Is there a tornado threat in Washington?

While not as common as east of the Rockies, tornadoes do occur in Washington state. Washington averages between two to three tornadoes per year. Tornadoes can occur any time of year in Washington but most commonly occur in April, May and June.

A tornado is a violently rotating column of air extending from the base of a cloud to the ground.

A severe storm with high wind may suddenly start to swirl — and a tornado may occur here without even a tornado warning or a tornado watch issued first.

Tornadoes in Washington state can suddenly happen and then stop. Due to our area's landscape, they usually don't last very long and may not even receive an official "tornado EF designation" until long after the storm is over.

Survivors of tornadoes have often started hearing a loud roaring sound with tornadoes. Also, if you are receiving golf ball hail or larger, you are near the most dangerous part of a severe storm which could be followed by a tornado. If you see rotating debris even without the existence of a funnel cloud, it could be a dangerous twister.

So, what should you do?

DUCK

  • Down to the lowest level
  • Under something sturdy
  • Cover your head
  • Keep in the shelter until the storm has passed

IN HOMES OR SMALL BUILDINGS

Go to the basement (if available) or to an interior room on the lowest floor, such as a closet or bathroom. Upper floors are unsafe. If there is no time to descend, go to a closet, a small room with strong walls, or an inside hallway. Wrap yourself in overcoats or blankets to protect yourself from flying debris.

IN SCHOOLS, HOSPITALS, FACTORIES OR SHOPPING CENTERS

Go to interior rooms and halls on the lowest floor. Stay away from glass enclosed places or areas with wide-span roofs such as auditoriums and warehouses. Crouch down and cover your head. Don't take shelter in halls that open to the south or the west. Centrally-located stairwells are good shelter.

IN HIGH-RISE BUILDINGS

Go to interior small rooms or halls. Stay away from exterior walls or areas containing glass.

IN CARS OR MOBILE HOMES

Abandon them immediately! Most deaths occur in care and mobile homes. If you are in either of those locations, leave them and go to a substantial structure or designated tornado shelter.

IF NO SUITABLE STRUCTURE IS NEARBY

Lie flat in the nearest ditch or depression and use your hands to cover your head. Be alert for flash floods.

DURING A TORNADO

Absolutely avoid buildings with large free-span roofs. Stay away from exterior walls. Remember, find the lowest level, smallest room or center part of a building of home. 

A NOAA Weather Radio may be helpful. But, in Washington state due to the short duration of our tornadoes, a watch or a warning may not actually get sounded in a timely manner.

Tornado Watches are issued by the National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center. Tornado Watches are issued when conditions are favorable for either multiple tornadoes or a single intense tornado. These conditions are very rare to have in Washington state, especially Western Washington. The chances are slightly higher that Eastern Washington could have a Tornado Watch.

If you were not affected, avoid the damaged areas until authorities say the area is safe. If you are in the affected area, check for injuries, be careful near damaged buildings and stay clear of fallen or broken power and utility lines. 

Remember, the actions you take during a tornado event may save your life and the lives of your family.

Challenge of detecting tornadoes

The Midwest has flat terrain and a whole lot of weather-detecting radars. As a result, there's better radar coverage in the lowest levels of storms (where tornadoes originate). This area of the country also has access to more heat and humidity, two essential elements in the creation of a tornado. The National Severe Storms Laboratory is a great place to learn more.

In Washington state, a tornado could form without a watch or warning ever being issues. This is because our terrain is more challenging for tornadoes to form and there's not as many weather-detecting radars. 

Meteorologists looking at radar would not typically see the actual tornado, itself, but rather the rotating updraft of a thunderstorm.

The brief, relatively weak, and shallow tornadoes in WA are more difficult to detect because:

  • They may be so brief that they occur between radar scans or only within a single radar scan.
  • The storm may occur far from the radar such that the beam is not sampling the lowest portion of the storm from which the tornado is originating.
  • Landspout tornadoes (which are probably the most common variety in WA) don't have a rotating updraft and therefore may not be detected at all if the storm is sufficiently far from the radar.
  • Terrain can also block radar beams (this is mainly an issue in the mountains)
  • Nearly all our tornadoes are relatively weak, making them difficult to discern between a rotating storm and a storm that could generate a tornado.

Case studies

In the early afternoon hours of Dec. 18, 2018, a tornado touched down in South Kitsap County. Dozens of homes were either destroyed or badly damaged, along with a number of Port Orchard businesses. While the damage to property was substantial, the miracle was there were no fatalities or serious injuries to people living and working in the impacted area.

The tornado was rated an EF2 with speeds of 120-130 mph and arrived without any warning at all. 

The tornado caused $1.81 million in collective damage in Port Orchard. A federal survey showed 12 homes and 16 businesses sustained major damage and 40 homes and three businesses sustained minor damage.

Three years later, in 2021, the National Weather Service issued a Tornado Warning with a wireless emergency alert to residents in Kitsap County because they did have enough evidence that a tornado might be on the way. Luckily, a funnel did not emerge -- but it does show how hard it is to predict tornadoes.

The deadliest tornado to strike in our state occurred in Vancouver, Washington on April 18, 1972 killing six people and injuring 300 people. No watch or warning was issued.

About fifty homes were destroyed as well as an entire elementary school, a bowling alley, lumber store and many other businesses with property loss at the time in excess of $6 million. The tornado was ranked an F3, per this HistoryLink story

Clark County has had other encounters with tornadoes, including in 2008 when dozens of homes and businesses were damaged, but amazingly no one was hurt. There was even a tornado warning issued in 2023 with pictures taken of one beginning to form, but apparently not landing on the ground.

Waterspouts

In addition to tornadoes, our state also faces the challenge of waterspouts. Waterspouts are similar to tornadoes, except occur over water. 

They have the same characteristics as a land tornado. They are associated with severe thunderstorms, and are often accompanied by high winds and seas, large hail and frequent dangerous lightning.

A waterspout can also move back and forth from water to land and become a tornado.

Make sure your boat comes equipped with NOAA Weather Radios. In addition to waterspouts, this can he be helpful for severe storms and even tsunamis. There might be a special marine warning about waterspout sightings that are broadcast on NOAA Weather Radio.

If a waterspout is sighted, immediately head at a 90 degree angle from the apparent motion of the waterspout.

Never try to navigate through a waterspout. Although waterspouts are usually weaker than tornadoes, they can still produce significant damage to you and your boat.

Resources

Ready.Gov

Tornadoes 101

National Weather Service

The Enhanced Fujita Scale