10 tornado safety tips

Thu Aug 31 2023

A yellow house with a gable roof with a darkening, cloudy sky in the background

One reason tornadoes are so dangerous is that there’s no “tornado season.” They may be more common in the spring, but they can occur at any time of year and in places far removed from Tornado Alley. Moreover, they develop quickly and behave erratically, leaving little time for people to react and take shelter.

Knowing what to do before a tornado hits can save you precious time. Here are 10 tips to show you and your family how to stay safe during a tornado.

1. Pay attention to warnings

The most important tornado safety tip is to stay alert when bad weather moves through your area. That includes tuning in to weather reports, staying alert when there is a tornado watch, and immediately taking shelter when a tornado warning is in effect.

Remember, too, that there’s a difference between a tornado watch and a tornado warning: 

  • A tornado watch is issued by the National Weather Service when weather conditions in your area are severe and capable of producing a tornado. 

  • A tornado warning is an alert that’s issued when a tornado has been sighted or indicated by weather radar. Anyone in the area needs to seek shelter immediately.

Whether your area is under a tornado watch, tornado warning, or neither, being aware of the signs that a tornado is headed your way is key to keeping safe. Signs to look for include:

  • A change in the color of the sky

  • A cloud of debris or debris falling from the sky

  • A loud sound, similar to that of a freight train

  • A strange quiet during or immediately following a thunderstorm 

2. Move to the basement quickly

While no space is 100 percent safe during a tornado, rooms below ground like a basement offer you the most protection. If you don’t have a basement, your best bet is a room on the lowest floor of your home, preferably an interior one that doesn’t have windows like a bathroom, closet, or center hallway. You should also avoid sheltering where there are heavy objects like appliances on the floor above you.

Getting to the lowest floor is also ideal if you’re in a high rise. However, the average lead time for a tornado warning is only about nine minutes, so that may not be possible. Your next option is to find the safest room in your apartment. Again, this could be a bathroom, center hallway, or interior closet.

3. Crouch low to the ground

When you find a suitable spot to shelter, lay face down on the ground and cover your head with your hands to protect yourself from flying debris. You might also want to get under heavy blankets and pillows. Even winter coats can act as a cushion if anything falls on you, plus they may keep you warm once the storm is over. Avoid laying next to heavy, unsecured objects that might fall on you.

4. Get under something sturdy

You need to be prepared for the building to collapse. While you don’t want to be next to heavy objects that might fall on you, being under something sturdy like a heavy table, workbench, or desk. This can create a pocket of safety for you if the entire room collapses.

Bonus tip: Conduct regular tornado drills, where you practice what you and your family will do in the event of a tornado. If there is a closet or other room that is particularly well-built and free of windows, practice piling everyone into the room and, if possible, shielding yourself with something sturdy.

5. Monitor storm alerts

There are several ways to get updates on whether tornadoes continue to pose a danger in your area. Your local news will post updates, as will the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) via its network of radio stations. If you haven’t already, you can also sign up for community alerts on your mobile phone. Try to have one of these handy so you know when you can safely go back outside.

6. Do not stay in a mobile home

Mobile homes are particularly susceptible to damage in a tornado. Many mobile home communities have storm shelters for their residents. If yours doesn’t, or if you live on private land, then you may need to find another shelter, preferably a building with a foundation. You’ll need to act fast if a tornado is approaching, so identify nearby options now.

7. Go inside

Being outside makes you very susceptible to being swept up by tornado winds, so you want to find a building to shelter in. If possible, choose a building that has a basement where you will be safer from collapse and debris.

If there isn’t suitable shelter, or there isn’t enough time to get to it, then go to the lowest ground you can find and lay flat with your hands over your head. Do your best to move away from cars or trees.

8. Don’t try to outdrive the Tornado

In general, you don’t want to try to outrun a tornado, but some situations may require you to get in your car to drive to a safer location. When that happens, take the most direct route to shelter.

If you’re caught in your car during a tornado, stay in it with your head below the windows and your seatbelt on. Only leave your car if you can safely get to the ground that is clearly lower than your car. Once there, lay face down and cover your head.

9. Avoid overpasses if possible

An overpass might look like a safe structure for sheltering, but it can actually put you in greater danger during a tornado. The shape creates a tunneling effect that can increase wind speeds, so do not shelter below overpasses or bridges.

10. Prepare an emergency disaster kit

Being prepared for a tornado includes thinking about what you might need after one hit. You have to assume that it may be days before assistance arrives, so you want to build a disaster kit that has important supplies, such as:

  • Bottled water.

  • Nonperishable food.

  • A NOAA radio.

  • Bandages, gauze, and other first aid supplies.

  • Cell phone charger.

  • Prescription medications.

  • Cash.

  • Copies of your identification.

Put these and other items you cannot do without in a bag and stash it in the area you’ve designated for shelter.

While some weather events provide enough warning to prepare for the potential impact, tornadoes can hit within minutes. Having a disaster preparedness plan can make a difference for you and your family.

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