Answers to frequently-asked questions about tornadoes

With another tornado season gearing up, here are some answers to questions about the often-deadly storms:

Q. What direction do tornadoes come from? Does the region of the U.S. play a role in path direction?

A. Tornadoes can appear from any direction.
 

Q. How long does a tornado last?

A. Tornadoes can last from several seconds to more than an hour.
 

Q. What does a tornado sound like?

A. That depends on what it is hitting, its size, intensity, closeness and other factors. The most common tornado sound is a continuous rumble, like a close-by train. Sometimes a tornado produces a loud whooshing sound, like that of a waterfall or of open car windows while driving very fast. Tornadoes tearing through densely populated areas may produce all kinds of loud noises at once, which collectively may make a tremendous roar.
 

Q. Can tornadoes pick up objects and carry them for miles?

A. Yes, numerous tornadoes have lofted (mainly light) debris many miles into the sky, which was then carried by middle- and upper-atmospheric winds for long distances.
 

Q. What is a tornado watch?

A. A tornado watch defines an area shaped like a parallelogram, where tornadoes and other kinds of severe weather are possible in the next several hours. It does not mean tornadoes are imminent - just that you need to be alert, and to be prepared to go to safe shelter if tornadoes do happen or a warning is issued.
 

Q. What is a tornado warning?

A. A tornado warning means that a tornado has been spotted, or that Doppler radar indicates a thunderstorm circulation that can spawn a tornado. When a tornado warning is issued for your town or county, take immediate safety precautions.
 

Q. Do mobile homes attract tornadoes?

A. Of course not. It may seem that way, considering most tornado deaths occur in them, and that some of the most graphic reports of tornado damage come from mobile home communities. The reason for this is that mobile homes are, in general, much easier for a tornado to damage and destroy than more well-built houses and office buildings.
 

Q. Used to be people were told to open windows to equalize pressure. Should you?

A. Opening the windows is absolutely useless, a waste of precious time, and can be very dangerous. Don't do it. You may be injured by flying glass trying. And if the tornado hits your home, it will blast the windows open anyway.
 

Q. What should you do in a car if a tornado is approaching?

A. Vehicles are notorious as death traps in tornadoes, because they are easily tossed and destroyed. Either leave the vehicle for sturdy shelter or drive out of the tornado's path.
 

Q. What were the deadliest U.S. tornadoes?

A. The "Tri-state" tornado of March 18, 1925, killed 695 people as it raced along at 60-73 mph in a 219-mile long track across parts of Missouri, Illinois and Indiana.
 

Q. What was the biggest known tornado?

A. The Hallam, Neb., F4 tornado of May 22, 2004, is the newest record-holder for peak width -- at nearly two-and-a-half miles.
 

Q. What was the costliest tornado?

A. The Topeka, Kan., tornado of June 8, 1966, is the current record-holder, when adjusted for inflation, at approximately $1.6 billion in 2007 dollars. The Bridge Creek-Moore-Oklahoma City-Midwest City, Okla., tornado of May 3, 1999, currently ranks first in actual dollars but third when inflation adjusted.
 

Q. How many tornadoes hit the U.S. yearly?

A. About 1,000.
 

Q. How many people are killed every year by tornadoes? How do most deaths happen in tornadoes?

A. On average, tornadoes kill about 60 people per year --most from flying or falling (crushing) debris.
 

Q. What city has been hit by the most tornadoes?

A. Oklahoma City.
 

Q. Why does it seem like tornadoes avoid downtowns of major cities?

A. Simply, downtowns cover such tiny land areas relative to the entire nation. The chance of any particular tornado hitting a major downtown is quite low --not for any meteorological reason, but simply because downtowns are small targets.

SOURCE: National Weather Service, Storm Prediction Center

(Compiled by staff of the Abilene Reporter-News in Texas.)

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