Severe weather awareness: What do severe weather risk categories mean?

Having a plan today can save precious seconds when damaging storms approach.

Severe weather risk categories
NWS Storm Prediction Center

How far ahead do you think about severe weather risk? Let’s be candid, many wait until the sirens blow.

Sometimes even the wail of sirens is not enough to get people to act.

Joplin, MO tornado damage in 2011

A study after the massive Joplin tornado in 2011 shows that people ignored multiple warnings signals that a tornado was approaching. Some barely escaped with their lives.

In one example, a man basically ignored the warning information he received from multiple sources.

1. Heard first sirens at 511 pm CDT (estimated 30-35 minutes before tornado hit).

2. Went to the TV and heard NWR warning from TV override that indicated tornado near airport drive 7 miles north (polygon #30) of his location.

3. Went on porch with family and had a cigar. Looked like a regular thunderstorm.

4. Heard second sirens (estimated 27 minutes later).

5. Thought something wasn't right so went inside and turned local TV stations on.

6. Saw on TV several colored counties for tornado warnings, but regular programming was still on and thought the threat was still to the north.

7. Heard his wife yell ―basement,‖ grabbed the cat and told son to put his shoes on.

8. Tornado hit as they reached the top of the basement stairs, destroying their home.

Three-step process

Here’s an effective way to think about situational awareness leading up to severe weather events. It usually begins the day before the threat with the severe weather outlook from NOAA’s Storm Prediction Center.

Here’s an example of a past risk zone.

Severe weather risk areas
Severe weather risk areas
NOAA Storm Prediction Center

Day before

If you know you’re in an area with a severe weather risk, begin to plan for the following day. Where will you be? Where will your family be? make sure they all know the risk is there.

Here is another look at what the various risk categories mean.

Severe weather risk categories
NWS Storm Prediction Center

Day of

Montior TV and radio and NOAA outlets for the issuance of severe weather watches. When a watch is issued, that’s the time to make sure family, employees, and others know what’s happening and where to seek shelter if warnings are issued. Be ready to take action. Know where you will go beforehand.

Warnings issued

Once severe weather warnings are issued, or if severe weather develops before a warning that’s when it’s time to take protective action. Know your safe place.

Seconds can save your life and the lives of your loved ones.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.