A basement after the passage of a tornado in NW Iowa in April 2011. Note the debris in the basement ranging from magazines to parts of the house frame.
A bathroom left standing after a tornado.
Photo Courtesy of FEMA
A house after the passage of a tornado. Note how the walls of the house were destroyed while the inside was relatively intact. This is why you should seek shelter in the middle of your house if no basement is available.
A mobile home in central Iowa flipped upside down after the passage of a weak EF-1 tornado (winds of 90 to 100 mph). The pad that the mobile home sat on is in the bottom right of the photo.
A manufactured home in central Iowa destroyed after an EF-1 tornado. Note how the permanent (and much better constructed) homes in the background only sustained cosmetic damage to their roofs, siding and windows.
An Approaching Tornado.
Photo Copyright 2003 Eric Nguyen. Used with Permission.
The Parkersburg high school after an EF-5 tornado on May 25, 2008. The high school's gymnasium, located at the center of the image, collapsed during the tornado. The beams that held up the gym can be seen sticking up from where the gym once stood. Meanwhile, the classrooms on the main floor withstood the force of the tornado. This is a great example of why you should not take shelter in a school's gym.
A destroyed bunk house at the Little Sioux Boy Scout Camp in western Iowa after an EF-3 tornado. Four scouts inside were killed.
Photo Courtesy of NWS Omaha/Valley, NE
A tornado lurks at the end of the road.
Photo Copyright 2002 Eric Nguyen. Used with Permission.
While the tornado may seem far away, tornadoes can travel at speeds of up to 60 mph and could hit you in a matter of minutes. If you see a tornado in the distance, try to seek shelter in the nearest available structure.
Photo Copyright 2003 Eric Nguyen. Used with Permission.
A car demolished into an almost unrecognizable state after an EF-5 tornado.
By taking shelter under an overpass, these people not only put themselves at risk, but also created a traffic jam that put others at risk.
Photo Courtesy of the NWS Norman, OK

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Severe Weather: Tornado Safety

Before it Strikes . . .  
Introduction
Planning Ahead
Understanding the Forecast
Receiving the Warning

Staying Safe . . .  
Tornadoes
Lightning
Hail and Straight Line Winds

 


You can survive a tornado! Even in the heart of tornado alley, chances are you will never experience a direct hit by a tornado. However, being prepared is critical. By following these simple guidelines, you can protect yourself and your family from nature's most violent storm.

The most important things to remember are:

Get in, Get Down, and Cover Up!

  • GET IN - If you are outside, get inside. If you are already inside, get as far into the middle of the building as possible.
  • GET DOWN - Get underground. If there is no basement or cellar available, go to the lowest floor possible.
  • COVER UP - Flying and falling debris are a storm's number one killer. Use pillows, blankets, coats, helmets, etc to cover up and protect your head and body from flying debris.

The three groups of people most at risk during a tornado are those who are outdoors, in mobile/manufactured homes, and on the road in vehicles.

Refer to other sections of this guide for more details on staying safe in specific locations and circumstances.


The key to tornado survival is having a safety plan. Your plan at home should be known by everyone in the home and practiced at least twice each year. Children who may be at home alone should know what to do and where to go even if no adults are there.

Your selection of a tornado shelter in your home will depend on many factors. When selecting your shelter area, your goals should be:

  1. Get as low as possible - completely underground is best.
  2. Put as many barriers between you and the outside as possible.

It is not the wind in a tornado that kills and injures people - it is the flying debris lofted by the wind. Items could either be flying through the air or falling to the ground, ranging in size from shards of broken glass to full-sized cars.


Storm Cellars and Basements

BasementBeing completely underground is the best place to be in a tornado. If you have an underground storm cellar, use it. Make sure the door is securely fastened.

If the entrance to your storm cellar is outside, you should allow plenty of time to get to the cellar before the storm arrives. If you wait until the storm is upon you, you may be exposed to wind, hail, rain, lightning, and possibly flying debris as you head to the cellar.

A basement is also a good shelter in most cases. When taking shelter in a basement:

  • Get under a stairwell or sturdy bench to protect yourself from falling objects.
    • The southwest corner of your basement DOES NOT offer the best protection from tornadoes. This is a myth. The safest place in your basement is under something.
  • If your basement has outside doors or windows, stay as far away from them as possible.
  • Use coverings (pillows, blankets, mattresses, sleeping bags, coats, etc) and helmets to shield your head and body from flying debris.
  • If possible, avoid seeking shelter underneath heavy objects on the floor above (refrigerators, stoves, washing machines, etc).

Safe Rooms

A reinforced safe room (or above-ground tornado shelter) is as good as an underground shelter in most situations. Safe rooms are specially designed reinforced tornado shelters built into homes, schools, and other buildings. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), in close cooperation with experts in wind engineering and tornado damage, has developed detailed guidelines for constructing a safe room.


If No Underground or Reinforced Shelter is Available

If you do not have a basement or underground shelter, you need to find a location that is...

  • As close to the ground as possible
  • As far inside the building as possible
  • Away from doors, windows, and outside walls
  • In the smallest room available

Here are Some Ideas

BathroomsBathroom

Bathrooms MAY be a good shelter, provided they are not along an outside wall and have no windows. Covering yourself with blankets and wearing helmets will help protect you from flying debris.

Bathrooms have proven to be adequate tornado shelters in many cases for a few reasons. First, bathrooms are typically small rooms with no windows in the middle of a building. Secondly, it is thought that the plumbing within the walls of a bathroom helps to add some structural strength to the room.

However, with tornadoes there are no absolutes, and you should look closely at your home when determining your shelter area.

Closets

A small interior closet can also serve as a shelter. The closet should be as deep inside the building as possible, with no outside walls, doors, or windows. Be sure to close the door and cover up.

Hallways

House Walls Destroyed

If a hallway is your shelter area, be sure to shut all doors. The goal is to create as many barriers as possible between you and the flying debris in and near a tornado. To be an effective shelter, a hallway should be as far inside the building as possible and should not have any openings to the outside (windows and doors).

Under Stairs

The space underneath a stairwell could be used as a shelter. Cover yourself with blankets to protect yourself from flying debris.


Apartments

The basic tornado safety guidelines listed above apply if you live in an apartment. Get to the lowest floor, with as many walls between you and the outside as possible.

Apartment dwellers should have a plan, particularly if you live on the upper floors. If your complex does not have a reinforced shelter, you should make arrangements to get to an apartment on the lowest floor possible.

In some cases, the apartment clubhouse or laundry room may be used as a shelter, provided the basic safety guidelines are followed. You need to have a shelter area that is accessible at all times of the day or night.


Mobile and Manufactured Homes

Mobile Home FlippedEven an EF-1 tornado, typically considered a "weak tornado," will severely damage a mobile or manufactured home and/or roll a mobile home over. This is why tornado safety plans are crucial for residents of these homes!

Mobile and manufactured homes are especially susceptible to high winds from severe thunderstorms and tornadoes. You will likely not be safe in either of these homes, whether you are in a hallway, a closet, or a bathroom. These homes cannot stand up to even a weak tornado, and you should make plans BEFORE the storm arrives to get to a safe shelter. Due to the potentially short amount of time between a warning and the arrival of a tornado, people in these homes should consider executing their safety plans when a tornado watch is issued. Do not wait for the tornado warning!

Mobile Home Flipped

Taking cover under sturdy furniture, in a bathtub or closet, or under a mattress will be meaningless in these homes if the structure itself is destroyed, blown over, or rolled over by tornado or severe thunderstorm winds. Get out of mobile/manufactured homes and find a more substantial shelter as quickly as possible.

Again, you need to have access to a shelter that is available at any time of the day or night.


Generally speaking, you should not leave your home in your vehicle when a tornado threatens. In most cases, you will have a better chance of surviving by staying put in your home. Every home is different--there is no absolute safe place in every home. Unless you are deep underground, there is no such thing as a 100% tornado-proof shelter.

A detailed home tornado safety plan will not help you much if you are away from home when a tornado threatens. You need to think about what you will do if a tornado threatens you while you are away from home--at work, church, school; while shopping, dining out, on vacation; or participating in outdoor activities.

Tornado

The danger posed by tornadoes is higher when you are away from home, when you may be unfamiliar with the area and away from your usual sources of weather information. It is important for business owners and those responsible for safety in all types of public buildings and venues to think about and plan for tornado safety for all employees, occupants, and potential visitors.

It is a myth that tornadoes do not hit urban areas. Even if you are away from home in a large city, you should stay alert when severe weather threatens.


Hotels and Motels

Think about tornado safety when staying at hotels and motels. Some lodging establishments have safety plans for guests, but others may not and you could be on your own. Some establishments suggest guests seek shelter in hallways. However, you should remember to avoid open hallways--hallways that have doors and/or windows on either end. These can become wind tunnels that send debris flying down the corridor. Interior bathrooms and closets near the center of the building may be good shelters in this situation. Again, whenever you are forced to seek shelter in a tornado, cover up with pillows, heavy blankets, or whatever you can find.


Public Buildings - Malls, Stores, Restaurants, Hospitals

The same basic tornado safety guidelines apply in any public building, whether it's your local shopping mall, a hospital or nursing home, a grocery store, church, convenience store, truck stop, or restaurant.

  • GET IN - put as many walls between you and the outside as possible
  • GET DOWN - if you can't get underground, get as low as possible
  • COVER UP - use whatever you have to protect your head and body from flying debris

If a tornado threatens, you should not leave in your car! Being in a sturdy building is most likely safer than being in your vehicle on the road if a tornado hits. Stay calm and try to find a safe shelter wherever you are.


Schools

SchoolsAll schools across Iowa should have a plan in place in the event of a tornado. Policies will vary by school, but just like taking shelter at home, students should move to the interior of the school, away from outside walls and windows, crouch down and cover their head with their hands. Hallways (that do not have doors or windows to the outside), interior restrooms, and basements are the preferred areas to put students. Large open areas, such as the gymnasium, cafeteria, or commons areas should be avoided. Iowa holds a statewide tornado drill every spring that most schools participate in.


Outdoor Activities - Campgrounds, RV Parks, Sporting Events, Fairs, Festivals

CampingBeing outdoors is one of the worst places to be in a tornado. Unless there is a suitable shelter nearby, there is little to protect you from the strong winds and flying debris in a tornado. Not only are you exposed to the elements, but you may be in an unfamiliar area and not know the best location to seek shelter.

When you are out camping or staying at an RV park, make note of any shelters nearby that could be used in case of a tornado. Ask the park ranger or campground owner if there are any shelters available for use. Unfortunately, in many instances there simply will not be a shelter available for use. Cabins may offer limited protection from a weak tornado, but succumb quickly as the wind speeds increase. If you are caught outside with no buildings available, the best option is to find the lowest spot in the ground and lay flat, covering your head with your hands.

Organized outdoor events, including sporting events, should have weather safety plans. People at large sporting events are especially vulnerable because of the difficulties involved in moving large numbers of people. Event coordinators or managers should have a detailed severe weather safety plan in place and practice it. People at large outdoor gatherings or events should listen when severe weather information is conveyed and follow instructions if a safety plan is put into action.


Tornadoes Can and DO Hit Urban Areas

Contrary to what some people may think, tornadoes can and do hit urban areas. Here is a list of some of the more recent tornadoes to strike major cities:

  • Joplin, MO: May 22, 2011, rated EF-5, 160 fatalities. The single deadliest tornado in the U.S. in modern history.
  • Minneapolis, MN: May 22, 2011 and August 19, 2009, rated EF-1 and EF-0, 1 fatality.
  • Tuscaloosa, AL: April 27, 2011, rated EF-4, 47 fatalities. Part of the largest tornado outbreak in U.S. history.
  • St. Louis, MO: April 22, 2011, rated EF-4, no fatalities. The Lambert St. Louis International Airport took a direct hit from the tornado.
  • Raleigh, NC: April 16, 2011, rated EF-3, 6 fatalities.
  • Brooklyn, NY: September 16, 2010, rated EF-1.
  • Atlanta, GA: March 14, 2008, rated EF-2, 1 fatality.
  • Oklahoma City, OK: May 8, 2003 and May 9, 1999, rated F3 and F5. The Oklahoma City area has seen over 100 tornadoes since records began in 1893.
  • Fort Worth, TX: March 28, 2000, rated F2, 2 fatalities. Moved through the west side of downtown, damaging many skyscrapers.
  • Salt Lake City, UT: August 11, 1999, rated F2, 1 fatality. Tornado moved right through downtown.
  • Nashville, TN: April 16, 1998, rated F3, 1 fatality. Three tornadoes struck Nashville this day, the others were rated F2.

The bottom line is, when severe weather threatens, you should follow the safety procedures detailed above, even when you are in an urban area!

Being In A Vehicle

Vehicles--cars, trucks, sport utility vehicles, RVs, 18-wheelers, boats, trains, planes, etc.--are terrible places to be when a tornado threatens. All types of vehicles can be blown over, rolled, crushed, lifted, or otherwise destroyed by even a weak tornado. People have been hurt or killed when large trees have fallen and crushed their cars. Fortunately, these situations can be avoided most of the time by BEING ALERT to the possibility of severe storms and tornadoes.

  • If there is a threat for severe weather in the area you are traveling, monitor your favorite source of weather information for the latest updates on any storms.
  • Consider delaying your trip if severe thunderstorms are in the area or along your path of travel.
  • Be familiar with the area where you are traveling. Keep a GPS unit or highway map handy, especially one that includes the county names and boundaries. While NWS warnings are only issued for the areas threatened by a tornado or severe thunderstorm, the warning will contain the sections of each county in the warning and cities in the path of the storm. If you do not know where you are, you could miss life-saving information.
  • TornadoIf you are in your car, find a radio station broadcasting weather information.
    • Some radio stations will interrupt programming to broadcast warnings and other information. Others are automated stations and may not. Search for a station with local weather information and listen for details.
    • A battery operated weather radio is essential for travelers. Almost all regions of the Midwest are covered by NOAA Weather Radio.
    • Remember, you will not get any warnings if you are listening to CDs or satellite radio in your vehicle.
  • If you own a smartphone with access to the internet. . .
    • Have another person in the vehicle routinely check on the latest weather conditions and warnings.
    • If you are driving alone, pull over from time to time and check for the latest weather information.
    • DO NOT TRY TO CHECK THE WEATHER ON YOUR PHONE WHILE YOU ARE DRIVING!
    • Some smartphone apps use the GPS chip in the phone to pull up the latest radar imagery and warnings for your exact location, which can be very useful when traveling across long distances.
  • The chances of being hit directly by a tornado in your car are very small. However, severe thunderstorms contain other deadly threats such as hail, straight-line winds, and flash flooding.

If you Come Across a Tornado

Every situation is different, and if faced with a tornado while on the road, your best course of action will depend on your exact location; the tornado's location, speed, and movement; road options available to you; nearby structures; time of day; traffic; and weather conditions you are experiencing.

Distant TornadoIf the tornado is far enough away and road options and traffic allow, you should try to find a substantial building for shelter. Follow the basic tornado safety guidelines (get in - get down - cover up). Motorists have found truck stops, convenience stores, restaurants, and other businesses to be adequate shelters in a tornado situation. Walk-in coolers can also make a good shelter.

While you should never try to outrun a tornado in your vehicle, you may, in some situations, be able to get out of the tornado's way by driving out of its path, or simply stopping and allowing the tornado to pass. Again, this can be extremely dangerous unless traffic, the time of day, and road options allow you to see the tornado, determine which way it is moving, and find a road option that will take you out of its path.

Car After TornadoThe worst-case scenario for motorists would be if you are caught in your vehicle with no escape possible. This scenario could occur in more densely populated regions, such as metropolitan areas at rush-hour or in high traffic situations, or on limited access roadways, such as the interstate, where it might not be possible to quickly exit and find safe shelter. In these situations it may become necessary to leave your vehicle and seek shelter in a ditch, culvert, or low spot near the road.

Abandoning your car to seek shelter in a ditch should only be done as an absolute last resort. You will be exposed to flying debris, flooding rains and hail, lightning, and extreme wind. People have survived by seeking shelter in ditches, but others have also died. If you must leave your vehicle to seek shelter in a ditch, you should try to get as far away from the vehicle, as well as any other potential "missiles," as possible.

Highway Overpasses are NOT Tornado Shelters.
They Should be Avoided at all Costs!!!

A widely-publicized video shot by a Kansas television crew in April of 1991 showed them surviving a tornado with no injuries by crawling up under an overpass on the Kansas Turnpike. In the years since this video, many people have assumed that highway overpasses are the best places to seek shelter if threatened by a tornado on the road. This is a myth! Highway overpasses offer little protection from the winds of a tornado.

Why are overpasses not suitable tornado shelters? There are numerous reasons:

  • Overpasses offer virtually no protection from debris swirling around in a tornado.
  • As winds from a tornado become channeled under an overpass, they actually accelerate and become substantially stronger.
  • By crawling up under an overpass, you are actually elevating yourself above ground level and exposing yourself to stronger winds.
  • Many overpasses have smooth bottoms, no ledges, and no girders to hang on to, increasing the likelihood that you will get blown out from under the overpass.

Car After TornadoIn addition to putting yourself at greater risk, people tend to stop in the middle of the road under overpasses once the shoulders have filled up. This creates a traffic jam and puts everyone else behind you at risk of being hurt or killed by the tornado. This could also lead to major traffic accidents at night or in periods of low visibility (like heavy rainfall during a thunderstorm).

During the May 3, 1999 tornado outbreak in Oklahoma City, many people on the Interstate sought shelter under highway overpasses. Unfortunately, people died at each overpass hit by the tornado as a result of being struck by debris or blown out from under the structure.

So how did the television crew in the 1991 video survive the tornado? It was a combination of several factors and pure luck. They took shelter under an overpass with girders and a wide ledge to sit on, the tornado occurred in a rural area and had little debris in the funnel, the tornado itself was relatively weak (rated an F1), and most importantly, the tornado did not directly hit the structure. The people under the overpass only experienced the outer fringes of the tornado's circulation. All of these factors combined to create a very deceptive video.

Further details are explained in a presentation by the NWS in Norman, OK.


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