Tornado Survival When You’ve No Shelter or Basement

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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 the safest place to be during a tornado if you don’t have a basement.

Tornado storm over freeway and open country

 

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. Many storms won’t give that much warning, but staying weather aware gives you enough lead time (usually hours at least) to enact your pre-determined tornado plan.

Tornado Survival 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.

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.

Tornado Safety Without a Shelter or a Basement

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. 

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.

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.

Shelter-in-place

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, 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.
  • Be 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.
  • 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.

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.

A Warning About Mobile Homes and Tornado Safety

A mobile home is the antithesis of tornado survival. They do not have a safe area. Not even ones 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.” 

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, “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.

A Final Thought About Tornado Survival

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 staying safe if you don’t have a shelter or a basement?

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Amy VR

Amy is an Air Force Brat and an Army Wife. She learned early on that being prepared was essential since natural disasters follow her.

38 thoughts on “Tornado Survival When You’ve No Shelter or Basement”

  1. QUESTION: How would a hemispherical shape of building like an IGLOO survive a tornado? It has no sharp corners to cause the swirling wind to impose powerful mechanical forces on to the structure. Its ‘roof’ is aerodynamic relative to the swirl of the wind, compared to a large flat roof (like a shopping mall).
    There is a new construction technique that involves a huge inflatable balloon that is used to form the concrete roof . . . no roofing tiles to get pulled off . . . . fiber reinforcement in the concrete very possible.

    Perhaps municipal building codes may be the reason as to why igloo shaped buildings are not being build in tornado prone locations. Construction of such buildings would cut into the earnings of companies that manufacture and sell roofing materials.

    1. There is a mobile home park in my area that has a large dome-shaped concrete building that was built to be a tornado shelter for the resident. The owner did have to pay a portion of the cost, but it was offset by government grants.

    2. Not an expert. Having said that – hopefully this is a windowless installation, as the windows would be compromised and the flying debris from a tornado would hurt or kill the residents, within the safe house.

      Let us know how this worked out for your friend, as a few years have passed us by, since your last post.

      I survived ‘toronadic’ winds gusts due to an extreme thunderstorm event.

      I was in a military pup tent, on a hill top. There were multiple old growth tree blow down. I was fortunate that I wasn’t in the path of the downed trees. Those that left their shelters, prematurely, were struck by lightning. And survived. No fatalities. Talk about the luck of physics!

  2. I was reading about this couple, a few years ago, who lived in a mobile home on the in-laws property. During a tornado warning, they went to stay in the in-law’s brick home. The brick home took a direct hit by the tornado and was demolished. The mobile home was untouched. I live in a mobile home. I choose to stay put, with my pets and everythin else. If they “go”, I might as well go too. I’ll man the fort, and if I croak, at least it won’t be because i ran like a scared mouse and abandoned my responsibilities!

    1. Obviously it’s a personal choice, but trusting in luck rather than preparing doesn’t seem prudent. Sure, I play the lottery, but I also prep like crazy. Hedge your bets and have a plan just in case, because a mobile home probably won’t survive even a near miss.

    2. Sir, with all do respect, your mobile home stayed intact because it didnt get a direct hit like the house did if it had it undoubtably would have been demolished even more. So my thought is that you have to have a little bit of common sense and think of the lives of your pets and not of the moral of the story that youre wanting to take out of the situation because next time You might not be so lucky.

  3. I just went through a ef 4 couple weeks ago here in ms. this is a great article. To the person talking about staying in a mobile home please do not stay there. Google images of mobile homes after a tornado enough said. Be prepared and use the best survival tool u have your brain

  4. A few years back a large tornado struck a small Texas town. There was an aerial view of a city block of homes…or at least what USED to be a city block of homes. There was NOTHING left of any of them except the concrete slab they had been sitting on. The tornado even ripped up the blacktop where it crossed the street. So, yeh, you MIGHT survive in a mobile home while the home next door is destroyed. And you might also win the lottery that day too. But the fact is, if a tornado of any size makes a direct hit on your home and you DON’T have underground shelter, then they only thing left for you to do is to bend over and….well, YOU know the drill!

  5. I believe in Liberty. If you choose to stay in your mobile home (or any location) it is your prerogative. However, I would never stay in a mobile home during a tornado warning. I have worked too many response and recovery events after tornadoes to be mistaken about what can happen to a mobile home that is hit by a tornado. In the case mentioned by Moleman, the mobile home did not “survive” a tornado, it was, as he said, “untouched.” The tornado simply did not strike at the location and that is why it was not demolished like the house that DID take a direct hit. Had the tornado’s path intersected with the mobile home like it had the brick home, it would have been gone.

  6. Harry… it’s a great question. There is a lot of evidence that shows dome structures do quite well in tornadoes. I believe they are becoming more popular but they are certainly not mainstream. Maybe they should be!

  7. In Florida, the law requires that mobile homes be tied down to the ground. In my mobile home, I rebuilt a walk-in closet in 3/4 inches plywood, ceiling and walls. The safest place to be anywhere in a tornado is laying flat on the ground wherever you are at the time.. Contrary to popular belief, you don’t get sucked in, you get pushed in by the incoming wind. Laying on the floor increases your chances that the wind will just go over you instead of pushing you out of the way to the inside of the funnel. Instruments laid down in front of tornados shows that the atmospheric pressure is almost nil, so the outside pressure is rushing in to fill that void, and if you are in the way, guess where you are going…

  8. Science Teacher

    The comments above in regards to staying in a mobile home are why I include plenty of pictures during the storm safety lesson. The pic of a small satellite dish standing untouched with mobile home remnants fluttering in the trees in the background always gets their attention!

  9. mobile homes can be dangerous if not properly tied down to the ground during high wind and tornados, imaging getting hit by a flying mobile home…dang…

  10. Community shelters rarely allow you to bring your pets. This is what keeps me from going to them. Being in a rural area, and living in a double-wide, the last storm had me under the home in our crawl space. (With the dogs). Not sure if this is actually safer, and I was alone that day, claustrophobic and scared outta my wits. It was a close call, and barely missed us, Thank God!

  11. I live in a mobile home and no matter the research my husband refuses to believe that we are not safe in our home because of ‘tie downs’, regardless, I know that we are not safe inside but I have a question, for anyone who may have answer… Our mobile home is on a permanent foundation (brick and cinder blocks) and there is a pretty large crawl space underneath but not large enough to be, by definition, a basement; the home is on an incline so one of the four sides doesn’t have an exterior wall, so to speak, it is a mud embankment all the way to the other end of the house where it meets the floor of the home, the other three walls. Now that I have finished my lengthy description, is this a safe place to be during a tornado? I live in Tennessee, so we don’t see very many but I am terrified of them!!! Thank you to anyone that may have helpful answers!

  12. I live in a duplex, all bathrooms and closets sets off the exterior walls. I have a small place going into the bedroom but it’s where the ac is located it’s Inclosed by a wall and door, it’s the only place that’s small and has the most walls in between. Would me sliding down into the corner right there be a safe place! I can’t believe whoever built this didn’t take tornadoes into consideration

  13. Useful article, but unfortunately the article title is misleading, “Tornado Survival: No shelter, No basement, No problem.” Having lived almost all my 6 decades in tornado alley, the meteorologists have drilled it into us that, indeed, an EF5 IS a problem and the only way to possibly survive one is underground. In recent memory, Jarrell, TX and Moore, OK, have proven the truth of this.

    You probably won’t survive a mobile home hit in a tornado. Lometa, TX, Evant, TX, practically had a bulls-eye on the mobile home parks. Why chance it?

    Our own farmhouse is tight, sturdy, a recently upgraded 100 year old, 100% rock house with not one square foot of flimsy sheetrock. It’s all shiplap, cedar or pine. But, you better believe we are heading for the underground storm shelter when our weather alert goes off. Those pioneers were onto something.

    The other farmers in the area know who has an old timey storm shelter. Find yourself a safe place so you can live. And get a helmet.

  14. I have witnessed several tornadoes in my life, all of them through the window of a moving vehicle, That is where I will stay everytime. The last time, a panicked meteorologist was screaming,”get out of your cars and into the ditch”. The ditch had two feet of water with hail floating on the top. Freeze while drowning, or keep driving, simple choice

  15. James Anderson

    It’s great that you’ve mentioned how one should be wearing closed-toe shoes when there is a tornado, as those stay on the feet if ever there is a need to run. My wife and I live in an area that is in the path of most tornadoes. Knowing this, we’ll know what is one of the things that we should have in our tornado shelter.

  16. Pingback: Tornado Survival: No Shelter, No Basement, No Problem - Survival Patch

  17. – You could do worse than to Google “Terrible Tuesday” or April 10th, 1979, Wichita Falls, Texas. I was there as a soldier, working in the Emergency Room at Fort Sill, Oklahoma when it was reported that we had three supercells coming down the Red River Valley. The first report was out of Vernon, Texas, where the final count was that 9 people had died in less than five minutes. About half-an-hour later, we had a report that a nursing home in downtown Lawton, Oklahoma, about 5 minutes from us, had lost its roof to a tornado.
    We responded with 3 of our four ambulances. As one of the senior responders, i took our one functioning FM walkie-talkie, or ‘brick’ along on the ambulance i was on. Altogether, I think we finally had about 17 ambulances on the site. I ended up sending my driver and ambulance with several of the ‘walking wounded’ and one of the nursing staff from the nursing home back to the E.R. for shelter. I was in the building helping 3-4 of the home staff collect medical records and medications, throwing them in plastic bags and then into wheelchairs to protect them from the rain.
    We were already standing in ankle deep water when it began to hail, about marble sized, and it got so noisy we were literally standing with our ear about 4 inches from the other’s mouth and shouting to communicate. It was like there was a jet engine in the next room.
    A few moments later, the noise stopped and the sun began to break through. I was walking a loaded wheelchair through the door when I heard my radio crackle with my call-sign. I picked up the radio and responded, only to be met with, “Where the (deleted) are you?” “At the scene,” I responded. Understand, this is a military radio, but this was not military radio protocol. “You can’t be, it’s not there!” I turned to look, and was met with all but about the 20 or thirty feet of the building we had been working in was swept down to the bare concrete pad. There was not a second reported tornado in Lawton, but a large brick building was simply gone. It probably passed within fifteen feet of where I was standing.
    My wife had been brought to the hospital by a friend, the head of the ambulance section, as she was very pregnant with our oldest daughter. I had been reported missing and presumed dead, with her about fifteen feet away in the same break room where our radios were set up.
    Shortly after that an F-4 tornado hit Wichita Falls. The final count, I believe, was 63 dead from the one storm. Two of those were in Lawton; one of those was my wife’s boss’es husband. They were leaving their mobile home for their car. He stopped to call the little dog, while she was carrying something else to the car. That was the last she ever saw him. His body was found stripped by the storm and wrapped in the tin siding from the mobile home, stuck high up in a tree. The dog was also gone.
    I’m sorry, I just can’t agree with your title, “No shelter, No Basement, No Problem.
    – Papa S.

  18. Remember with pets, you MUST register a microchip! I don’t want anyone losing a pet because the chip isn’t registered and can’t be tracked to the owner.

  19. So…my house is built on an open floor plan from 1989. It is a sturdy, brick home but there isn’t a room or even a closet big enough for us that doesn’t either have an outside wall or windows/skylights. But, the master bedroom is shaped like Utah with the panhandle angled to the inside of the house. That corner is probably the most central point in the home. We can call that the southwest corner. There is a window in the northeast corner and door in the northwest corner and obviously that northern wall is an outside wall. All of that considered, I still think this southwest corner is our best bet. Pile up into the corner and put our king mattress behind us toward the rest of the room. Any thoughts?

  20. Is a crawlspace any safer than an interior closet? I can easily imagine being trapped under debris, but then I’ve seen footage of many houses tornados left behind with nothing left BUT the crawl space, so we’ve debated this since we have no basement. Not in a big tornado area, but we’ve seen many more large outbreaks in recent years, so it’s scary. Tried to find a local supplier for a safe or shelter but not much to be found.

  21. I wish articles like this offered advise on what to do when you live in a mobile home and do not have the option of driving to a safe place during a tornado emergency. I live in a mobile home and am disabled. I don’t drive, and, being home-bound, I have no friends . There are a lot of other elderly and disabled people who live in this mobile home park who are in the same situation. So where’s the safest place to go in a situation like this? Should a person shelter in a bathtub? Should they hire someone to dig a small ditch in their yard? I have considered purchasing an oblong metal stock tank, turning it on its side and anchoring it into the ground. Would this be a safer place to shelter than in a mobile home? Is it likely the anchors would keep the stock tank from being picked up by high winds? I have looked at pictures of mobile homes hit by tornadoes, and the pictures are sobering: splintered debris when even things like plastic laundry baskets and cardboard boxes have survived intact. There’s no way a person is safe staying in a mobile home when a cardboard box holds up better than the mobile home does.

    1. Hi Meghan. The reason not a lot of solutions are offered for the scenario you describe is because no one can change the laws of physics and the power of nature. I don’t know where you live, but perhaps if as many people as possible in your mobile home park got together to discuss this, you all could come up with solutions. The only shelter that would be safe would be an underground shelter if you aren’t able to get transportation to another safe place.

  22. Pingback: Are Apartments Safe During A Tornado? – Apartment School

  23. No, the reason is because the world often cares not for the elderly and the disabled, and does not consider their survival enough. There isn’t even consistent protocol for the disabled in the event of a house fire, let alone a tornado. I think admitting this is part of a larger issue instead of a cold “laws of physics and nature” response was in order… I too think they should get together, but also with police and fire fighters who could possibly assist.

    And make sure to advocate and think of both the elderly and the disabled (and those who fall into both categories too).

  24. Oh, I agree they could possibly do some studies, funding on the federal level for those that have had to buy or rent Mobile homes, past statistics, analysis and create plans for every place. We have had all kinda tornadoes here, yet no shelter. Most people live in mobile homes or manufactured houses that are built with mobile home materials. Even churches. No one opens up shelter here. It’s ridiculous there is no safe place for a lot of families and disabled, elderly communities. This needs to be addressed federally someday.

    In the case of the best-case scenario in a mobile home. Most likely, the hall with mattresses is still the top answer you get. The bathtub with a mattress or blankets. Almost always roofs rip first.
    Our double-wide sustained the hurricane last year while my sisters didn’t. I think it had more to do with the way the winds blew. It shifted a bit. We leave when we can, but it is definitely not feasible every storm. We have had 4 storms this month once a week. Tornadoes near every time. We got three cats, three dogs, my oldest is 9 mo pregnant, her man, plus my other two and fiancee. Yeah, a hotel is not an option every time. I myself have really bad PTSD so I definitely want to be in a safe motel every time. I actually really want to be underground. Through study groups and asking questions I found out a few towns know of bunkers but cities keep them for the elite few.
    I plan on trying to learn as much as possible about an underground shelter and getting one big enough for my family. Or we may have to build it ourselves, but ultimately it’s a need the government could address and most likely these bunkers would open to more people, grants or loans could be allowed for companies to build them, homeowners could get more help. Many times people literally buy from Oklahoma storm shelter builders because they trust them knowing they have lived through several EF5. It’s something all survivalist should be talking about. Every year the weather seems more unstable, and unthinkable Michael just happened in Georgia 2018.
    Dorian basically wiped the Bahamas off the map, some places need to be well above ground, but others underground. I just really hope that when I am gone if my home goes to at least my children and their children, it will be safe. #Advocatebynature

  25. We have a vacation trailer in a mobile home park that got hit by a tornado a few years ago, so we can actually see the damage. Most of it was from trees smashing through the trailers rather than homes getting blown away. So in a “survivable” tornado (assuming a bad one we are screwed no matter what), trees seems to be the biggest threat. I couldn’t really tell from the photos how decks hold up against trees, though. So my question is we are on a bit of a hill that goes down to a lake with a big deck over the decline. We don’t have any ditches, and the lake is a low spot but surrounded by trees so there’s not really anything safe outside of the trailer. Is under the deck a good spot, or will we just get squashed by a tree no matter where we go?

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