Q: I’m considering a move to Texas from the Northwest and was surprised to learn that most homes there don’t have basements. Your column on the subject persuaded me that they aren’t necessary for storage or youthful socializing, but what about tornadoes? How concerned should I be about tornado risk, and how can Texans stay safe in the event of a tornado?

Michele Dunn

A: Now, here’s a timely question. While tornadoes can touch down in Texas year-round, March through June is generally designated tornado season around here, which is—the Texanist checks his handy wall calendar—precisely where we find ourselves now. Just a week ago, in fact, tornadoes damaged homes and businesses in at least two Texas cities. In Port Arthur, a twister destroyed a Baptist church, while in Katy, a Firestone auto shop and a sports bar suffered serious damage. Thankfully, no one was seriously injured, though one man told the Houston Chronicle that the Katy storm briefly lifted his car into the air while he was inside. “I thought, ‘Okay, this is how I’m going to die,’ ” he said. 

All of which is to say: the Texanist understands why a would-be Texas transplant might be concerned. It’s no secret that the weather here is notoriously volatile. As the Texanist was writing this column from his Austin office, for example, the high on Thursday was a steamy 91 degrees; then thunderstorms were expected to roll in that evening, with a chance of hail and dangerously high winds; and then a strong cold front will send temperatures plummeting to a chilly 53 come Sunday morning. This kind of whiplash can be hard to keep up with, let alone dress for.

Why does our weather change so much and so suddenly? Texas is positioned between the warm tropics and colder, more northerly climes, so the moist and warm air that is pushed up from the Gulf of Mexico competes with cooler and drier air that drops down from Canada and the Rocky Mountains. The effect is fairly frequent instability in the air masses above us, which translates to unpredictable weather. And such weather sometimes involves violent thunderstorms, hail of all shapes and sizes, flash flooding, and tornadoes.

In fact, Texas typically sees more tornadoes than any other U.S. state: 137 a year on average, according to the National Weather Service. And the twisters that touch down here can be very destructive doozies. The top ten dooziest, from the Waco Tornado of 1953 to the Jarrell Tornado of 1997, have, in fact, going back to 1900, taken the lives of some 580 Texans and left more than 3,400 others injured. Additionally, these storms destroyed thousands of homes and buildings, caused the loss of hundreds of cattle and livestock, and damaged too many cars and trucks to count. And that’s not to mention the many hundreds of smaller storms that have caused lesser damage over the same time frame. 

So, in Texas it’s a given that there will be tornadoes. Thus, one should always carry at least a little concern. But at the same time, one need not be overly concerned. Troy Kimmel, a longtime fixture of the Texas meteorology scene who is in his thirty-sixth year of teaching in the department of geography and environment at the University of Texas at Austin, explained to the Texanist that while the threat posed by tornadic activity is indeed real, it’s not something to be afraid of—as long as you are prepared. 

“While the state of Texas is prone to tornadoes, and we’ve had some bad ones,” Kimmel said, “they have been, over time, relatively few and mostly far between.” The risk appears to be highest in the Houston area and in North Texas: Harris County has had 247 tornadoes since 1950, followed by Tarrant County (110 tornadoes), Dallas County (108), Bexar County (71), and Travis County (70).

Kimmel also made an interesting comparison with the region where you, Ms. Dunn, are living now, noting that the Northwest has earthquakes and wildfires. If you’re looking to move to the least tornado-y part of Texas, West and southwest Texas see the fewest twisters—but severe heat and drought are still concerns (as they are across most of our state). The gist? Nowhere’s perfect, so pick your poison.  

Instead of freaking out, the Texanist would simply recommend keeping tabs on the weather, which is pretty easy because it’s a popular topic of conversation in Texas. Whether a person finds him- or herself at the post office, the grocery store, the doctor’s office, a restaurant, a church, a bar, the hardware store, the pet groomer, a taco truck, the barbershop, the library, the park, the office, or just about anywhere at all, folks are always talking about the weather. Plus, detailed forecasts are now available at the touch of a finger. We’re talking weather alerts, Doppler and NEXRAD radar, anemometers (wind speed), barometers (atmospheric pressure), ceilometers (cloud-ceiling height), disdrometers (drop-size distribution), hygrometers (humidity), pyranometers (solar radiation), thermometers (you know), transmissometers (visibility), and wind socks.

On top of those useful tools, the Texanist also likes to employ his own eyeballs. Classic funnel clouds are not always visible, but with or without them, when the outdoors show the telltale signs of tornadic activity—dark skies with a greenish hue; large, dark, low-lying clouds; large hail; and loud, freight train–like roars—that’s when you know it’s time to head indoors. And by “indoors,” the Texanist means a solid shelter. In lieu of a basement or storm cellar, the experts recommend an interior room on the lowest level that doesn’t have windows. Closets, bathrooms, and crawl spaces under stairways usually fit the bill.

But if such shelter is unavailable—say, you’re caught off guard while in your car, as was that guy in Katy—the same experts recommend hunkering down (lying flat and covering your head) in the lowest spot you can find, such as a ditch. Mobile homes; buildings with large roof spans, like big-box stores and theaters; and automobiles are not recommended. Neither is seeking refuge under an overpass, which can expose you to increased wind velocity and dangerous flying debris. 

And while basements are themselves few and far between in Texas, there are options for those looking to level up their shelter game. Private companies will construct all manner of shelters for clients, and the Texas Division of Emergency Management offers a program that helps fund individual and community tornado shelters. 

In summary, when it comes to living in a tornado-prone part of the country, the Texanist will issue this advisory: simply maintain a normal—by Texas standards—degree of concern and then add to that equal amounts of awareness and preparedness. And then keep your fingers crossed, because a little good luck won’t hurt, either.