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Is Your Family Prepared for Nighttime Tornados?

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I have a healthy fear of tornadoes now, especially nighttime tornadoes.

I thought I was prepared, but I’m not – and you might not be either.

Here’s why.

image: nighttime tornado destruction

Statistics about Nighttime Tornadoes

A study done at the Northern Illinois University covering the 1950-2005 time period, found that although fewer tornadoes were nocturnal (27.3%), they resulted in 39.3% of tornado fatalities. Additionally 42.1% of killer tornados are nighttime events.

Here are some other rather startling facts:

  • Nighttime tornadoes are 2.5 times more likely to results in deaths.
  • 61% of fatalities in mobile homes happen at night. Read this post for tips on tornado safety when you don’t have a basement.
  • The American South (Dixie Alley) is more likely to experience tornadoes at night than the Upper Midwest and Tornado Alley.
  • Winter weather in the South continues to provide favorable conditions for tornadoes. This combined with fewer daylight hours means tornadoes at night are year-round possibilities.
  • Tornado siren system are designed for outdoor, daytime activities, not for people who are indoor or asleep in bed.

Percent of Tornadoes at Night by State (American South)

The following graphic shows the percentage of each state’s tornadoes that occurred at night during 1950- 2005. Notice the top three: Tennessee (46%), Arkansas (43%), and Kentucky (42%). Later in this article we’ll here from a meteorologist about the propensity for nocturnal tornadoes in this region.

image: nighttime tornadoes by state (Ashley et al., 2008)
Nighttime tornadoes by state 1950-2005 (Excerpt Ashley et al., 2009)

The Additional Dangers of Nighttime Tornadoes

In this video clip, a National Weather Service meteorologist discusses some of the reasons:

Too Close for Comfort

Leon Pattenburg has always been afraid of tornadoes, even before he heard of the Wicked Witch of the West and, “Surrender Dorothy!” Still, tornado survival is something that took a while for him to learn.

Anybody who grew up or lived near Gilbert, in Central Iowa, is familiar with the destructive, whirling wind patterns. The movie “Twister” was filmed about 40 miles away from his family farm, and all the locals can tell storm stories.

One year, his neighbors lost their house to a funnel cloud. Across the road from them, a barn was blown away. But the grand-daddy of all Iowa tornadoes, though, happened on June 13, 1976, when a tornado rated F-5 by the National Weather Service hit nearby Jordon. Here’s what Leon says about that day:

My siblings were home on the family farm and noticed the weather was hot and humid and everything was getting really still. Dad was cultivating in the cornfield and saw the funnel cloud. He abandoned the tractor and headed for the house.

jordan tornado
My Dad saw this funnel cloud headed in his direction when he was cultivating corn. He abandoned the tractor and ran for shelter.

“It was the first time I ever saw Dad run,” my brother Mike recalls. “As soon as he was in earshot he started yelling for us to get to the basement.”

The National Weather Service indicated that the damage path of the Jordon tornado was roughly 880 yards wide and 21 miles long. The twister destroyed virtually every house and business building in Jordon, but all residents survived. The tornado was accompanied by an F-3 anticyclonic tornado a few miles away.

Shortly after the Jordon tornado, Leon’s Dad built a concrete re-enforced storm shelter under the front porch. The neighbors were told where the shelter was and were invited to take refuge there if need be. And, if the house was blown away, they would know where to look for survivors!

And who can forget Joplin?

I lived a few hours away from Joplin, Missouri, when the EF5 tornado hit on May 22, 2011. I learned a lot from being that close and seeing the kind of destruction that could happen so quickly. Lessons from the Joplin twister prompted me to start preparing our family for disasters.

I made sure our basement shelter room was set up with food, blankets, flashlights, and water. Our community did a lot of fundraising and supply gathering for that city’s recovery. If you want to refresh your memory, read about what happened in the hospital during the Joplin tornado here.

Right over my head

Two years later on May 20, 2013, I saw a tornado start forming right in front of me. I was at a dance studio with three of my daughters during a thunderstorm. As I was keeping an eye on the storm through the window when I saw some swirling in the clouds. I checked the radar on my phone and saw a hook when I zoomed in. When I looked back up, the swirling was starting to get lower and lower.

“We need to take cover,” I called out. The receptionist questioned my concern by saying there were no sirens going off. I ignored her and several other parents and I started gathering everyone we could in the two bathrooms. When the noise died down, we all came out and started leaving to head home. Then the sirens went off and an F1 tornado touched down a few miles to our east.

From this I learned that tornadoes form quickly and sirens can sound off too late. Trust your own eyes and judgment.

I was unprepared for a tornado at night.

According to Weather Underground, about 79 tornadoes touched across the U.S. during a set of storms at the end of April 2014. I went to bed one of those nights with my phone volume on its highest setting in case severe weather hit us. I started walking through in my head what I would do if the sirens went off and I realized that we are not as prepared as I thought. If we needed to take shelter during the day, we were all set – nighttime was a different story.

If a storm were to have hit that night and damaged our house while we were in the basement, none of us would have shoes on, my children would have been in pajamas (shorts and nightgowns), and I had none of their nighttime comforts (pacifiers, blankies, and stuffed animals).

Here’s what I added to my prepping supplies.

NOTE: If you’re not in tornado alley but in earthquake country, you might want to consider keeping some of these items in a bag by your bed. I wouldn’t want earthshake to send my glasses flying and perhaps get broken or crushed. The last think I need in an emergency is to not be able to see.

Nighttime Tornado Preparedness

So these are the items I’ve added to our basement supplies to prepare us for nighttime tornado sheltering. You may want to think about some of the following as well.

  • Shoes and socks
  • Pants (especially for those who sleep in shorts and nightgowns)
  • Sweatshirts or jackets
  • Children’s sleeptime aids (pacifiers, blankets, stuffed animals)
  • Bras for the women in the family who don’t sleep in them
  • An extra set of glasses for those who wear them
  • Essential medications

Hold a Drill

Or better yet, hold a tornado drill during the night with your family. Then look around and imagine being trapped in that spot for several hours or a day if your house is damaged. What would you want to have?

Final Thoughts

Remember, with tornadoes, sometimes you only have minutes to take shelter! I will always have a healthy fear of tornadoes, but now I finally feel my family is well prepared if one heads our way. (And, I hope one never does!)

Have you experienced a tornado at night? What additional preparedness items do you recommend?

Originally published May 7, 2014; updated and revised by Team Survival Mom with contributions from Leon Panten burg who writes outdoor and weather survival articles on his blog, Survival Common Sense.

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Sarah Anne Carter is a writer and reader. She grew up all over the world as a military brat and is now putting down roots with her family in Ohio. Visit her at

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