For an entire week leading up to the April 2011 storms and tornados that devastated parts of my town and Northern Alabama in general, the local weather forecasters issued warnings. Tornado survival suddenly became a hot topic in our household, and we discussed how to survive a tornado without a basement or shelter.
Meteorologists told us to be ready for tornadoes because they saw the emerging weather pattern as it traveled across the country and how dangerous it would likely be. Fortunately, my family knew how to survive a tornado and kept our tornado survival kit handy. All too often, though, people are caught by surprise.
In our case, we were fortunate that our weather forecaster took the incoming storm seriously. If your local weather experts start talking like this, you need to start planning ahead. Don’t wait. There’s nothing worse than having a terrifying event happening right NOW and you have no idea of what to do or where to go.
Many storms won’t give that much warning, but staying aware of weather conditions gives you enough lead time (usually hours at least) to enact your pre-determined tornado plan.
Let’s talk about what that would look like if you don’t have a basement, cellar, or another shelter.
Table of contents
- Tornado Safety Begins Before the Tornado
- How to Survive a Tornado Without a Basement or Shelter
- Prepare to Enter Your Planned Shelter
- A Warning About Mobile Homes and Tornado Safety
- One Final Thought About How To Survive A Tornado
Tornado Safety Begins Before the Tornado
The first step in tornado survival is to make a plan for what you’ll do if there is a tornado. If you aren’t 100% sure of what to pack or where to go, this book, Emergency Evacuations, is the perfect manual to keep you and your family safe. It’s useful for other emergencies besides tornadoes, too.
Being prepared is half the battle. Maybe more.
Survival Mom also has instructions for making a tornado survival kit and a Grab-n-Go binder with all your most important documents. And put together your own Last-Minute Checklist using these instructions for things like prescription medications that you can’t pack up until the very last minute.
You may not be at home when a tornado occurs, so it’s a good idea to carry supplies in your car. This was one of the lessons learned from the Joplin, Missouri EF-5 tornado in 2011.
Understand the Difference Between a Tornado Watch and a Tornado Warning
Listen for emergency alerts on the TV, a NOAA weather radio, Skywarn, or a severe weather app for your area. Being situationally aware applies to weather also.
A tornado watch means to be prepared. Weather conditions indicate that tornadoes are possible in the watch area. This is when you get your supplies set in place so you can act quickly.
A tornado warning means to act now. There has either been a visual sighting of a tornado or one is indicated on radar. Go immediately to the location you’ve designated as your shelter. Do not ever disregard a warning.
It’s also a good idea to learn indicators of possible tornadoes, such as green clouds, an odd stillness to the air, and hail.
How to Survive a Tornado Without a Basement or Shelter
If you live in an area that is vulnerable to tornadoes, you’ve undoubtedly heard the advice to head to your shelter or basement as a severe storm approaches.
But what if you don’t have a shelter or basement? Where is the safest place to be during a tornado then?
If you don’t have either of these choices, you still have options:
Go to a friend’s house
Consider leaving your home and staying with a friend who has a shelter or basement. Make these arrangements ahead of time. Don’t assume there is space for you or that they’ll even be home. Twenty-four-hour access is ideal but not always possible. Ensure every family member knows where it is, when to call, and how to get to it.
Plan to bring enough food and water to last your family a minimum of three days. Be sure to take your emergency kit and important papers with you. Your home might be damaged or you might not be able to return to your neighborhood right away.
If you live in an area prone to tornadoes, you might even pre-position some of your supplies in their shelter ahead of time.
Go to a community storm shelter
When you create your emergency binder, include a list of community storm shelters in your area. Know where they are and the quickest route to get to each one. List the rules of the shelter. For instance, most don’t allow pets, some don’t allow large bags or bins, and many request that you bring your own bottles of water and snacks.
Know that shelters often fill up quickly so don’t wait until the last minute to arrive. Community shelters are often cramped, sweaty, and full of frightened and/or bored children. However, the safety and peace of mind they provide are worth it.
If you’ve never needed to stay in one, this article from the Survival Mom archives gives an overview of what a Red Cross shelter is like.
Go to a public building
Some public spaces like churches, libraries, malls, large stores, and government buildings have storm shelters or “safe areas” built in for their employees and customers. Going to these locations and waiting out a storm is an option.
Speak to a manager ahead of time to determine their policy for allowing members of the public to use their location. Add this information, along with the address of the building, to your emergency binder.
Again, keep an eye on weather reports and the possibility of tornadic activity. Then, if you absolutely must be away from home, know where the closest of these shelters is and the quickest route there.
If you choose this option, be sure to leave your home well ahead of the storm. Keep in mind that tornadoes can happen in the middle of the night when public buildings are unlikely to be open and available.
Sometimes you may not have enough of a warning to be able to leave your home. Or perhaps you’re unable to leave because you’re disabled or unable to drive. Whatever the reason you decide to stay put, surviving a tornado means you need to make a plan to stay as safe as possible.
When looking for your home’s safest place when you don’t have a shelter or basement, keep these guidelines in mind:
- Stay on the ground floor.
- Choose an interior room or hallway as close to the center of the structure as possible. The more walls between you and the outside the better.
- Do not be in a location with an exterior wall.
- Stay away from exterior doors and windows.
- Be in as small of a space as possible.
- If possible, hide underneath a sturdy object, like a table.
- Be aware of anything on upper floors that could fall through a weakened floor and crush you.
- For added protection, stage blankets or a mattress in the location to cover yourself.
- All of these rules apply to apartment dwellers as well. If you don’t live on the first floor, talk to your apartment manager about the tornado warning protocols in place for your apartment complex.
- Common places in many homes that fit these criteria are bathrooms, closets, and under stair storage areas.
Also, paint your house number on the outside of your shelter door. When neighborhoods are devastated, house numbers are nowhere in sight. It’s nearly impossible for anyone to know exactly where a particular building once stood. Calling it structural damage would be the understatement of the century.
Prepare to Enter Your Planned Shelter
Now that you’ve got a tornado survival plan and a safe place, let’s talk about what to do if severe weather occurs.
When your area is put under a tornado watch, start preparing your safe place. If you’re upgraded to a tornado warning, pay close attention to the advice of the weather forecaster. When they tell you to hunker down in your safe place, do it. If in doubt, go into your safe place and wait.
If you hear the words “Tornado Emergency” for your area, that means a tornado is actively on the ground. You should be bracing for the tornado in your safe place.
Things to consider
- Wait to call someone outside of the area you are in and tell them where you are hiding until after you are in that place. Just telling someone your pre-disaster plans is never enough. When a tornado hits, you may be nowhere near your planned shelter. Be very specific about your location. If you are unable to contact someone, post your location on Twitter or Facebook.
- Make sure everyone wears sturdy shoes. Closed-toe shoes that lace up are best. They’ll protect your feet and stay on better if you need to run. Make it a habit for each family member to keep a pair of these shoes by the bedside in case a tornado alert sounds in the middle of the night.
- If you own motorcycle, bicycle, or football helmets, get them and put them on to protect your head from flying debris. Keep one per person in a large shopping bag stored near an exit door, ready to grab and run.
- Stage the location with emergency supplies like bottled water, protein bars, a first aid kit, flashlights, battery or crank-powered weather radio, a blanket to cover your body, and a hatchet to help remove debris if needed. If possible, keep these items stored in your safe place all the time.
- If you don’t store your emergency kit and/or bug-out bags in your safe place, bring them in.
- Place small pets in a crate with a towel or blanket covering them. Ideally, each pet wears a collar as well. Microchip each cat and/or dog now in case they lose their collars in the chaos of a tornado. Store leashes nearby. For larger pets, consider keeping both collars and leashes on them while you are waiting out the storm. An emergency kit for your pets is a good idea, too.
- Have on each person as available – photo ID, cell phone, and a whistle.
- If there is time, secure or move inside items that could become flying debris. Think trash cans and patio furniture.
- Turn off all utilities. Save yourself further grief after the tornado passes.
A Warning About Mobile Homes and Tornado Safety
A mobile home is the antithesis of tornado safety.
They do not have a safe area.
They do not have a safe area.
Not even those with tie-downs.
According to the National Weather Service’s (NWS) tornado safety page, if you live in a mobile home and there is a tornado warning in your area “move immediately to a substantial shelter.”
76 people died and hundreds more were injured during the 2020 tornado season. Of those victims, 51% were in a mobile home/trailer park when the tornado struck.
If for some reason you aren’t able to get to a safer location, you are in the difficult position of having to make the best of a bad situation. The NWS states you’re still at risk whether you remain in your car or lay in an area lower than the road, like a ditch, “both of which are last resort options that provide little protection.”
Make the best plan you can now and seek to improve that plan as you are able.
One Final Thought About How To Survive A Tornado
There is no location that can guarantee your safety during a tornado.
The reality of tornadoes, especially the stronger EF-4 and EF-5 varieties, is that anything above ground that is not a specific tornado shelter is unlikely to survive a direct hit. That said, the statistical chance of getting a direct hit by an EF-4 or -5 is very low. You are more likely to encounter a survivable, less destructive tornado.
The difference between walking away from it and suffering an injury or death can be as simple as choosing the safest location available to weather the storm.
What’s your strategy for surviving a tornado?
This article was originally published on April 17, 2019, and has been updated.