Tornadoes and Windstorms

A tornado is a violent whirling wind characteristically accompanied by a funnel shaped cloud extending down from a cumulonimbus cloud that progress in a narrow, erratic path. Rotating wind speeds can exceed 300 mph and travel across the ground at average speeds of 25-30 mph. A tornado can be a few yards to about a mile wide where it touches the ground, however, an average tornado, is a few hundred yards wide. It can move over land for distances ranging from short Source: NOAA

hops to many miles, causing great damage wherever it descends. The funnel is made visible by the dust sucked up and condensation of water droplets in the center of the funnel. 

High winds can result from thunderstorms inflow and outflow, or downburst winds when the storm cloud collapses, and can result from strong frontal systems, or gradient winds (high or low pressure systems) moving across the region.  High winds are defined as speeds exceeding 64 knots (73 mph) or greater, either sustaining or gusting.

Downdraft winds are from strong thunderstorm downburst which causes damaging winds on or near ground, and can extend to as little as 2 ½ miles or extend over a hundred miles.  Downdraft wind speeds can be from 80 mph up to 168 mph, and occur quite suddenly as a thunderstorm cloud collapses.  This is different from the winds associated with tornadoes.  Winds associated with storms are convective.  Non-convective winds are caused by fronts or gradient winds.  These speeds can range from light breezes to sustained speeds of 80 to 100 mph.  It is often difficult to separate windstorms and tornado damage when winds get above 64 knots.

Generally the destructive path of a tornado is only a couple hundred feet in width, but stronger tornadoes can leave a path of devastation up to a mile wide. Normally a tornado will stay on the ground for no more than 20 minutes; however, one tornado can touch ground several times in different areas.  Unlike tornadoes, windstorms may have a destructive path that is tens of miles wide and several hundred miles long.

In Iowa most tornadoes occur in the spring and summer months, but twisters can and have occurred in every month of the year. Late afternoon to evening hour tornadoes are the most common, but they can occur at any time of the day.  Iowa has had 1404 tornado events from 1983-2008. The largest single event took place on April 11, 2001 with 28 tornadoes. Our biggest year was 2004 with 120 tornadoes. From 1983-2008, seven Presidential Declarations of Major Disaster have been declared in Iowa that were related to tornadoes out of 1964 total events.

Between 1950 and 2008 Linn County experienced 55 tornadic events which resulted in twenty three injuries and thirty two million dollars in property damage.  During the same time period there were 23 high wind events in Linn County which resulted in almost $2 million dollars in property damage.

Those most at risk from tornadoes and windstorms include people living in mobile homes, campgrounds, and other dwellings without secure foundations or basements.  People in automobiles are also very vulnerable to twisters. The elderly, very young, and the physically and mentally handicapped are most vulnerable because of the lack of mobility to escape the path of destruction. People who may not understand watches and warnings due to language barriers are also at risk.

Enhanced Fujita Scale Explanation

The E/F-scale was unveiled by the NWS to the public and the full meteorological community early in 2006. On 1 February 2007, the Enhanced Fujita scale replaced the original Fujita scale in all tornado damage surveys in the United States. It is important to note that, despite the improvements, the E/F-scale still remains a set of wind estimates based on 8 levels of damage to 28 different types of structures and vegetation. 

Below is a table comparing the estimated winds in the original F-scale and the operational E/F-scale that is currently in use by the NWS. 


The Enhanced Fujita Tornado Scale 

Enhanced Fujita Parameters

The six categories for the EF Scale are listed below, in order of increasing intensity. Although the wind speeds and photographic damage examples are updated, the damage descriptions given are those from the Fujita scale, which are more or less still accurate. However, for the actual EF scale in practice, one must look up the damage indicator (the type of structure which has been damaged) and consult the degrees of damage associated for that particular indicator. 

U.S. Wind Zone Map

The wind zone map below shows how the frequency and strength of extreme windstorms vary across the United States.  This map is based on 40 years of tornado history.  Zone IV, the darkest area on the map, has experienced both the greatest number of tornadoes and the strongest tornadoes.  As shown by the map key, wind speeds in Zone IV can be as high as 250 mph.  The tornado hazard in Zone III, while not as great as in Zone IV, is still significant.  In addition Zone III includes coastal areas susceptible to hurricanes.

Source: FEMA

© 2009 Linn County EMA


Tornado Watch

Conditions are favorable for the development of severe thunderstorms producing tornadoes in and close to the watch area in the next 12 hours.

Tornado Warning

Radar or satellite indication and/or reliable spotter reports of a tornado.

High Wind Watch

Conditions are favorable for high winds in and close to the watch area in the next 12 to 48 hours.

High Wind Warning

Sustained winds ≥ 40 mph for at least 2hours or any gust ≥ 58 mph. 

Tornado and Windstorm Safety Tips

Listen to NOAA Weather Radio or to commercial radio or television newscasts for the latest information

Look for approaching storms

Look for the following danger signs:

--Dark, often greenish sky

--Large Hail

--A large, dark, low lying cloud (particularly if it is rotating)

--Loud roar, similar to a freight train


Source: NOAA

Shelter Options:

In a structure go to a predesignated shelter area such as a safe room, basement, storm cellar, or the lowest building level.  If there is no basement, go to the center of an interior room on the lowest level, away from corners, windows, doors, or outside walls.  Put as many walls as possible between you and the outside.  

In a vehicle, trailer, or mobile home--GET OUT IMMEDIATELY and go to the lowest floor of a sturdy, nearby building or a storm shelter.  Mobile homes, even if tied down, offer little protection from tornadoes.

If caught outside lie flat in a nearby ditch or depression and cover your head with your hands.   Do NOT get under an overpass or bridge, you are safer in  low flat location.  Watch out for flying debris, this is the biggest cause of fatalities and injuries.

Source: FEMA

Notification Methods:

Outdoor Warning System

An alert warning signal is a 3 to 5 minute steady siren.  This a warning to take shelter and turn on your radio or television and listen for emergency information.

Indoor Warning System

NOAA Weather Radio is an invaluable tool to alert your family of impending weather.

All schools and radio and TV stations in Linn County have an 800 MHz radio system to alert them of disasters.

Nursing homes, care facilities, and other public facilities have a plectron radio receiver to alert them of disasters.

The 800 MHz and plectron radio systems are activated by the Linn County Sheriff's Office or the Emergency Management Agency.


Source: NOAA

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Linn County Emergency Management Agency, 6301 Kirkwood Blvd. S.W., Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52404