In March 2023, when Mississippi residents had to take cover from a tornado with winds spinning at up to 200 mph, every second counted. In such dangerous situations, a preplanned response can reduce injuries and may even save lives. Making it safely through severe weather emergencies sometimes comes down to the right preparation.
Preparing for extreme spring weather, like thunderstorms and tornadoes, can help relieve some of the anxiety and fear provoked by these events. It can also reduce individual losses and speed recovery efforts after disasters strike. For these reasons, it’s important to explore key strategies and resources that can help families and businesses prepare for severe spring weather.
Types of Spring Storms and the Dangers They Pose
With every approaching spring, people across the U.S. can expect various types of storms. As the weather warms after winter, the likelihood of a range of potentially dangerous weather events rises, such as thunderstorms, rainstorms, floods, tornadoes, dust storms and firestorms.
Some weather events can even produce or cause other severe weather. For instance:
- Thunderstorms can produce tornadoes.
- Rainstorms can cause floods.
- Thunderstorm winds can start dust storms.
Atmospheric scientists and meteorologists typically classify storms based on their level of severity. “Severe” thunderstorms, for instance, are more than heavy rain showers and lightning. They also exhibit at least one of the following elements:
- One-inch hail or larger
- Wind gusts over 57.5 mph
- Tornadic conditions or tornados
Wind speeds determine a tornado’s classification, with weak tornadoes gusting at 65 to 110 mph and strong tornadoes gusting at speeds of 111 to 165 mph. The most violent and dangerous tornadoes can reach wind speeds of over 200 mph.
Though severe spring weather can occur anywhere in the U.S., certain areas are more prone to specific types of storms. For example:
- Dust storms most commonly occur in the Southwest.
- Tornadoes predominantly happen in the central Plains between the Rocky and Appalachian Mountains.
- Thunderstorms typically strike most severely in states extending from southern Minnesota to Texas.
Additionally, extreme weather in one season can influence the next season’s weather. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Water Center recently reported that extreme winter weather in 2023 could cause spring flooding across 44% of the country. This includes the Mississippi River Basin, California’s coast and the upper Midwest.
Severe weather events can devastate communities, causing death, property destruction and damage to critical infrastructure. Every year, hundreds of people are injured or lose their lives as a result of extreme spring weather events such as flash flooding, tornadoes and lightning. Families and businesses suffer property damage due to hail and flooding. People can also lose their livelihoods and homes when storm winds knock down trees and power lines that damage houses and businesses.
The following statistics underscore some of the dangers of severe weather.
- In an average year, 80 people die and over 1,500 suffer injuries due to tornadoes, according to the National Weather Service.
- Hazardous weather in 2022 caused $165 billion in property damage and resulted in at least 474 lost lives, according to NOAA reporting.
- An inch of water in a residential home can result in $25,000 worth of damages, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
- Almost a quarter of roads in the U.S. are at risk of becoming unusable due to flooding, according to the First Street Foundation.
What Is Severe Weather Preparedness and Why Is It Important?
Severe weather becomes deadlier when it catches people by surprise. However, planning for severe weather as part of general emergency preparedness gives communities their best chance at limiting the destruction caused by severe weather threats.
Severe weather preparedness involves:
- Knowing the hazards posed by specific weather events
- Knowing when severe weather events will happen by monitoring forecasts, weather advisories, warnings and watches
- Preplanning how to stay safe during and after severe weather events
Severe weather preparedness requires thoughtful planning. Developing emergency plans and reviewing them with family members or employees ahead of time can empower individuals to remain coolheaded and take lifesaving actions during tense situations.
Gathering supplies for various emergency scenarios can also prove invaluable. These include such indispensable items as medicines, water and food. Additionally, establishing in advance ways to manage the special needs of the elderly, pets, children and individuals with disabilities can better ensure those who are most vulnerable remain safe.
How Climate Change Is Intensifying the Destructive Nature of Severe Weather
Unfortunately, climate change has been shown to provoke more frequent and more severe weather events. In recent years, the situation has grown progressively worse in terms of loss of life and property damage. This developing reality highlights the growing importance of severe weather preparedness.
Consider the following statistics about the impacts of severe weather.
- NOAA data shows the number of billion-dollar natural disasters in the U.S. has increased nearly sixfold since the 1980s.
- NOAA has predicted “above average” hurricane seasons for the last seven years in a row.
- Analysis has shown the number of deaths due to issues such as infectious diseases and injuries associated with hurricanes and other tropical storms rose by 33.4 percent in the months following the initial event.
- The probability of a hurricane rapidly intensifying has grown from 1 percent to 5 percent since the 1980s.
- In 2020, 13 severe storms, one wildfire, seven tropical cyclones and one drought caused $95 billion in damages, killed 262 people and set a record for the highest number of billion-dollar climate and weather disasters to occur in a single year.
The Positive Impact of Severe Weather Preparedness
Despite these grim numbers, there is a way to stay safe in the face of potential disasters: Stay informed and have a plan for severe weather. Historically, when people pay attention to and act on information related to severe weather threats and hazards, they fare better.
For example, in 1900 a deadly category 4 hurricane hit Galveston, Texas. At the time, the community did not have a warning system for natural hazards, nor did residents have evacuation plans in place. Sadly, 6,000 people died from the storm and 5,000 suffered injuries.
In contrast, when Hurricane Ian, also a category 4 storm, battered communities across Florida in 2022, warning systems were in place, which allowed many to evacuate. Though Ian had a death toll of 144 lives, examining the two storms side by side illustrates how preparedness can profoundly mitigate the impact of severe weather.
Tips for Being Ready for Severe Weather Threats
Severe weather threats come in many forms, but some preparations apply to all weather situations. To begin, mindfully store important documents to protect them. Use a fire- and waterproof safe to hold:
- Birth certificates
- Marriage certificates
- Immigration papers
- Titles for cars, boats, etc.
- Social security cards
For insurance purposes, take a household inventory.
- Record household contents; when applicable, note serial numbers
- Take photographs or video record the contents of each room
- Take photographs of high-value items such as collection pieces, jewelry and artwork
Prepare emergency supply kits that include:
- A battery-powered radio or internet device to stay up to date on weather reports
- Fresh batteries for radio and flashlights
- First aid supplies
- Enough water, nonperishable food and medication to last three days
Emergency supply kits may also include copies of important documents such as home deeds or leases, insurance policies, pertinent medical information, birth certificates and family and emergency contact information.
The following tips and strategies outline ways to prepare homes and businesses for specific extreme spring weather events.
How to Prepare for a Tornado
In the event of a tornado, appropriate actions can help mitigate some of the risks these extreme events pose.
As a first step, individuals and businesses should establish tornado emergency plans that clearly identify where family members, employees, pets and people with special needs can access safe shelter. Though no shelters are foolproof against tornadoes, some offer more protection than others.
Knowing where to shelter can help protect people from the flying debris that causes most deaths and injuries during a tornado. When available, seek the following places to wait out a tornado:
- The basement of a house or building (the best option)
- A room with no windows on the lowest floor, such as a bathroom or hallway
Parents should educate children about tornadoes, tornado watches and tornado warnings. Those with children should also explain safety tips and where and how to safely shelter during a tornado.
Preparing for a tornado in advance is especially crucial, as tornadoes can often strike with little warning. Those living in tornado-prone areas should familiarize themselves with weather signs that may indicate an approaching tornado and take immediate cover if the following signs appear.
- A dark or green-colored sky
- Big, dark clouds laying low in the sky
- Large hail
- A roaring noise similar to the sound of a freight train
How to Prepare for a Thunderstorm
Thunderstorms put people and property at risk for injury due to lightning, high winds, heavy hail and flash floods. However, by identifying a secure shelter and engaging in practice drills, individuals can stay out of harm’s way.
Preparing for severe thunderstorms can start with identifying a sturdy building to shelter in. When possible, those living in mobile homes and recreational vehicles should make plans to stay in alternative places nearby during thunderstorms.
Families and businesses can practice drills to familiarize household members and employees about where they should go and what they should do before and during a thunderstorm. In addition to thunderstorm drills, individuals can benefit from learning emergency skills such as first aid and CPR.
Other helpful preparations for thunderstorms include:
- Cutting down and clearing dead trees and overgrown branches around a home or business
- Unplugging electronic equipment
- Securing or removing loose outdoor items such as large garbage cans and patio furniture
- Shuttering doors and windows
How to Prepare for a Flood
Spring weather, including thaws and increased rain, can also lead to severe flooding. Flood preparation can minimize damage to homes and businesses and provide protection for individuals and their families.
It’s important to first assess flood risk. FEMA’s Flood Map Service Center allows individuals to look up addresses to identify flood-prone areas. With this information, businesses and residents can decide whether it makes sense to purchase flood insurance. Most regular homeowner insurance policies do not include coverage for flood damage.
Communities prone to flooding typically have well-established emergency plans. Review these plans and learn about evacuation routes and where to find higher ground in case of flooding. Then get familiar with evacuation routes by practicing them.
Businesses creating evacuation plans for flooding should consider the following steps.
- Establish clear roles and responsibilities for managing the evacuation
- Develop a flood alert system
- Choose the primary method of communication to be used during the emergency
- Specify evacuation procedures for each workplace area
- Identify assembly points and designated safe areas
Several tips for protecting property against floods include:
- Installing a battery-operated pump that drains water out of the home in case of a power failure
- Clearing drains and gutters of clutter to prevent water from accumulating
- Waterproofing basement walls to stop water seepage
- Installing backflow valves to keep water from backing up into the home
- Raising and anchoring appliances, heating systems, electrical components and wiring
- Moving valuables to the highest level of a home, such as an attic
When people take the recommended actions to prepare for severe weather, they can better protect themselves — and others. That’s because they’re less likely to need the help of first responders, such as the Coast Guard, paramedics and National Guard troops who risk their own safety on rescue missions.
Preparing for Inclement Weather
The following links and resources can aid individuals, families, businesses and communities in preparing for inclement weather.
- Ready.gov, an official website of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, offers suggestions for creating disaster supply kits, safety tips for severe weather, guidance on how to create a Family Emergency Communication Plan and more.
- How to Prepare for Emergencies provides resources from the American Red Cross, including templates for creating emergency plans; links to apps that provide information and tools for severe weather preparedness; and an Emergency Resource Library where visitors can learn what to do before, during and after specific severe weather events.
- This article from State Farm provides suggestions on the various types of emergency supply kits one might need — including those for pets, cars and offices — and what to include in them.
- Emergency Preparedness Resources, collected by the Americans with Disabilities Act National Network, provides links to a large selection of emergency preparedness websites, including ones for people with disabilities.
- Resources on Emergency Preparedness & Recovery, created by ILRU (Independent Living Research Utilization), offers links for training, publications and services, along with a resource section catered to first responders.
Be Ready for Severe Spring Weather
Knowing how to prepare for severe spring weather such as floods, tornadoes and thunderstorms can keep people, pets, homes and businesses safe. With intensifying storms and other deadly weather events on the rise due to climate change and other factors, the need for severe weather preparedness has never been more important.