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Tornadoes, Downbursts, Water Spouts, and Dust Devils Oh My!

Avatar for Samantha Biggers Samantha Biggers  |  Updated: March 26, 2021
Tornadoes, Downbursts, Water Spouts, and Dust Devils Oh My!

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You don’t have to live in tornado alley to experience a twister. Sure they may not have the strength and size that the most catastrophic twisters but even in the Smokey Mountains of Tennessee you can get twister like events. This post is meant to cover a variety of twister situations and how to deal with them no matter where you are.

We are also going to talk about other weather events that can often be mistaken for a regular old tornado.

I have to say as preppers we can probably learn a lot from those that have made their life in tornado alley and the Midwest. Please share any experience you have in the comments section so we can learn from you!

Tornado Safety

The image above is actually 8 different images taken of a tornado forming in Kansas in 2016. From left to right you can see the different stages.

If you live in an area with a lot of tornadoes, then you likely either have your own storm shelter or you are close to a community one.

Sheltering below ground is the best thing you can do.

A basement or storm shelter is ideal. Be willing to let others take shelter too. Sometimes people need a fast, safe place to go.

Protect your head and neck as much as you can.

If you have a hardhat or helmet, put it one for the duration of the storm. It is far better to be safe.

Goggles or safety glasses can prevent eye injuries from debris

Constructing a safe room in your house

Most safe rooms are constructed by professional contractors. If you have a basement, then it doesn’t make sense to spend money on an above-ground safe room. You should make your basement outfitted well enough that you and your family can shelter in place for a few days.

If no basement or storm shelter is available than your best bet is to find an interior room. The walls and lack of windows are to your advantage. Shut the door and stay out of the way of any overhead objects. Some people that have interior rooms may want to keep a few supplies in that room that are easy to get to if you have to shelter in that room throughout a storm.

Here is a link to the pamphlet produced by FEMA that discusses safe room construction and there is info that contractors can use to build a room to tornado specs.

Taking Shelter From The Storm

Have an excellent medical kit

Like any disaster, an excellent medical kit is one of the best things you can have on hand. Make sure to go over your kit and add items that may be missing. I cannot stress enough how lacking a lot of pre-made medical kits are when it comes to true major medical supplies.

Create survival caches

Consider stashing some supplies below ground in sealed containers that you can get to if your home is severely damaged or destroyed. Food is not always easy to get in a disaster especially if you or anyone in your family is on a restricted diet. I remember the Red Cross delivering hot meals to us when we were cleaning up after a major flood in Washington state. That same meal I could not eat now due to diet restrictions.

Check out the Backdoor Survival post on survival caches for some ideas.

Cache and Stash Points For Preppers

Store basic tools in your shelter or safe room.

Have tools in your shelter in case you have to break through or move debris to emerge from your shelter. What would you do if you have a large load of debris trapping you? An old-fashioned pickax or mattock may be a big help. The Pulaski is a tool used by forestry professionals and firefighters. It can be a big help because it is an ax on one end and a mattock on the other so you can chop and dig. A small folding shovel or two may be worth considering.

Emergency radio and a radio or cell for communication

A radio that can pick up NOAA and the Emergency Alert system can keep you informed of weather risks or if a tornado like system or clouds have been spotted in your area.

Some communities have tornado sirens and other alert systems. Sign up for whatever alerts are available to you.

Backup power source

A small power center is something I recommend often and with good reason. The Jackery is my favorite because it is inexpensive and very lightweight making it a good choice for everyone, including the disabled and elderly.

Also, ensure to keep some charging cables with your back up power so that you can keep small devices topped off. A few USB cords should do nicely for charging phones, tablets, e-readers, and radios.

Keep good thick gloves on hand

A 12 pack of good gloves are inexpensive and can come in handy during a lot of emergencies.

The Best Tactical Gloves


You may want to stay in place for a few days even if the storm has passed. If things are torn apart outside and you and your family are safe, hitting the streets when you don’t really need to adds congestion that can affect emergency personnel getting to those that need help.

Choose entertainment options appropriate for all the different age groups in your household. Having something to do helps with morale.

Outrunning a tornado in a car is not a good idea

I loved the movie Twister when I was younger because it was exciting but it is a movie. At the same time when my parents were driving to North Carolina in 1980 before I was born, they actually had to drive fast to get as far away from a twister as possible. It worked for them but they were lucky enough to have spotted the funnel far enough away that it was possible. There is no guarantee that anyone would be that lucky and of course, there are the dangers that can come with driving very fast on a highway out of fear.

While it sounds frightening to consider, experts recommend that if you are in an outdoor space or in your car that you cover your neck and head with your arms and your body with a blanket and wait until it is safe.

People that live in disaster-prone areas become hardened towards potential disasters.

It sounds weird but living in a place that has frequent storms or flooding and living through a few scares results in it not being as shocking the next time. I remember not thinking too much about scary stuff after I went through a few floods as a child. I am mentioning this because I bet there are a lot of kids and adults in tornado and hurricane-prone regions that are really calm when they are ordered to evacuate or take other emergency precautions.

I am not saying people are not scared at all or concerned, but they definitely handle situations more calmly after gaining some experience and accepting that this is part of their reality. It is a very important survival skill.

The AfterMath

Avoid any downed power lines. Report downed lines if you have the ability to do so. This helps emergency personnel prioritize and avoid hazardous routes. Utility companies can do a better job when downed lines get reported fast.

If you are trapped in a building, avoid breathing any dust and debris in by using your shirt or any clean rag to breathe through. Make a lot of noise once the storm is passed so that rescuers can be alerted to your location. Loud whistling can be to your benefit in this case.

Avoid entering any structures until you are absolutely sure that they are stable. Too many people get injured just by being too anxious to get back into a building or simply because they are curious.

Check on friends and family when you can do so safely

A tornado is such a strange thing in that one house on a block may be basically untouched while those right next to it are completely destroyed. Remember to think about others. If you have space to take in friends or family, then you should offer to do so. During a disaster, hotels, motels, and Airbnb can get booked up in no time at all and that means people are forced to take refuge much further from their homes than they are comfortable doing.

What wind zone are you in?

Any area with a building code has considered minimal wind requirements. When my husband and I built our house, the inspector required us to build our house to the standards required for 120 mph winds. That sounds like a lot for someone that lives in the interior but we are at 3000-foot elevation and live in a county that has the highest average elevation on the east coast. I am telling you all these details so that you will understand that you need to be aware of your own unique geographic zone. There are pockets in Northern Alabama that are in high tornado zones even though so many people tend to think of Texas or Oklahoma when they think of a tornado zone

Those near a major source of water need to be very careful when deciding where to shelter during a tornado

Imagine what would happen if you were in a sealed off room sheltering from a major storm like a tornado, and the body of water near you sent a lot of water your way. This could result in major flooding into your safe space and even drowning. This is something that must be considered when planning any disaster shelter. You don’t have to be right on the shore of a major waterway to be affected by a storm surge. In areas that are very flat, water can travel a lot further than you might expect.

Photo Credit: Madison County, KY June 5, 2007 T.G. Shuck/WKYT as published at the National Weather Service

A downburst occurs when a strong down current of air emerges from a cumulonimbus cloud. The force hits the ground and spreads out. Downbursts are often associated with thunderstorms so it is not surprising that my area of North Carolina has experienced plenty of these phenomena in the past.

Graveyard Fields

Graveyard Fields is one of the most visited stops on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Without a downburst, it would not have its characteristic look. Hundreds of trees were blown over which created a landscape that looked like tombstones due to all the moss and lichen that grew on the overturned stumps.

While this is a beautiful place to visit, it still has a bit of a bleak look to it due to the logging done in the early party of the 20th century and the forest fires that killed off a lot of vegetation and sterilized the soil. Things grow there now but they show signs of the struggle. Of course, this landmark is at over 5,000 feet so it faces some harsh weather conditions at times.

Isolated Damage In The Mountains

My Dad told me a story about when he was a little boy and the church got destroyed. He remembers telling my Grandma that the church was gone and she thought it was just a little boy trying to get a rise out of her but sure enough the church was damaged beyond repair. Weather events can be sudden and in the past, it was harder for people to explain them or understand how something could be so devastating yet isolated.

Air Traffic Hazards

Downbursts can be very hazardous to air traffic. More than one plane crash has been attributed to these sudden weather events.

Water Spouts

Have you ever been at the beach and thought you saw a small tornado? Well, you did in a way! Water spouts are tornadoes that occur at sea. They can be quite scary to see but they are not as well known for causing damage since they are out at sea.

At the same time, you want to try to avoid waterspouts as they can cause major damage to aircraft and watercraft. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will issue warnings over their radio system if the conditions for waterspouts are good or if any are spotted. This helps make it easier for water and aircraft to avoid them.

There are historical accounts of water spouts causing damage and death. In 1851, twin waterspouts caused massive damage in Western Sicily in 1851. It is estimated that 500 people died as a result. The twin waterspouts turned into tornadoes on land.

The Mystery of the Mary Celeste

The Mary Celeste is a ship some of you may have heard of. It was found adrift with no one on board in December 1872.  One of the major theories is that a waterspout led to it being abandoned and the entire crew never being found. Other theories include piracy and even insurance fraud.

Dust Devils

Most of us have seen little whirlwinds of dust on the ground from time to time but did you know that they can be huge? Dust devils can be as large as 30 meters wide and 1000 meters tall!  Usually, a dust devil is like a waterspout in that it looks a lot scarier than it actually is. Most cause no damage at all but that is not to say they are not capable of some damage.

A dust devil forms when hot surface air rises rapidly and converges with the cooler air above. This action forms an updraft that can gather dust and debris from the surface. Sometimes this updraft results in the air beginning to rotate

The best thing to do is just stay out of their way and if you experience a lot of dust, cover your mouth with a respirator or dust mask. Goggles will prevent dust from getting in your eyes. Of course, a lot of dust stirred up can lead to a lot of debris coating buildings and vehicles.

Big dust devils can reach wind speeds of 60 mph which is enough to throw things around so they are something to be aware of. It is just really rare for a large one to form and then rarer for it to occur where there is a lot to destroy or damage.

Weather is fascinating and one of the major reasons why everyone should be prepared. Out of all the disasters and emergencies that can happen, it is weather-related events that are among the most common.  Some weather can happen very fast so it is important to be ready to act as quickly as possible. Preparing now increases your odds of coming through a situation and it can make a huge difference in your comfort level while dealing with disaster.

Have you experienced a tornado? What did you do to get through the situation? I have not been in a tornado myself so if I missed something or make a mistake in this post, please let me know in the comments!

Samantha Biggers can be reached at [email protected]

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2 Responses to “Tornadoes, Downbursts, Water Spouts, and Dust Devils Oh My!”

  1. In Australia we get fires, such as black Saturday, Ash Wednesday etc. We also get intensely long droughts, and flooding rain like you wouldn’t believe. Queensland gets it cyclone season, some of whom can be pretty powerful. Western Australia also gets its cyclone season as well

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