A tornado is a violently rotating column of air that extends from a thunderstorm to the ground. They usually appear as a funnel or cone-shaped cloud, with wind speeds of up to 300 miles per hour. They can cause major destruction in their path. Sometimes tornadoes are preceded by heavy rain, wind, and hail; at other times they seem to arise out of relatively clear conditions. Sometimes people hear a loud roar or trainlike sound when a tornado approaches. Tornadoes have occurred in all fifty states and at all times of year. However, the Midwestern and Southern states have the greatest number, and the most violent tornadoes tend to be in the spring. Areas prone to tornadoes usually have a warning system to alert residents that they should seek safe shelter.
Being prepared beforehand is the best way to help children and family members recover after a tornado. To improve their preparedness, families should:
- Develop a plan to shelter in place. Have families identify the safest place in their home, such as a basement or the lowest building level in a room without windows (e.g., closet or bathroom). Have them include a place to meet after a tornado as they could be separated during the storm and at least two escape routes from home and work/school. It is important that they know the emergency plan at work and their children’s school emergency plan. If any family members have special mobility or health conditions, make sure the plan incorporates their needs and enlists others nearby in case they are alone during a tornado.
- Make a family preparedness and communication plan. Families need to have important contact information easily accessible, know whom they might stay with in the event of an evacuation, and have a plan for pets and livestock. Download the family preparedness plan and wallet card to help with this process.
- Regularly practice the emergency plan. Every 3 months families should practice taking shelter in the designated safe place and reviewing where to meet after a tornado.
- Be informed about local tornado sirens and how to access updated official tornado information. Encourage families to learn when and how often tornado sirens are tested in their community. Also have them identify which official radio stations, websites, or social media will provide tornado updates. Help families become familiar with different tornado alerts:
- Tornado Watch: Indicates weather conditions are favorable for forming a tornado and people need to monitor for changing weather conditions or updated alerts.
- Tornado Warning: Indicates that a tornado has formed and people need to seek shelter quickly.
- Assemble an emergency supply kit. Families should have access to enough water, food, and other emergency supplies for at least 3 days and medications for at least 7 days. Encourage them to gather copies of important documents, a radio and batteries as needed for weather updates, supplies for pets, and safety gear (such as helmets to protect both children and adults).
- Plan for children’s needs. Encourage parents and caregivers to give children factual information about tornadoes in simple terms. This includes having them learn the warning conditions (e.g., loud roaring sound; dark, greenish sky; large hail, seeing a funnel cloud) as well as what to do when they hear the tornado sirens. For adolescents who are driving or out in public, discuss with them good places to take shelter. The Help Kids Cope app provides parents with tips for how to talk with children of different developmental levels.
Knowing what to do during a tornado can help families feel more in control and take steps to increase their safety.
When a tornado warning is issued or a tornado is seen, families should:
- Take shelter immediately. Everyone needs to move to a safe location in a basement, center hallway, or bathroom on the lowest floor. A room without windows, not near outside walls, or not near corners is best. Families that are in a trailer or mobile home should exit immediately and go to the lowest floor of a nearby building or shelter. When outside and shelter is not nearby, individuals need to find a ditch or area lower than the ground and lie down.
- Take protective measures. It is best to wear sturdy shoes, get under a sturdy piece of furniture, and wear helmets. If no helmets are available, individuals should use their arms and hands to protect their heads.
- Keep pets sheltered and under control. Families should take their pets to where they are sheltering and keep them under their direct control.
- Stay informed about tornado alerts and current weather updates. Families should not leave their shelter until officials have announced that the storm as passed.
Immediately after a tornado has passed, families should:
- Evaluate for injuries. Parents and caregivers need to check that their families and those around them were not injured. Immediate medical assistance or basic first aid may be needed.
- Evaluate the safety of their home. Parents and caregivers should walk through all rooms of their house and determine if it is safe to remain living in it. They need to clean up any spilled medications, bleaches, or flammable liquids that could become a fire hazard. If they can smell gas or hear a blowing or hissing noise, they should open a window, get everyone out quickly, and call the gas company or fire department.
- Evaluate the safety of their yard and surrounding area. Parents and caregivers should scan their yard to make sure it is safe for children to come outside. If they notice fallen power lines, they should be encouraged to report them to the utility company immediately.
- Use protective clothing when evaluating safety. Families should wear a mask when around debris and long pants, a long-sleeved shirt, and sturdy shoes when examining the house for damage.
To address children’s reactions during a tornado, parents and caregivers can:
- Model calm behavior. Children tend to mirror the reactions of adults around them and will learn ideas for how to take care of themselves from what parents and caregivers do.
- Provide simple but accurate information in a quiet, steady voice. Discuss with children what has happened and what will happen next (e.g., need to move to a shelter, one parent is helping a neighbor).
- Encourage comforting or distracting activities. Children may benefit from doing slow breathing to calm their bodies or having a stuffed animal or blanket to hold. As electricity may be out for a long period of times, children will benefit from being distracted. The following handouts are activities children can do inside.
- Practice their own self-care. Parents and caregivers may benefit from finding opportunities to take a moment for themselves, express their feelings, acknowledge that it is a scary situation, and engage in a coping strategy to calm themselves.
Tornadoes are unusual storms, as their path is often erratic. In the same neighborhood, some houses may be completely damaged while others will have not been impacted. While scattered destruction can be easier on the community than that of a flood or a hurricane (in that not all community resources may be used up), the inconsistent pattern of damage can cause feelings of guilt in those spared or unfairness in those recovering. Children may develop unusual ideas or myths about why a tornado did or did not hit their home.
In early aftermath, children may see anxiety and fear in parents and caregivers who are usually confident. They may have to move out of their area or seek temporary housing. They may have lost some of their treasured toys and memorabilia or have lost contact with those supports in their life (e.g., teachers, friends, neighbors) who provided them comfort. If they remain in the area, they tend to be exposed to reminders including rubble, debris, and changes in landscape (e.g., trees without leaves, broken branches).
As with other natural disasters, there will be a spectrum of reactions that children and families will experience. They may worry that another tornado will occur, feel troubled when reminded about the tornado (e.g., dark and low clouds, sounds of strong winds, siren test), and worry when separated from their loved ones. They may exhibit different behaviors (e.g., withdrawal from usual activities, increased anxiety level) or report more physical complaints. Children will react differently depending on their age, developmental level, and prior experiences. Responses also depend on the significance of secondary stresses they are exposed to (e.g., family changes, number of moves, family financial hardship). In general, most families will recover over time, particularly with the support of family, friends, and organizations. Since tornadoes impact communities erratically, some families will be able to return to their normal routines rather quickly, while others will have to contend with numerous hardships, losses, and potentially medical rehabilitation (if there were family members injured). Understanding children’s typical reactions will help ensure they get the right supports.
Children’s functioning and recovery will be influenced by how their parents and caregivers cope after the tornado. Children often turn to adults for information, comfort, and help. To assist children, discuss with parents and caregivers ways to:
- Model how they handle stressful situations in front of their children
- Provide accurate information to their children about what happened during the storm as well as what changes the family is facing. Answer questions honestly but with the amount of detail appropriate to their developmental level
- Give themselves their own time to process what is happening
- Keep family routines as regular as possible, even in the early recovery phase
- Monitor the media and social media information children are viewing and set limits if children are overly focused on viewing this content.
- Seek additional help for themselves or their children if behavioral changes or reactions worsen or if they persist over six weeks after the hurricane.
In response to the recent tornadoes, the National Child Traumatic Stress Network has developed resources to help families and communities. These resources include: