On the evening of July 8, 2009, Dickinson’s southside was struck by an EF3 tornado. The destruction left behind was immense, but by some miracle, no one was killed or seriously injured.

In 2020, Stark County has had multiple tornado watches and warnings, and at least one tornado make landfall. Although tornadoes can occur at any time of the year, they're most likely to occur in our area during the hot summer months according to weather service experts.

Bill Abeling, meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Bismarck, detailed how residents can keep their families safe by knowing the facts and making preparations.

Tornadoes are destructive, rotating columns of air capable of producing wind speeds up to 300 mph and are most often produced from supercell thunderstorms.

A tornado watch is issued when the weather service sees that conditions are favorable for tornado formation.

"In other words, many thunderstorms occur, but only a few produce tornadoes, so when the conditions are around that a tornado formation is more likely, then a tornado watch is issued. It doesn't mean that a tornado is occurring," Abeling said.

When the weather service issues a tornado warning, however, it means that they believe a tornado is occurring.

"We have a radar-based tornado warning where we've identified what we think is a tornado on radar, and then there's the observation where we've actually had somebody call in. Either one of those we could use to produce a tornado warning," he said.

Finding a safe place

In the event that a tornado watch is issued in your area, you should determine a safe place to go to should a tornado warning be issued. If a warning is issued, go to that safe place, and take your cell phone.

"We would want to go to an interior room on the lowest level of your structure to be safe from a tornado. The smaller the room the better ... for example, perhaps a bathroom or something like that in the lower levels of your house ... away from windows," Abeling said.

What if you aren't home or in a building? If you're camping when a tornado warning is issued, you should evacuate your tent or camper.

"If I'm going to be in a camper, I want to get out of the camper because that's the worst place to be if a tornado strikes," Abeling said. "They have very poor protection. You'd want to go to a safe tornado shelter at a camp site, perhaps a bathroom or something like that."

If you're on the road and there aren't any buildings near you, finding a safe place can be a bit harder.

"Cars are not a safe place to be in tornadoes. It seems like they would allow you the ability to escape, but oftentimes, if you get into a traffic jam or you can't move, a tornado can very easily life a car up ... We've had instances where a tornado has crossed the interstate and that has caused death in cars," Abeling said.

Instead, he said to pull over and look for a low spot like a ditch.

"You would be a little bit safer in a low spot than in a vehicle that got hit by the tornado. Sometimes it's very difficult to find a safe shelter along an interstate. That can be a challenge," Abeling said.

Do not hide from a tornado in an underpass or overpass, he warned.

"It turns out that underpasses are not a safe place to be because there's what one would call a venturi effect. In other words, the wind gets blown through the underpass. It can actually create a very small, higher level wind speed through that underpass, and people can get sucked out of it, so it's actually not a safe place to be," Abeling said.

However, if the tornado is moving in the opposite direction, keep driving.

Spotting a tornado

Some tornadoes can be seen by the observer on the ground while others cannot.

"Some tornadoes form from an individual, large thunderstorm cell, in which case, sometimes those can be viewed from a long distance. In that case, people will see it, and they can judge the direction the tornado is moving fairly easily, but that's not always the case," Abeling said. "Sometimes tornadoes are rain-wrapped. A thunderstorm with very heavy rain, and you can't see the tornado because of the rain wrapping. In which case, you pretty much have to depend on the tornado warning in your area to identify and say where the tornado was located and the direction it was moving based on radar."

Many of the signs that people look for, such as large hail, don't necessarily mean a tornado is imminent, but that the storm producing the large hail is capable of producing a tornado.

Where and when tornadoes occur

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, tornadoes can and have occurred in all 50 U.S. states, although some areas are more prone to them than others.

"Tornados can occur anywhere in the plain states from the Gulf Coast all the way up into Canada and generally east of the Rocky Mountains, although you can also get tornadoes in the Great Basin area in Idaho and in parts of eastern Washington," Abeling said. "It's not a high incidence, but it can occur west of the Rockies, as well. The peak area of tornado genesis is the southern plains states - parts of Texas up into Oklahoma and parts of Kansas."

As you get further north, he said, the rate of tornadoes decreases.

"Our area does get it's share of tornadoes, and it's not unusual for us to have 10-15 tornadoes across the state in a particular year ... but it's not a high incidence area," Abeling said.

Tornado season is differs depending on the part of the country in which you live, although tornadoes can happen at any time of year.

"The peak 'tornado season' for the southern Plains (e.g., Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas) is from May into early June. On the Gulf coast, it is earlier in the spring. In the northern Plains and upper Midwest (North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota), tornado season is in June or July," NOAA's website states.

Tornadoes typically occur between 4-9 p.m. but can happen at any time.