6 Steps for Creating a Tornado Preparedness Plan

Jennifer Post


March 12, 2024

Tornado touching down on a two lane road

Tornado season in the U.S. officially runs from March through June, and AccuWeather is predicting an above-average season with 1,250 to 1,375 tornadoes in 2024. High winds, hail and heavy downpours during and after a tornado can cause widespread devastation—according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), tornadoes killed 36 people and caused $1.2 billion in property damage in 2023.

Although 70% of tornadoes occur during peak tornado season, many areas are seeing an increase in tornado activity outside of that timeframe. NOAA recorded almost 100 preliminary tornado reports in the U.S. in January and February. Experts also anticipate “tornado alley”—the central plains east of the Rocky Mountains and west of the Appalachians—will expand, meaning a wider range of businesses will need to prepare for the potential threat moving forward.

As the 2024 tornado season begins, businesses should create or revisit their disaster preparedness measures for tornado risks. “Businesses can best prepare for tornadoes by developing a written pre-emergency plan and practicing it on a routine basis,” said Jim Gustin, property technical director of risk control at Travelers. The steps below can help create or strengthen your organization’s tornado preparedness plan.

1. Identify a Safe Shelter Space

Before tornadoes strike, assess the building’s construction, security and protection systems, especially in areas that may serve as a shelter. Basements or storm cellars provide the best protection from a tornado, according to Gustin and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), because they are underground, usually do not have windows and are protected by the building’s foundation. If those places are unavailable, Gustin recommended seeking an interior room away from exterior doors and windows. OSHA recommends avoiding certain spaces like auditoriums and cafeterias because large open areas provide no barriers between employees and airborne objects or debris. Employees should also stay away from any area of the building with flat, wide-span roofs because that roof type is not very wind-resistant and high winds can cause them to collapse or blow off.

Once organizations select shelter areas, they should identify these to employees and provide written guidance or signage about the most efficient routes to take in an emergency.

2. Build an Emergency Preparedness Kit

Every organization should have an emergency preparedness kit and regularly check these supplies to verify expiration dates, check for damaged packaging and restock items as needed. The written emergency response plan should include the kit’s location, a list of the items in it and the names of individuals responsible for maintaining and replenishing the supplies. The following items are a good starting point for your kit as they are helpful in any emergency, including tornadoes:

  • A first aid kit stocked with bandages, antiseptics, pain relievers, face masks and eye protection
  • Bottled water
  • Non-perishable food
  • A weather radio for regular updates
  • A whistle to signal emergency responders
  • A flashlight
  • Extra batteries

3. Outline a Communication Plan

It is crucial to establish a chain of command to be followed in the event of an emergency. Assign roles and responsibilities to specific team members and make sure everyone knows who is doing what. Organization leaders should actively and consistently communicate the plan with all employees and allow them to provide input, ask questions and express concerns.

Organizations should also have plans in place to stay in touch with employees and keep them updated during an emergency. Inform employees when there is a tornado watch and when meteorologists upgrade it to a warning. According to NOAA, tornado watches issued by the Storm Prediction Center can cover parts of a state or several states and are intended to signal those affected to prepare for a potential tornado. Issued by local National Weather Service Forecast Offices, tornado warnings mean a tornado has been reported and serve as a signal to get to safety immediately.

While electricity is still working, use a workplace-wide announcement system. If there is a power outage, switch to two-way radios to stay in touch with workers on-site. Additionally, make sure employees can get in touch with their families. Phone service may be spotty or non-existent during and after a tornado, so consider encouraging employees to contact family members periodically during the various threat stages.

4. Conduct Tornado Safety Training

Whether you bring an expert in for company-wide tornado safety training or use online resources, employees should know how to protect themselves against the specific risks tornadoes present. According to Gustin, employees should learn how to crouch under or behind sturdy or heavy objects, such as pieces of furniture, and to cover vital body parts. Safety training should also address objects and areas to avoid, such as windows and large open spaces. Ensure employees always have access to the safety training resources and keep related documents in an easily accessible place. 

5. Safeguard Vital Business Information

Gustin advised keeping essential documents in a safe place to be readily accessible following a tornado event. Since tornadoes can destroy an office building, it is good practice to have electronic versions of important paper documents backed up to the cloud so employees can access them anywhere. If your business deals in physical inventory, knowing what is damaged or missing will also help during the insurance claims process.

6. Practice, Practice, Practice

As with any emergency response, practice is the key to preparedness. “You need to practice these steps, conducting routine drills to make sure employees understand and can execute that plan in the event of an emergency,” Gustin said.

Whether you regularly schedule time to practice the plan or conduct surprise drills, employees should always have experience with response procedures before an actual disaster strikes. “The average lead time once a tornado warning is issued is only 13 minutes, [so] it is a good idea to make sure you prepare in advance as much as possible,” Gustin said. In the event of personnel changes, update the plan accordingly and practice it as soon as possible.

Jennifer Post is an editor at Risk Management.