Late winter to early summer marks tornado season in the United States, which is home to more tornadoes than any other country in the world. If you live in Tornado Alley — a patch of Middle America that includes Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, and parts of Colorado, South Dakota and Minnesota — or in Florida, you're likely to experience one of these cyclones firsthand, although technically tornadoes can happen anywhere. Here's what to do before, during and after a twister.

Making a plan

  • An emergency kit is something everyone should have on hand, no matter your locale or the natural disasters your area is vulnerable to. The Federal Emergency Management Agency's Ready.gov can help you build one — with food, water, and essential supplies for 72 hours — fairly easily, as well as teach you where to store it and how to update it. If the idea of making your own kit is too daunting, you can buy an emergency preparedness kit put together by the American Red Cross.
  • Unlike hurricanes, tornadoes can strike quickly with little or no warning, so have a shelter plan in place. If you live in an area where tornado threats occur, make sure you have a safe area in your basement, garage or interior of the first floor that can withstand high winds and keep you safe in an emergency.
  • Listen to the radio, particularly NOAA Weather Radio, or to TV newscasts for local threats.
  • Know the difference between a tornado watch and a tornado warning. "Watch" means that a tornado is possible and that you should stay alert, while "warning" indicates a more imminent danger, meaning you should find appropriate shelter immediately.
  • At the very least, keep your eyes (and ears) on the sky. Ready.gov provides these tornado warning signs: a dark sky, low-lying dark clouds (not just the obvious funnel clouds), large hail and a train-like roar.

Weathering the storm

  • Flying debris causes most of the injuries that occur during a tornado, so protect your head and aim to get inside a low, flat, sturdy shelter, like a safe room, basement or storm cellar. At the very least, find an interior room on the lowest floor. "Put as many walls as possible between you and the outside," says FEMA.
  • If you're outside, try to get into a vehicle and put on a seat belt. If you can't drive to a safe shelter, at least stay away from overpasses and bridges, and stay in the car with your head down and covered.

Dealing with the aftermath

  • Put on sturdy shoes and gloves before you inspect anything, and be wary of broken glass, exposed nails, and other potential hazards.
  • A study cited on Ready.gov states that about half of tornado-related injuries happened after the storm, during rescue attempts and clean-up, or when people try to enter unsafe buildings. Keep that in mind as you get ready to survey any potential damage.
  • Stay tuned in to local news by using a battery-powered radio or television.
  • Inspect your home using a flashlight, not a candle, and take pictures of any damage for insurance purposes.
  • Wait to drink tap water or use it for preparing food until you're sure it's not contaminated.
  • FEMA warns never to use a generator indoors, because deadly levels of carbon monoxide can build up quickly in small spaces and remain dangerous for hours.
  • If you're dealing with a major issue — if you're separated from your family or unable to go home, for example — contact the Red Cross at 1-800-RED-CROSS (1-800-733-2767).

For more tips on tornado preparedness, visit Ready.gov.