What Does Tornado Warning Mean?

By Kathryn Walsh; Updated September 26, 2017

What to do when a twister touches down

What Does Tornado Warning Mean?

They may be exciting in movies, but in real life, tornadoes can be deadly. Thankfully, the National Weather Service monitors the weather across the United States 24-7 so that it can warn residents and visitors of any impending danger. Twisters do happen in other parts of the world, and you may hear of a tornado warning while traveling abroad. However, these storms are most common in the U.S., particularly in the Midwest, so subscribe to a weather alert app before a trip to Branson, Missouri or Minneapolis. These apps will notify you if the NWS or a local weather service issues a warning. Usually, these warnings are very localized, meaning the service can pinpoint the area that's in the path of the storm. That's why it's essential to take these warnings seriously. If a tornado warning is issued for your area, drop everything and get to safety.

Q: Tornado warning and tornado watch: what's the difference?

A: A tornado watch is the less urgent of the two. The National Weather Service issues a tornado watch when it observes that the weather conditions are right for a tornado to possibly form. Its purpose is to alert people that they should stay indoors and pay close attention to further weather notifications.

A tornado warning is issued when the threat of a tornado is more pressing. The NWS issues a warning if a tornado has already touched down or if radar indicates that a tornado is forming. A tornado warning tells everyone in the affected area to act as though a tornado is coming and to get to safety immediately.


A tornado can happen at any time. In the U.S., these storms are most prevalent between early spring and July. They happen most commonly between 4 and 9 p.m.

Q: What should I do during a tornado warning?

A: Tornadoes can develop quickly and move in unpredictable ways. That's why it's essential to act quickly when a tornado warning is issued for an area you're visiting.

In parts of the U.S. where tornadoes are common, hotels and other businesses should have safety plans and designated shelter areas. Even airports may have shelters and other tornado procedures in place. If you're in one of those places, you should hear announcements directing you where to go.

But if you're on your own in a hotel, restaurant, airport or other space with no tornado procedures, try to get down to a basement if possible. If there's no basement, go to the ground floor and find an interior room free of windows, like a windowless bathroom, hallway or stairwell.

Wear your most protective shoes during a tornado warning in case you encounter broken glass or other debris. Put pets on leashes or into carriers and take them with you. Bring a portable radio and grab some bottled water if it's within reach. Don't waste time looking for your wallet or other valuables: just get to shelter quickly and stay there until you get an all-clear message, either from your radio or from building staff.

Q: What if I'm outside or driving?

A: Get to the closest sturdy building, if you can. If that's not possible, though, you'll have to just do your best to protect yourself from flying debris.

If you're driving in a remote area, pull the car over to the shoulder of the road. If there's a ditch near the road, get out and lie down inside it with your arms covering your head. You'll be below the roadway, which should protect you from some debris. If the ground is flat, stay in the car with your seat belt fastened. Recline your seat so you can get below the windows if possible and cover your head until the storm passes or the radio tells you the warning is cancelled.

If you're on foot and nowhere near a sturdy building, again, look for a ditch or other low-lying area, or find a sturdy structure to crouch against. Get down low to the ground and cover your head until the storm passes.

About the Author

Kathryn Walsh