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Tornadoes: Perspective, Prevention, Safety

All Factfile Articles

Yes, we all know what tornadoes look like. But some look especially awesome, as in this video that precedes the article:


The tornado is among the most feared of nature's furies. We commonly fear fire, floods, and even flying. But for most of us, nothing strikes fear more than a tornado. Raw terror, more like it.

We can't predict or prevent tornadoes. But we can prevent much of the carnage one would render (more on that, in a bit). And, you can reasonably ensure your personal safety. By that, we mean you can do certain things to vastly reduce the odds of being killed or maimed by a tornado.


Tornado quick links

Tornadoes in perspective

The fear of tornadoes is a rational fear. After all, a tornado can wipe out an entire town in just a few minutes. The power in a tornado is on the order of the power of a nuclear weapon. However, tornadoes strike much less often than popular imagination would have us to believe.

Many people wrongly assert that tornadoes are more common, due to global warming. There are two problems with this theory.

  1. Our ability to detect tornadoes has greatly improved in the past few years and a new technology will improve that even more in the next few (it's 2011 as this is being written). Most tornadoes don't cause the massive damage we read about or hear about. Or, sadly, get in the way of. It's not a matter of more, so much as a matter of where. A tornado that touches down in a densely packed metro area is going to be noticed!
  2. The global warming theory connects dots that don't necessarily connect. Global temperatures are one thing, connecting them to man's activity is another. The theory can't explain why Mars, which is 1.4 AU from the sun (an AU is one earth-distance from the sun), is experiencing polar ice melting from the sun's increased output while the earth somehow is experiencing that from man's activity instead. A perverse consequence of "Goremania" is it's diverting resources away from conservation, waste reduction, and pollution control.

In any given year, there may be a spike in tornado activity. There may even be a run of such spikes. But we don't have the data or other evidence to show that earth is suddenly being over run by tornadoes as opposed to a rather pacific environment before the dawn of the SUV. In fact, the most deadly tornadoes on record occurred when our cities were far less dense than they are today.

Just how deadly are tornadoes? In a typical year, they kill 60 people in the USA. In some years, a single tornado event (as in Joplin, MO), can greatly exceed this number. But on average, it's 60. Compare that to the following:

  • 780,000 Americans die each year to due hospital mistakes.
  • 450,000 Americans die each year as a consequence of tobacco use. That's an estimate, and a conservative one.
  • In 2008, 186 people were murdered in Washington, DC. In some years, it's been well past 400. The reason for the high murder rates in this particular city as opposed to others, is it has extremely strict firearms restriction laws. When you restrict firearms to only the most determined and desperate criminals, the outcome is predictable. And it's predictably bad.

So, should you fear tornadoes? Yes, to the extent you need to be aware of tornado-producing conditions and take proper measures when they exist. But you should be far, far more afraid of hospitals (practice health care, so you can avoid medical care), tobacco, and criminal protection laws.


Just as we can't prevent government stupidity (yes, there are actually other kinds of stupidity; they are just rare compared to the govt type), we can't prevent tornadoes.

But we can prevent much of the devastation. In Florida, for example, the building codes have resulted in homes and offices that are much safer in high winds. While those codes are pointless for a building in the path of a huge twister, they can make a difference for smaller vortices and for secondary damage. Evidence also exists that berming and other topographical anomalies can help divert tornadoes. The effect is probably not as great as that of lightning rods to lightning; these don't prevent lighting, they just help drain it off and away from the primary target.

The worst carnage occurs in mobile homes and mobile home parks. The question to ask is, "Why do so many people live in these?" The answer is, "It's the economy, stupid." The USA federal govt has saddled the country with a debt that exceeds the GDP of the entire world by more than three times over. Debts have carrying costs.

The high overhead costs of this vast, and mostly pointless, federal govt have a profoundly negative effect on personal wealth. The more you look at the waste, fraud, and illegality of most of the federal spending (something like 90% of it is statutorily barred), the more you can see that there's a simple fix to the trailer park problem. For more information how to bring this about, see Hint: Refuse to vote Demopublican, and constantly lobby your misrepresentatives in CONgress to reduce govt size and cost.

Overhead is a fundamental concept for any business or household. "Keep your overhead down" is a well-respected, proven bit of advice to those who wish to stay afloat financially. It's advice the federal government ignores. At our peril, quite literally. What's the death toll from that? It's very, very high.

We can't prevent tornadoes, but we can prevent the insane amount of spending that is done mostly as a wealth transfer from the "peasant class" to the elite who have members of CONgress on their payroll. There is a reason why Exxon and other oil companies have had record profits recently, and it's not because they have become so good at drilling for oil.


Tornadoes usually, but not always, strike in the middle of the afternoon. But sometimes, they strike in the middle of the night. You have only a few minutes, sometimes less, to get to a safer place.

  • Buy a weather radio and you'll get automated alerts. This small expenditure can save your life.
  • If you hear a sound like a train, it could be because you live near the railroad tracks. Or it could be a twister bearing down on you.
  • If there's a tornado watch, cancel any planned outings. Monitor the weather reports.
  • If there's a tornado warning, stay within earshot of your weather radio. Monitor the weather by direct visual means.

Tornadoes don't develop over time and slowly make their way toward us. They develop suddenly, and almost anywhere. One can develop in your own backyard. During tornado conditions, stay alert and be looking for signs. Be prepared to head to the basement. If conditions are especially prime, just go to the basement and wait for conditions to pass. You may have zero warning, and being there already can mean survival.


How can you be safe when a tornado hits?

  • If you're in a car, don't try to outdrive the tornado. You will probably die trying.
  • If indoors, get away from windows. Move to the interior.
  • If indoors, get into the lowest point of the building, e.g., the basement.
  • If outdoors, get to the lowest nearby place (e.g., a ditch) and lie down. Flatten yourself out.

Can you do more? Nope. The power of a tornado is awesome and deadly. Learn to respect it, rather than fear it. And take action now to reduce the deleterious effects of bad government policies (things have gotten to the point where bad is almost the only kind of policies we get).

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