Disaster Preparedness: Tornadoes

Tornadoes and Severe Storms

Tornadoes are outgrowths of powerful thunderstorms that appear as rotating, funnel-shaped clouds. They extend from a thunderstorm to the ground with violent winds that average 30 miles per hour. Also, they can vary in speed dramatically, from being stationary to 70 miles per hour. With a loud roar that sounds similar to a freight train, tornadoes in the United States typically are 500 feet across and travel on the ground for five miles. Every state is at some risk from tornadoes and the severe storms that produce them. These same destructive storms also cause strong gusts of wind, lightning strikes, and flash floods.

Tornadoes can strike quickly with little or no warning, giving those in impacted areas barely enough time to take shelter. Because of the unpredictable nature of tornadoes and severe storms, it’s normal for people to experience emotional distress. Symptoms of distress may appear before, during, and after a tornado or severe storm, and may manifest in the hours, days, weeks, months, or even years after the storms occur. Feelings such as overwhelming anxiety, trouble sleeping, and other depression-like symptoms are common responses to these types of disasters. Other signs of emotional distress related to tornadoes and severe storms include

  • Worrying a lot or feeling guilty but not sure why
  • Feeling helpless or hopeless
  • Thinking that something is going to happen when forecasts for any storm are issued
  • Constant yelling or fighting with family and friends
  • Having nightmares or thoughts and memories related to the storm

Who is at risk for emotional distress?

People at risk for emotional distress due to the effects of tornadoes and severe storms include the following:

  • Tornado survivors—People living in impacted areas, particularly children and teens, previously exposed to traumatic, life-threatening situations during a tornado or severe storm are vulnerable to distress.
  • Friends and loved ones—It’s normal for friends and family members located outside the impacted area to feel anxious about people who are in direct proximity to a tornado or severe storm.
  • First responders and recovery workers—These individuals may experience prolonged separation from loved ones (depending on the severity of the tornado or storm) and show signs of mental fatigue.

Once warnings for tornadoes or severe storms are issued, the risk for distress becomes greater. It’s normal to feel unprepared, overwhelmed, or confused, particularly if you are not at home or lack a storm shelter. You may also feel isolated due to telephone or electric power outages, or if you are separated from friends or family members.

Returning to a home, business, school, or place of worship impacted by a tornado or severe storm may cause additional distress, especially if there is structural damage. A temporary or permanent loss of employment may also occur.

Remember, too, that the anniversary of a disaster or tragic event can renew feelings of fear, anxiety, and sadness in disaster survivors. Certain smells or sounds, such as smoke or sirens, can also trigger emotional distress. These and other environmental sensations can take people right back to the event or cause them to fear that it’s about to happen again. These trigger events can happen at any time.

Most people who experience disasters are able to recover quickly, but others may need additional support to move forward on the path of recovery. Finding ways to manage stress is the best way to prevent negative emotions from becoming behavioral health issues.

Additional Resources for Tornadoes and Severe Storms

Find more disaster-related resources at “Disaster Preparedness, Response, and Recovery”

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). (Updated 2023, June 9). Types of disasters: Tornadoes and severe storms. Retrieved June 22, 2023, from https://www.samhsa.gov