How to Prepare For, Respond to, and Recover From Tornados

Tornadoes are the most destructive weather-related natural disaster, and they can destroy school buildings and cause irreparable damage to communities. Most tornadoes occur between May and June and result in over 80 deaths. As of May 2020, there have been 603 reported tornadoes and 209 unconfirmed reports.

The National Weather Service and local weather stations use the terms tornado watch and warning to convey intensity and action plans to the public. However, these terms are often misunderstood, which could lead to improper emergency preparedness during a tornado. It is essential to understand the difference between a watch and a warning.

Be prepared: A tornado watch indicates that a risk of a tornado has significantly increased, but specifics, such as timing and location, are still uncertain. Watches alert the public of a possible event and encourage the use of your emergency response plan.

Take action: A tornado warning means there is an extremely high chance of a tornado occurring soon. This is the time to set your emergency response plan into motion and protect your family.

Knowing tornado characteristics can help schools and childcare centers be more alert for hazardous conditions, assess their risk, and protect their children's lives:

  • Time: Tornadoes are most likely to occur between 3:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m., with 6:00 p.m. to 9 p.m. being the second-highest time segment. Occasionally, severe tornadoes have been recorded during early morning hours and late evening hours.

  • Direction: Tornadoes typically move from the southwest to the northeast. However, tornadoes are subject to move in any direction.

  • Length: A tornado’s length of path usually averages about five miles, but some paths have exceeded 100 miles.

  • Width: A tornado’s width of path averages typically 300 to 400 yards, but can reach up to one mile.

  • Speed: The travel speed, or translational speed, averages 25 to 40 miles per hour (mph). However, speeds from five to 60 mph have been recorded in the past.

Tornadoes are categorized on a scale from F0 to F5. The National Weather Service determines this number according to the tornado damage scale. Ninety percent of the tornadoes recorded over the past 45 years have been categorized as F0 and F2.

Emergency Preparedness Plans in the Classroom: Prepping, Practicing and Putting Into Action

The effects of high winds is an important consideration when determining where to stay during a tornado. If your area is at risk, then identify the best available refuge areas in your building that could hold your staff and children in the event of a tornado.

As part of this process, consider what items you would need to have with you on-site, depending on the children's age in your program's care. While there is often limited notice of a tornado, having a NOAA battery operated weather radio can ensure you receive timely updates and information as soon as they become available.

Once a tornado poses an imminent threat to your facility, shelter-in-place is the best viable option for ensuring your staff and children's safety. The purpose of sheltering-in-place is to provide you with physical separation from something hazardous in the outdoor environment. It will be essential to move children and staff into the center of the building - putting as many solid walls between you and the threat.

Successfully shelter-in-place:

  • Determine your child care program’s risk of experiencing a tornado and plan accordingly.

  • Use a NOAA weather radio to ensure your program receives any watches or warnings of a tornado on the way.

  • Act quickly.

  • Remain calm (even though we know that it’s easier said than done!).

  • Move toward the innermost room and avoid exterior windows, close/ lock all exterior doors and windows.

  • If sheltering due to a chemical release or hazardous materials situation - turn off all heating, cooling, and ventilation systems.

  • Monitor your emergency radio or television for further updates.

  • Do not leave your shelter-in-place site until you receive the “all clear” from authorities.

  • Consider the best available refuge area within your building and a predetermined location. The best possible refuge may not guarantee full safety, depending on how the facility was built, but it should be the safest location.

  • Your staff and children may be together in a tight space for an extended period waiting for the storm to pass. Make sure you have age-appropriate items that are needed, and also items to keep the children occupied.


After the fact, whether a watch or warning, it is important to contact local emergency organizations to update emergency response plans:

  • The legislature and school boards: for benefits of funding for school shelter projects;

  • Local school and building officials: for the structural, logistical, and human requirements for sound shelters;

  • The private sector, such as architects and engineers: for the layout and construction of shelters;

  • School staff: for the upkeep of shelters and emergency preparedness plans implemented; and

  • Students: concerning the hazards posed by a tornado and understanding where and how to seek safe shelter.

Ready Business Tornado Toolkit

The Ready Business Toolkit is available on behalf of the Department of Homeland Security/Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). This Toolkit provides an assessment for businesses to: identify your risk, develop a plan, take action, and be recognized. Included is a readiness assessment, reference guides to plan, checklists to take action, and ways to reach the public, which takes your staff/students, surroundings, systems, structures, and services into consideration.

Don’t be scared. Be prepared! The Institute for Childhood Preparedness offers emergency preparedness, response, and recovery training and emergency plan development and review to help craft your emergency response plans. Schedule an emergency preparedness training for your early childhood program, K-12 school, after school program, Head Start Program, camp, House of Worship, or Government organization today: Click here.


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  1. Bates College. (2020, January 17). Shelter in Place and Lockdown (a.k.a. Secure in

Place). Retrieved January 23, 2020, from

  1. Head Start. (2020, January 8). Preparing for Tornado Season. Retrieved February 11,

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  1. Edwards , R. (n.d.). Tornado Preparedness Tips for School Administrators. Retrieved

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  1. FEMA. (2002, August). Protecting School Children from Tornadoes. Retrieved February

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