How to Survive a Tornado

by Brett & Kate McKay on May 2, 2013 · 38 comments

in Manly Skills, Survival

Tornado Header 1

The flowers are growing, the birds are singing, and the storm clouds are gathering. Yes, it’s tornado season once again.

We had several thunderstorms here in Tulsa last month, and the tornado siren has already gone off three times (all of them in a single night), so preparing for a twister to come barreling through my neighborhood has been on my mind lately. Statistically, more tornados happen in May than any other month of the year.

With swirling winds that can reach up to 300mph, tornados are both fascinating and frightening. On average, 60 people die each year from tornado outbreaks, but in a particularly deadly year, like 2011, they can kill over 500. I’ve been through two big tornadoes during my time in Oklahoma that flattened entire parts of cities. It’s one of the most surreal and sobering things to see.

Tornado safety is pretty elementary – quite literally; if you grow up here in “tornado alley,” sometime during your grade school years a kindly local weatherman will probably show up at your school and teach you how to survive a twister. For me, Gary England was that kindly local weatherman. The man is a cult hero roun’ these parts. He’s calmly talked Oklahomans through tornadoes and severe ice storms for 40 years. Gary England is so beloved, there’s even a drinking game named after him.

Yet despite growing up in the panhandle state, I learned a surprising number of new things (as well as how advice has changed over the years) while researching this article. And if you’re a new arrival to the Midwest or Southeast, tornado survival 101 is something you should definitely take the time to learn. Also, just because you don’t live in a tornado-prone part of the country doesn’t mean this bit of lifesaving know-how doesn’t apply to you; tornados have occurred in all 50 states, and you never know when one might touch down on a 14,000-foot mountain or come roaring through the Big Apple.

How to Survive a Tornado

Be Prepared

Before the storm clouds even gather, know exactly where you’ll take cover in your home if a tornado approaches, and store some padding materials in this designated “shelter” (we’ll talk about this more below). When you’re out and about at the stores and restaurants that you frequent, take note of where the bathrooms are and if shelters are available. If you live in an apartment or mobile home park, know what the tornado evacuation drill is and where you’re supposed to go for shelter if a tornado is imminent.

Since tornados can knock out power and utilities for several days, I also recommend having a 72-hour emergency kit at the least, and ideally, supplies for a longer period of grid-down as well.

Be Observant

Tornados can occur without warning any time of day, even if there isn’t a thunderstorm in the area. And if it’s nighttime, or there is heavy rain and clouds in the vicinity, you may not be able to see signs of a potential tornado. That being said, most tornados occur in the afternoon, and they are sometimes preceded by a few telltale conditions. Signs of a possible tornado include a pea-soup green sky and/or a low, dark cloud; spotting a wall cloud around here is always a cause for concern.

Wall Cloud 2

If a tornado is imminent, it may be accompanied by the following signs, provided by the NOAA Storm Prediction Center:

  • Strong, persistent rotation in the cloud base.
  • Whirling dust or debris on the ground under a cloud base — tornadoes sometimes have no funnel!
  • Hail or heavy rain followed by either dead calm or a fast, intense wind shift. Many tornadoes are wrapped in heavy precipitation and can’t be seen.
  • Day or night – loud, continuous roar or rumble, which doesn’t fade in a few seconds like thunder.
  • Night – small, bright, blue-green to white flashes at ground level near a thunderstorm (as opposed to silvery lightning up in the clouds). These mean power lines are being snapped by very strong wind, maybe a tornado.
  • Night - persistent lowering from the cloud base, illuminated or silhouetted by lightning — especially if it is on the ground or there is a blue-green-white power flash underneath.

Understand Tornado Warnings and Watches

A tornado watch means that conditions are present that make tornados possible over the next several hours. This doesn’t mean tornados are imminent, but it’s something to be aware of as you go about and plan your day.

A tornado warning means an actual tornado has been spotted descending from the clouds or on the ground, or that meteorologists have seen circulation in the storm on their Doppler radar. Many cities and towns located in tornado-prone areas have sirens that will go off when this happens. If you don’t live in a place that has tornado sirens, it’s especially important to check in with the local forecast periodically during a tornado watch. Also consider putting something like the tornado warning app from the Red Cross on your phone that will sound an audible alarm if a tornado warning is issued. (This is a good idea even if there are sirens in your area, if like me, you sometimes sleep through them.)

Now, the professional advice is that once there’s a tornado warning, you should seek shelter immediately. And that’s good counsel. Personally, because the sirens go off even when there’s only suspicious circulation, or when a tornado is on the ground 30 miles from where we live (the average warning time before a tornado hits is almost 15 minutes), as soon as I hear the siren, I flip on the TV to a local news station, as they give you blow-by-blow reporting of exactly what’s going on. In many cases, they even give specific neighborhoods or crossroads in which people should immediately take shelter. (It’s a good idea to have an emergency radio for updates in case the power goes out.) I watch to see if we’re in the twister’s path, and am ready to bolt for our below-ground garage if necessary.

Now this isn’t to say that you should be blasé about tornado warnings. It is easy to get that way when you live in a place where the sirens often go off without anything happening. But experts think that’s exactly why the death toll from the 2011 Joplin, Missouri tornado was so high; people figured it was another false alarm and kept driving along and going about their activities instead of getting to shelter. You have to treat every tornado warning like it’s the real deal.

Take Cover

No matter where you are when a tornado strikes, the biggest danger is flying debris. While you may think of getting sucked up into a funnel when you picture a twister, most tornado injuries and fatalities occur from debris that hits, impales, or lands on victims. As the twister rips buildings and homes apart and levels trees, it can turn 2X4s, bricks, and branches into deadly missiles. Here’s how to survive no matter where you are when a tornado touches down:

In a house. If you don’t have a dedicated storm shelter, the best place to take cover in a house (or anywhere else) is in the basement. If you don’t have a basement (and they’re not too common out here actually), head to an interior bathroom, hallway, or closet without windows on the lowest floor of your house; the more walls you can put between you and the wind, the better. If you live in a multi-story house, don’t position yourself under a large, heavy object that’s on the floor(s) above you – like a piano or refrigerator, if possible. It could come crashing down if the structural integrity of the house is compromised.

House 1

Wherever you hunker down, try to cover yourself with a mattress or blankets, or crawl under a sturdy table or workbench to protect yourself from debris, including that which might fall on top of you. Experts even recommend donning a motorcycle, football, or bicycle helmet to shield your noggin. If you don’t have any extra padding, at least curl into a ball and cover your head with your arms and hands.

In additions to these precautions, you should also be aware of a few myths you might have heard that aren’t true:

  • Myth #1: If a tornado is coming, open the windows of the house to equalize the pressure inside it with the low-pressure eye of the tornado; otherwise, the house will explode. There’s no truth to this, and rushing around opening your windows could get you sliced up by flying glass, and cause the tornado’s winds to start lifting the roof off your house.
  • Myth #2: The southwest corner of a room/basement is the safest place to be. I actually heard this one growing up myself, but again, it doesn’t turn out to be true. It used to be thought that because tornados generally come out of the SW, they would blow debris to the NE. But the winds of a tornado will hit your house from all directions; no corner is necessarily safer than another.

In a mobile home. Get out! People are 15 times more likely to die in a mobile home than any other location. Even mobile homes with a tie-down system cannot withstand the strong winds of a twister. Take shelter in a permanent building if you can. If no other shelter is available, lie facedown in a ditch and cover your head with your arms and hands.

At a business/office. If you’re at your office, take shelter in an interior room or bathroom on the first floor — one that’s free, or at the least far, from windows. Crouch facedown and cover your head with your hands and arms. Another good spot is interior stairwells. Avoid taking elevators as they can get stuck if the electricity goes out.

“Long-span” buildings (think shopping malls, big box stores, theaters, and gymnasiums) can be particularly dangerous places to be during a tornado, as the roof is often only supported by the exterior walls; when the buildings reach a “failure point” they can completely collapse. Some of these buildings have dedicated storm shelters; if not, go to the lowest level and look for a windowless bathroom or storage room at the interior of the store. If such a place cannot be located, try to hunker down under something that might provide stronger support, like a doorframe, or under something sturdy, like theater seats, that will shield you from falling debris.

Outside. If there are no shelters around, lie flat in a low area of ground like a ditch or gully and cover your head with your hands and arms. Try to pick a spot away from trees and other potential projectiles.

On the road. Your car is one of the most dangerous places you can be when a tornado strikes; the strongest of twisters can flip or pick up your vehicle and launch it hundreds of yards or wrap it around a tree. So if there’s a permanent building nearby, your best bet is to get out, get inside, and head for a place that matches the description given above; for example, at a fast food restaurant, take cover in the bathroom, or a walk-in freezer, if that’s available.

  • Myth #3: Taking shelter under an overpass or bridge is a good idea. An overpass can in fact turn into a dangerous wind tunnel as a twister approaches, leaving shelter-takers vulnerable to flying debris. The tornado may also weaken the structural integrity of the bridge or overpass, causing it to collapse. It’s also illegal to park under an overpass as it creates a dangerous traffic hazard; if the tornado doesn’t getting you, a speeding car might.

If there are no permanent shelters nearby, you may need to drive away from the storm. You might have heard that this kind of escape should never be attempted, but the NOAA’s Storm Prediction Center argues that it’s a viable option…if you’re smart about it. Only attempt to flee a tornado that is far away and not moving towards you. To gauge the tornado’s movement and direction, compare it to a fixed landmark like a telephone pole or tree in the distance. If it’s moving right or left, as opposed to remaining still and getting bigger, it’s not heading towards you. Drive off at a right angle from the direction it’s going. Basically you’re trying to put as many miles between you and the tornado as possible.

Path 1

If the twister appears stationary and gets bigger, it’s coming your way and you won’t likely have time to outrun it. When I was a lad I was taught that if a tornado is bearing down on you while you’re driving, it’s always best to get out of your car and lie down in a ditch or gully, since the twister could turn your vehicle into a deadly plaything. But recent studies have actually shown that most tornados aren’t capable of hurling your car through the air, and that staying inside it can be safer than getting out. There’s still some controversy over which option is best, however. (You can find a list of pros and cons here.) What the Red Cross recommends is getting off the road, parking the car, and slouching down as low in your seat as you can while still keeping your seatbelt on. Duck and lean away from the windows and cover your head with a blanket or coat if you have one.

If you see that there’s an area below the level of the roadway for you to go, you may decide to get out of the car, lie facedown there, and cover your head.

The Red Cross helpfully adds, “Your choice should be driven by your specific circumstances.” Good luck with that decision! And stay safe out there, men.


Illustrations by Ted Slampyak

{ 38 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Jasper Roest May 2, 2013 at 6:28 pm

That’s some good advice!

We have quite a lot of “tornadoes” in the Netherlands, I read that there’s an estimated 35 of them per year. However, they are mostly not that strong and so not very damaging, though sometimes we have stronger ones. The Dom tower in Utrecht, a famous tower in the most central city in the Netherlands, was torn in two by a big tornado in 1674. Didn’t know that, always assumed it was because of the war. In 1999 there was a tornado that severely damaged the cathedral in another city.

So, hiding in a dutch cathedral isn’t the best thing to do either!

2 Alexander May 2, 2013 at 7:20 pm

I was surprised that North Dakota was a dangerous area. I live close to Northwood which was destroyed by a tornado a few years ago. An amazing thing from that tornado was that only one person died. The person refused to leave his mobile home and died when the tornado came through.

3 John May 2, 2013 at 7:20 pm

Thanks for the tip about the Red Cross app. I had no idea such a thing existed. We’re moving to the Midwest soon so it’ll probably come in handy.

4 Kevin May 2, 2013 at 9:18 pm

I’m from Alabama, where we’ve had more than our fair share of these. I like these practical steps as well the debunking of some safety myths.

5 Andrew May 2, 2013 at 9:50 pm

Good advice. Though having lived in Nebraska my whole life my first instinct – as well as pretty much everyone I know – is to stand on the porch and watch, only taking cover if it gets close enough you have to.

6 Arlen Payne May 2, 2013 at 11:16 pm

I grew up in the midwest and also heard some of the myths you mentioned. I remember the “Tornado Drills” we had in elementary school. I aslo lived near Oklahoma City for a while and have a great appreciation for Gary England, actually, I got to meet him once. Now, I live in the Everglades, the tornadoes and not so big, but can be just as deadly. Thanks for the reminder about how to deal with these deadly storms.

7 James May 2, 2013 at 11:21 pm

I remember hiding from a tornado that ripped trough my neighborhood north of Houston when I was kid. It was one of the most terrifying ordeals, hiding in the bathroom in the tub under blankets, and pillows. I remember the sky was horribly loud, eerily yellow and I could feel the pressure in my ears changing. Good post, this is a great article!

8 Jeremy May 3, 2013 at 6:11 am

As a volunteer spotter for SKYWARN, as well as a volunteer for the Red Cross, kudos to you for this excellent article! The Red Cross apps are not only VERY good and useful, but also free! Thank you for posting this article.

9 Kevin May 3, 2013 at 7:31 am

I’m from Ohio, but I work for the FAA and was in OKC on May 3rd, 1999 when that big F5 came through Moore. Actually, the apartment I was staying at was in Moore, so I had a front row view of the storm. I watched Gary England urging folks to get underground if possible, and I think watching him possibly saved my life! I met him a few years afterward and he autographed a copy of his book for me. Nice guy!

10 Matt Lane May 3, 2013 at 9:09 am

Thanks for these tips! I live in Springfield, MO so it’s always good to have a refresher on these. Thanks again Brett!

11 Thelemic May 3, 2013 at 9:27 am

This article reminds of the movie Take Shelter… great movie. I can recommend it:D

12 Joey May 3, 2013 at 12:21 pm

Makes me glad I don’t live near Tulsa, but we have been having more tornadoes in New England than I would like to see. Scary stuff.

13 Richard Dungar May 3, 2013 at 12:33 pm

In 2011, a tornado went through La Crosse, Wisconsin after starting near Hokah, Minnesota and then jumped the Mississippi River. It was within 8 blocks from my apartment building. Thank you for posting this.

14 Justin May 3, 2013 at 12:39 pm

I was slightly upset that there was no mention of a cooler and lawn chair. I’m from Kentucky, and while all of this is appropriate advice we don’t get many tornadoes here. Much to the chagrin of first responders one of our state pass times is grab a beer and watch :)

15 Paul May 4, 2013 at 2:46 am

One tip you should mention: If you’re going for shelter, notify someone who’s not where you are exactly where you are sheltering for the storm. This way, if you building collapses, rescue teams will be notified of your exact location. (Of course, if you’ve moved, it won’t be much help, so be smart.)

16 scott May 4, 2013 at 3:58 pm

I’m from Oklahoma. If its not close enough to take the shingles of our roof and you got no kids to save. We just enjoy them. They are a miracle of God’s creation.

17 David D May 5, 2013 at 1:11 am

I live in Broken Arrow (a suburb of Tulsa). I’ll remember the night of the three sirens for a while. I didn’t take too much concern to the forecast and fell asleep. Family members from about 45 miles away called and woke me up at 12:45 AM to tell me a tornado had been spotted in my area. A few hours later the local weather channels reported the most significant damage from the tornado to be 3 miles due west of me (fortunately that particular cell seemed to be a very small rotation that skipped along for a short distance then died out).

18 Brandon Hewitt May 6, 2013 at 4:54 am

We were lucky enough that we don’t live in a place where there are a lot of tornadoes. If you are unlucky enough to be unprepared, you have to get away as fast as you can.

19 Brian May 6, 2013 at 9:27 am

Good advice. My biggest impression of the aftermath of the Andover KS tornado of the 90′s was that most houses in and near the path were stripped completely down to the first floorboards. If at all possible get below the first floor in a basement.

20 Tom L May 6, 2013 at 1:32 pm

We live in Norman OK for the last 7 years and have had a few close calls. I found that my credit union had a loan program for storm shelters that put one within our budget. At noon on Saturdays when the sirens sound a test our family has drill. The kids come running home, we open the shelter and practice getting in and closing it up. This has the added benefit of insuring that the shelter has not become a haven for spiders and other undesirables and that water and other supplies are in place. Check the batteries in the radio and flashlights, and give it a quick once over with the shop-vac. We quickly learned what needed to be ironed out in our process. If we are out of the house at that time, we discuss what we would do as a family or as individuals if we were away from our shelter if a storm should appear.

21 Dustin May 7, 2013 at 10:23 pm

I think it is important to also note that the sirens are considered OUTDOOR warning, not indoor. As a child of a spotter in NE Kansas, this has been hammered into my head over the years by my father and the training classes I would tag along to. Weather radios save lives, being proactive with a weather application or even the TV on is best. Waiting for them to trigger the sirens isn’t best, the best defense is a great offense. Good article.

22 Jonathan May 8, 2013 at 2:35 pm

We are lucky not to have tornados in the UK. The closest I’ve seen a tornado is the movie twister.

23 Chuck May 9, 2013 at 5:16 pm

Very good advice. Wish I had known it then (late 90′s) when I drove out of heavy sleet and rain on US 23 in south eastern Michigan to see a tornado in the field next to highway. I was driving south. The tornado was headed east on an intersecting path. I did the dumb thing and pulled in behind a car under an overpass, just south of the field. A decent size truck quickly pulled in behind me. The tornado passed nearly overhead, not quite touching down. Fortunately, we all came through just fine. I didn’t see any debris hits on the rental car I was in. In hind sight, I should have sped up and driven as fast as I could south. but i only caught a glimpse of the tornado through the wind, rain and sleet and didn’t know the path. It was later when I went and found the storm track did I learn how fortunate I had been, that it never really touched down. So I can say, I have been under a tornado. An experience, I will forego repeating thank you.

24 Sam May 10, 2013 at 8:39 am

Dustin is spot-on. Having been through the 2011 Joplin tornado, it’s relevant to point out that the OUTDOOR sirens sounded twice. Once about 30 minutes prior to the actual tornado when a cell was tracking north of the city, and a second time just four minutes prior to the touch down. That first siren probably saved more lives than were lost on that day, as it put everyone on notice. Get a NOAA programmable weather radio for your home, and plug it in when you suspect bad weather may be coming. Get the Red Cross Tornado app for your phone, and always keep your windows and doors (including garage) closed when a tornado approaches. Leaving them open only allows wind to enter inside the home that can cause the structure to fail. Once the roof goes, so do the walls.

25 Kade May 10, 2013 at 1:15 pm

Another Joplin Native (although about 20 minutes away when the EF5 hit) – I too was one of those fellows who grabbed a beer, lawn chair, and started staring at the sky as soon as the sirens went off.

While I don’t disagree that the spectator habit that many midwesterners develop contributed to the death toll, you pinpointed in your article the reason those people did not take shelter – the Joplin EF-5 was entirely rain wrapped, and essentially invisible.

26 MaryMargaret May 12, 2013 at 5:08 pm

I second the motion to have a NOAA radio for your home. Please make sure that you have batteries for the radio, especially during tornado season. I was in the path of the Andover took out an elementary school about 6 blocks from my house and killed three people roughly 1 mile from me. Those people were killed as they tried to get to a neighbor’s house that had a basement. Much better to shelter in place in a small interior room than to get caught in the open. And, for pete’s sake, when the tornado has passed, do not get out in your car and rubberneck around..keeping emergency vehicles from getting to where they need to be. Our street was completely clogged within 15 minutes. Please stay out of the way. Lives may depend on it.

27 Scott May 13, 2013 at 1:20 pm

Kade and Sam, just to add a personal experience, I am a Joplin native. I was 2 blocks from a direct hit and lost a good chunk of my own house. When the sirens went off I went out the threw my steaks on the grill, as to cook them before the rain came. Also, being in the direct path, it was a combination of being rain wrapped and too big is why you couldn’t see it. The Joplin storm was nearly a mile wide at the base. People were looking right at it, and couldn’t see the forest for all the trees. For me personally I take storms more serious now, and no more grilling during tornado warnings. This is a great article, it never hurts to update people on what a storm can do, and what you need to do. As a side note, I ran back out side blocking hail from my head with the pan, brought the steaks in, and the storm hit 2 minutes later. I never ate those steaks, and was a little superstitious about grilling for the rest of the summer. I was more pissed at loosing the steaks then the bedroom wall.

28 Birch May 14, 2013 at 7:51 pm

I sat through an F4 in 2004. We were only in the shelters 5 minutes when it hit (and we went as soon as the alarm sounded). Now I head to shelter as soon as the sirens or my weather radio sound, and THEN determine if I’m in danger.

29 Gari May 15, 2013 at 4:23 am

This is a great post Brett and Kate!
I remember when I was living in Ireland I was working with folk based in Jacksonville. I can’t remember the year (2007/8?), but they seemed to be hit by tornado after tornado after tornado. Although they did a lot of “Googling”, this would have been a perfect reference for them. I’ll definitely bookmark this :)

30 Han Solo May 15, 2013 at 10:26 am

As a trained weather spotter I can pass on an important tip.

If you and your kids have BIKE HELMETS, when you take cover, WEAR THEM. Those could save your life. One of the biggest dangers from tornado’s is flying and falling objects and debris which impact the head/neck.

Bike helmets are very common and something nearly everyone has these days, and they could protect your noggin in a tornado as much as they could a bike crash so use them.

31 Mike May 20, 2013 at 12:27 pm

Great & timely post, Adam, but my wife (from OKC) will appreaciate the mention of Gary England. Man knows his twisters.

32 Darshan Donni May 21, 2013 at 12:17 am

A moment for those who perished in Moore, Oklahoma. Nature has it’s ways and we can only brace ourselves. A salute to the rescue workers.

33 kevin May 21, 2013 at 12:39 am

Good article – RIP OK victims…

34 Brooks May 21, 2013 at 1:26 pm

I hope you, Kate and your family are alright after the tornado yesterday! Thinking and praying for you all out in Oklahoma!

35 Steve May 22, 2013 at 10:14 am

Another great article. The first thing I thought of when I heard about the devastation in Oklahoma, “I hope Brett and his family are okay!” It’s funny how your articles are more than just articles, they’re an inspiration for those of us who may not get this advise/information otherwise and a bond, which creates genuine concern at times like these. To the McKay family and AoM staff, I thank you. Stay safe and of course, stay manly.

Also, I’d be curious to read your thoughts on the significance of co-dependency on our relationships and professional careers: identifying the importance of independence in a relationships, or necessary boundaries with our career. I teach groups on various self esteem, communication and relationship concepts, but your perspective is always enlightening. Have a great day.


36 tom cook August 27, 2013 at 9:37 am

on may 10 2008, ilived 10 miles south of joplin,mo. an f-4 tornado came from olahoma and destroyed my house. my wfe,daughter,and i took shelter in the bathroom. the house came apart around us and we were thrown 100s of feet

37 tom cook August 27, 2013 at 9:47 am

i found my family, and we were all alive. unfortunately my wife died the next day. my daughter and i moved to joplin and bought a house 4 blocks west of st. johns hospital. on myay22,2011 an f-5 destroyed my house again. this time we had metal storm safe. we survied un hurt. people have a feeling of invinsability. i dont have that anymore. get a shelter so you wont have to look for your family like i did. tom cook

38 Jeremy Barnett October 31, 2013 at 2:38 pm

My wife and I are also survivors of the Joplin tornado. We lived 3 blocks North of the high school. People never realize the value of preparedness until its too late. We did the typical thing and took shelter in our bathtub where my wife had a few essential items gathered just in case. Until that day we had no idea of worst case scenario but unfortunately learned the hard way. Even though the tornado was rain-wrapped and a mile wide there was ample warning for most people to take shelter. From what I witnessed of the aftermath unfortunately a lot of the shelters simply weren’t strong enough. Always be aware of whats coming and have a plan in place BEFORE things happen.

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