado Warning

A tornado watch means to be vigilant and watch.  A tornado could occur given the current conditions.

A tornado warning means someone has seen a tornado – whether a weather spotter looking at the sky or a meteorologist looking at the radar.  Find out where the tornado has been spotted and respond accordingly.  Some counties are pretty large, so finding out exactly where the tornado was seen is key.

Handy Bookmarks for Your Smartphone

When the electricity goes out, you usually lose wifi capabilities as well.  Have these handy websites bookmarked on your smartphone just in case!

Know Where to Go

Find out where the tornado shelters are where you are staying or where you are visiting.  Is bad weather threatening when you are at an amusement park or festival?  Ask someone where the shelters are.  In tornado alley, they will know.  If they don’t – they should, and making them find out will be beneficial to them as well.  Lots of times, the shelters are the bathrooms and are marked with a tornado shelter sign.

If you are renting a home and the owner left no direction, the rough guidelines are to get in the lowest level of the house in a room without windows or outside walls.  A next best place is the bathtub with pillows or a mattress over you.  Try to find a way to shield you from flying debris.

Are you in the car?  Get out.  If you can get to a building, do it.  If you can’t, get in a ditch and lie down. Cover your head as best you can.  Do not get under your car.  They frequently are flipped over or tossed about.

Sleep Prepared

Does the radar look nasty before you go to sleep?  Sleep in pajamas that you wouldn’t mind being outside in.  Put your shoes, wallet and cell phone somewhere very easy to grab as you run out.  Do the same for your children.  If you have a flashlight, have it reachable.

If You Hear a Tornado Siren, Act Immediately

One of my biggest pet peeves living in Minnesota was that they would sound the siren for a severe thunderstorm warning so a siren didn’t mean much.  In Tornado Alley, if you are outside and hear a siren – get yourself inside and take cover.  We don’t screw around with that.

Consider Traveling with a Small Weather Radio

NOAA Weather Radios are very handy at home anywhere in the United States.  Consider buying a small weather radio and packing it in your bags when you are traveling.  It doesn’t take up much space, can be bought for about $30, and it can be very valuable if severe weather strikes.