Guide to Tornado Preparedness in Fairfax County

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tornado clouds


Would you know what to do if you were in an area under a tornado warning, such as last year's real incident from Centreville to McLean that impacted 300,000+ residents and resulted in two tornadoes?


This guide to tornado preparedness outlines what to do when Fairfax County is under a tornado watch or warning in the future.



⚠️ TORNADO WATCH = BE PREPARED because a tornado is possible.

If there is a tornado watch:

  • STAY INFORMED: Pay attention to our text/email alert system , media outlets and credible social media channels for any warnings.
  • SECURE OUTDOOR ITEMS: Secure or bring inside any outdoor objects that could blow away or become “missiles” and cause damage.
  • CONSIDER YOUR LOCATION: Think about where you might be for the duration of a tornado watch – at home, in a restaurant, outdoors, at work or in the car. You may only have a few seconds to react if a tornado warning is issued.
  • ENSURE WIRELESS ALERTS: Check to see if your smartphone is set to receive Wireless Emergency Alerts (see more info below).



🚨 TORNADO WARNING = SEEK SHELTER because a tornado is imminent or already occurring.

What are some signs of a developing tornado (in case you're not sure or don’t have access to a weather radio, social media or traditional media outlets):

  • Dark, often greenish sky
  • Large hail
  • A large, dark, low-lying cloud (particularly if rotating)
  • Loud roar, similar to a freight train

If you see any of the danger signs, take shelter immediately.

Note: there are no tornado sirens in Fairfax County. See the sections below on Wireless Emergency Alerts and weather radios for ways to stay informed.



Watch this quick video about seeking shelter in different locations.



If you are under a tornado warning:

  • SEEK SHELTER, PREFERABLY IN A BASEMENT: Shelter immediately in the nearest substantial building and go to the building’s basement.
  • GO TO WINDOWLESS, INTERIOR ROOM: If there is no basement, move to a small, windowless, interior room such as a closet, bathroom or interior hall on the lowest level of the building.
  • IN A HIGH RISE BUILDING: If you are in a high-rise building (such as in Tysons or Reston), go to an interior room or hallway on the lowest floor possible.
  • IF OUTSIDE, LAY DOWN: When shelter is not available, lie flat in a ditch or other low-lying area (do not get under a road overpass or bridge).

know where to go when sheltering from a tornado

sheltering options



Imagine this: You’re driving, humming along to your favorite tunes, when your phone suddenly makes a loud noise. You pull over to check the screen. Good thing you did: Your phone just alerted you to a tornado up ahead.

Imagine this: You’re sleeping when your phone jolts you awake with a loud alert that allows you to get your and your family into the basement while a tornado is heading your way momentarily. The nighttime hours are particularly dangerous for tornadoes because most people are sleeping, and it can be nearly impossible to see an approaching tornado.

wireless emergency alert sent in fairfax county

Keep Wireless Emergency Alerts enabled on your phone so you will be alerted if you’re in the path of a tornado. The National Weather Service will send an alert to your phone based on your location.


Watch this short video about Wireless Emergency Alerts:


There’s a myth that tornadoes really don’t happen here.

While tornadoes are most common in the central and southeastern parts of the country, Virginia has seen its fair share of twisters. In fact over the last decade, Virginia has averaged 24 tornadoes per year. With climate projections indicating more frequent severe weather on the horizon, it’s critical that we think more about our tornado preparedness efforts.

In March 2017, two tornadoes touched down in the Hampton Roads region, including an EF-2 tornado with winds exceeding 120 mph. The tornado was on the ground for eight miles in the cities of Virginia Beach and Chesapeake damaging more than 200 homes.

Since 1972, Fairfax County has experienced 20 tornadoes, including touchdowns in:

  • Tysons in 2022
  • Centreville in 2022
  • Reston in 2019
  • Lincolnia in 2018
  • Herndon in 2017
  • Belle Haven in 2014



You can sign up for our Fairfax Alerts, which will provide weather updates via email and text, or even with a phone call, based on your settings. Fairfax Alerts also feature location-specific updates you can receive based on the addresses you provide.



Do you have smoke alarms in your home? These are helpful, of course, because they alert you when there’s smoke.

NOAA weather radios are like smoke alarms for weather dangers. They can be on standby 24 hours a day, especially at night to wake you up in case of emergency such as a tornado warning.

Weather radios range from about $20-$100 and have varying options. Try to buy one that use S.A.M.E. codes, which allow you to pre-program the weather radio to a specific county or city. Fairfax County’s S.A.M.E. code is 051059. Know that weather radios only provide alerts at a county level.



To help plan for tornadoes and other potential incidents, use the Community Emergency Response Guide, which includes templates to help you with a:

  • Family Preparedness Plan
  • Business Preparedness Plan
  • Neighborhood Preparedness Plan



View and share tornado preparedness information in other languages:



We’ve been planning for tornadoes for years. In fact, 10 years ago, we held an emergency exercise that simulated the impact of a tornado moving through the county. We invite you to take a deeper dive into that exercise and read about some of the “fake” impacts that need to be considered.

Read, discuss and then take necessary preparedness actions so our whole community is better prepared:

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