The Trouble with Tornadoes

By Diane Tait

Image courtesy wikimedia
Now that storm season has commenced, I thought I’d take the time to cover something that most folks in Florida more or less ignore: Tornadoes.  While daily thunderstorms that peel the shingles off roofs and knock trees down are the norm, most Floridians don’t realize that the same storms that spawn horizontal rain can also spin up a twister.  According to NOAA, Jacksonville sees an average of two tornadoes every year.  While that doesn’t put us on par with folks living in Tornado Alley, I thought it was still a good idea to cover what to do should you see a funnel cloud heading your way.

You’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.

The good news is that twisters in Florida are likely to be F1’s or F2’s as opposed to mile-wide F4’s and F5’s that sometime take out entire neighborhoods in places like Kansas.  Still, the winds spawned by even an F-1 are powerful enough to tip over big rigs and suck up the family dog like a Hoover vacuum cleaner.  This makes them a powerful force of nature that’s nothing to sneeze at.  And unlike those who live in Tornado Alley, Florida residents don’t have storm cellars in which to seek shelter should they spot a funnel cloud heading their way.

Fujita Scale:
F1 – wind speeds of 73-112 MPH
F2 – 113-157 MPH
F3 – 158-206 MPH
F4 – 207-260 MPH
F5 – 261-318 MPH

Take Shelter: Every time there’s a twister in North Florida, the way most of us find out about it is when we see a picture or video on the news after the fact.  More often than not, the picture was taken by someone standing in their yard or on the road holding their cellphone.  This always makes me shake my head, since the last place you want to be when winds of 100 MPH or more are swirling around is out in the open.  Even if the funnel cloud is some distance away, you’d be surprised at how far a twister can hurl debris.  I’ve seen a picture of an oak tree that had a 2x4 driven completely through it by an F2 tornado. 

With that in mind, if you’re in your home or office when a funnel cloud approaches, head deep inside the structure to an area free of windows, since these are likely to blow out even if the twister doesn’t directly impact the building.  While some people choose to hunker down in the bathtub, my choice for shelter at home would be a hallway closet where I can put the most walls between me and the wind. 

If the cloud is still some distance away, you need to take the time to wind-proof your backyard as quickly as possible, since anything left outside could become a projectile that can be hurled through your windows.  Also make sure you get both the kids and any pets indoors long before the wind kicks into overdrive, instead of standing there gawking at the funnel cloud.

Image courtesy of wikimedia
On the Road: When many people get caught in their car on the road as a tornado approaches, they sometimes try to outrun the funnel.  The problem with this tactic is that usually a twister pushes all kinds of wind-driven rain and hail ahead of it which can make driving at normal highway speeds extremely dangerous, much less at high speed.  Others pull under an overpass thinking that this will protect them and their vehicles from the worst that a twister can do. The opposite is actually the case, since overpasses actually speed up the wind that passes beneath them along with whatever debris the twister has picked up.  The last place you should seek shelter is beneath a highway overpass.  You also shouldn’t remain inside your car if a funnel cloud should approach and you have any other viable shelter. 

What should you do if you’re caught in the open? – Here’s what most people don’t know about a tornado – the wind decreases as does the altitude.  That means the lower you can get, the less effect the wind will have.  (That’s also why people in Tornado Alley build storm cellars.)  If you’re caught outdoors or in your vehicle and you can’t make it inside a building, the next best thing is to lie face down in a ditch and cover your head.  While you may get peppered with dirt and debris, contrary to Hollywood you won’t get sucked up by the cloud.  If for some reason you choose to stay inside your vehicle when a funnel cloud heads your way, pull over, put your vehicle in park and put on your lap belt before leaning down below the level of the dashboard to avoid getting struck by any debris that may crash through the car windows.  If you have a jacket, wrap that around your head to cushion any blows from flying debris as well.

Image courtesy wikimedia
Water you going to do? – I remember a couple of years ago, a waterspout popped up over the St. Johns River before crossing the Buckman Bridge.  Fortunately, nobody was hurt.  That’s largely due to the fact that a waterspout packs less of a punch than does a tornado.  It still has enough power to spin your vehicle around, so you definitely need to pull over should you see one heading your way. 
If you’re on the water in a boat and you see a waterspout, the best course of action is to head at a 90-degree angle away from the apparent motion of the funnel. Never choose to motor or sail through a waterspout, since it still has power enough to do significant damage to your vessel.  It can also knock passengers or crew overboard.

The trouble with tornadoes in Florida is that they’re like Rodney Dangerfield.  They get no respect.  People are usually more fascinated then afraid of them.  This can prove to be a costly mistake.  If you should see a funnel cloud descending from a thunderhead in the future, don’t grab for your smartphone.  Grab the kids, your pets and seek shelter fast.

Diane Tait owns and operates A&B Insurance.  To find out more about how you can save money on homeowner’s insurance, go to her site or fill out the form at right.


  1. I've seen a bunch of YouTubes where people are standing there shooting video until the tornado is right on top of them. That's nuts.

  2. I have lived in Florida and live under the threat of Hurricanes all my life. Most people forget that Hurricanes spawn lots of Tornados and for me they are the scariest part of any storm.


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