Is Your Family Prepared for Nighttime Tornadoes?

Some of the links in this post may contain affiliate links for your convenience. As an Amazon associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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?

SFrog QuadPod Camping Lantern

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.

22 thoughts on “Is Your Family Prepared for Nighttime Tornadoes?”

  1. Very good ideas! I don’t have an extra pair of glasses, but I think that it will be worth the investment to have one or two more. Without my glasses and enough light to see I’m legally blind! Thank you for the ideas.

  2. We dont have basements here in our state. i will put some of those items in my bathroom we have designated as a “safe room”. i have them near our bed, but it wont don’t any good in an actual emergency, if we are stuck in the bathroom!

  3. Great blog! Very useful and practical information. I like your writing style and use of personal experiences. Thank you for your common sense suggestions and for reminding us to make the necessary preparations so we can protect ourselves and loved ones.

  4. This really hits close to home! We have actually been preparing for tornado season. Since we are originally from Arkansas, we know what to expect and have done an okay job prepping for this. Being in Maryland now, we have a basement that we have tried to make ” homey” and comfortable. We have the bug out bags and all but they are in the garage in a locker dedicated to evacuating or bugging out. My hubby and I talked about this recently and decided to leave our bags there, and if we have to head to the basement , he and I can grab them and go. However, in all practicality, we should practice during a night time drill like you suggest. Being aware that I put primarily play clothes in my kids bags, makes me wonder if I should try an put some cuter things in there.. lol…I’m sort of a princess mommy since I have three girls.

  5. Nice article, Sarah! In California we have many of the same concerns with earthquakes that can strike at any time. Fumbling for necessities in the dark is not a successful strategy. Firefighters practice crawling through a smoke-filled house to rescue people by blindfolding themselves. You and your kids can practice finding your way to safety in the same way.

  6. I would put a list of Insurances Company’s that you use, DR’s phone #’s, Any Prescriptions, Tylenol, Toilet Paper, Paper towels, Pop Top cans of food…silverware (plastic kind),

  7. At your beside – and that of the rest of your family – you should have a whistle on a lanyard. You should have a couple of emergency signals to repeat so anyone else in the house knows to either take cover (tornado, earthquake, intruder, etc.) or evacuate (fire, gas, carbon monoxide, etc.).

    When a tornado hits, and whether or not you’ve had a chance to take shelter and don your protective helmets, you have that whistle. If you are trapped in debris, that whistle can help first responders get to you right away. A great companion to that whistle on the lanyard is obviously a small flashlight or glow stick. Then you can give off audio and visual signals to rescuers.

  8. I live in Kansas and would strongly recommend having a NOAA weather radio by your bed. They are loud and cost effective. Another recommendation would be some tools like a shovel, camping saw, or an ax. I have seen devastation first hand. At least with some minimal tools you could possibly dig out. Possibly a fire extinguisher and some N95 face masks too. Remember not to use flames for light sources, gas lines will more than likely be broken.

  9. Sounds like you had the right idea right off the bat. But not knowing what you already had in your basement shelter, it is difficult to suggest additions.

    While you covered both clothing and medication, smart simple items to make your stay in the shelter more comfortable, you must be sure to have some items to assist with self rescue. Pry bar, small car jack, rope, flash light/extra batteries, all important items. Because while you might be safe in the basement after a storm, you might also be hiding under a ticking time bomb. Being able to get out has to be one the top of the list of priorities. Rescue personal might not even know your there for several days.

    In my basement shelter I have reinforced the area we plan to shelter in, but I also have a number of Jack posts (Tiger Brand Super “S” 8 ft. 4 in. Jack Post) which I can use to shore up a path to the outside door, or in the worse case, shore up sections of our home that might come down in our shelter area. I also have several ways to communicate with the outside world, radios (FRS/HAM/CB) that will be in use after a major storm. Work boots, safety glasses and a hard hat for the adults.

    If you stand in the center of your shelter area, and look around, think to yourself, ok, I got us in here, now how do I get us out?

  10. Bit late for this year but worth mentioning: look into free SKY WARN classes given by NOAA (National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration) and NWS (National Weather Service).

    These free public events go from January – March. Events are done by county. They provide instruction about severe weather hazards, how to ‘read’ a forming supercell storm, limitations of weather radar, and signs of an approaching tornado. Great event for adults and teens interested in weather science and weather safety.

    Presentations are done at a professional level –it’s a whole lot of scientific terms, diagrams, and actual storm video–more for learning than for entertainment. Class is geared toward volunteer “spotters” who can report local severe weather conditions to help confirm weather data, but attendees do not have to commit to this.

    We’ve been attending for about 4 years now & learn new things every year. Has helped us to understand local weather forcaster’s storm coverage and even helped a relative get to safety during a tornado. (Power went out — while looking outside to check on things, recognized tornado debris approaching and ran in for cover.)

    for now, here’s the link to their “Spotter’s Guide” featuring severe weather safety tips, storm development, and lots of good information:

    link for info on severe weather risks in your area:

    link for finding next year’s classes: (scroll down past “how can i get involved”)

  11. When tornado season rolls around each year, and especially on nights when it could get severe, I gather an “Emergency Bag” that hangs on a hook right next to the basement door. In it I put: flashlights, cellphones, chargers, wallets, socks and shoes for all, car keys, extra contact lenses (because I am completely blind without them), sweatshirts and raincoats. I also keep a NOAA weather radio next to the bed and plan to bring it with me if a warning is issued. Blankets are already stashed downstairs for my boys who will undoubtedly still be asleep after being carried to the basement.

  12. How about some kind of emergency tote-able toilet bucket because you know you’re gonna need it, especially with anxious little kids. Love the idea of hard hats and I’ll be adding them to my list of things to get along with a few other items mentioned in the comments section that I hadn’t thought of before..

  13. Sarah Anne Carter

    floramarie – I tend to keep my old glasses when I get new ones even if the prescription changes slightly. My children tend to break their glasses at least twice a year, and if they can be fixed with duct tape, I save those for emergencies.

  14. Sarah Anne Carter

    Zoomer – I am definitely adding whistles to our list! That is a great idea!

    MrCoffee – I shared your ideas with my husband and he agrees that we need to have things on hand to get ourselves out of the basement, if necessary. Thank you!

  15. While we’ve never come out of the shelter seeing our own place damaged, in 1996 we lived in Fort Smith, AR when a torndao there and in Van Buren, AR devastated a very large area. 5 families in our small church lost their homes completely; several more were displaced for a period of time. What I learned is that, once the storm is over, you’re going to need a place to stay and you better have a credit card if that place is going to be a hotel. I also learned that getting away from the damage means that you WILL be in a horrible debris field, and that it WILL be cold, at least through the next day. Everyone needs warm and rain-proof clothing, good shoes, gloves, the meds that they will take tomorrow or the next day, their cell phones, chargers, and contact information/account numbers for the dozens of calls they will need to make within the next couple of days. The bug-out bag should contain copies of insurance papers, a few days’ worth of needed meds for the family, and infant/pet needs. If you’re on your way to your safe place, the best thing your could have is all of your needed stuff in a backpack, ready to grab on your way..

  16. For those who are concerned about becoming “trapped” after a tornado there is a new product called the HITbox Alarm. It is designed to help ensure safety after a tornado or other catastrophic event and can also be used to alert paramedics to an address when seconds can mean the difference between life and death.

  17. Hi 🙂

    How about putting bike helmets within reach, so that you can strap them on when you walk out after the storm, prevents small bit of debris (nails, small twigs etc) from causing injuries.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *