Sheltering guidelines for severe wind and tornado events
The key to tornado survival is 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. Use the basic guidelines and the information below to find your tornado safety area. When selecting your shelter area, remember that your goals should be:
- Get as low as possible - completely underground is best.
- Put as many barriers between you and the outside as possible.
It is not the wind inside and around a tornado that kills and injures people - it's the flying debris that's in the wind. Items can fly through the air (broken glass, etc) or fall down (could range from small objects to objects the size and weight of cars).
Being 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 shelter before the storm arrives. If you wait until the storm is upon you, you may be exposed to wind, hail, rain, lightning and maybe even flying debris as you go to the cellar.
A basement is also a good shelter in most cases. If your basement is not totally underground, or has outside doors or windows, stay as far away from them as possible. Items from above could fall into the basement, so it's a good idea to get under a stairwell or a piece of sturdy furniture. If possible, avoid seeking shelter underneath heavy objects on the floor above. Use coverings (pillows, blankets, sleeping bags, coats, etc) and helmets to shield your head and body and to protect yourself from flying debris.
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, in close cooperation with experts in wind engineering and tornado damage, has developed detailed guidelines for constructing a safe room.
If you're like most people, you don't have an underground shelter. In this case, 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 as small of a room as possible
If you don't have a safe room, basement or underground storm shelter, what should you do? Remembering the basics of tornado safety, you should look around your home to determine the best place.
Even an EF-1 tornado, typically considered a "weak tornado", will most likely severely damage a mobile home and/or roll it over. This is why tornado safety plans are so crucial for residents of mobile homes.
Mobile homes are especially susceptible to high winds from severe thunderstorms and tornadoes. You will likely not be safe in a mobile home, whether you’re in a hallway, a closet or a bathroom. Mobile 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 should consider executing their safety plans when a tornado watch is issued. Do not wait for the tornado warning!
Taking cover under sturdy furniture, in a bathtub or closet or under a mattress will be meaningless in a mobile home if the home itself is destroyed, blown over or rolled over by tornado or severe thunderstorm winds. Get out of mobile 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.
Caught outdoors with no shelter nearby?
If you are caught outdoors and severe weather suddenly appears, here are some helpful tips for severe winds and lightening:
- Find a low spot away from trees, fences and poles. Make sure the place you pick is not subject to flooding.
- If you are in the woods, take shelter under shorter trees.
- If you feel your skin tingle or your hair stand on end, squat low to the ground on the balls of your feet. Place your hands over your ears and place your head between your knees. Make yourself the smallest target possible and minimize your contact with the ground. Do not lie down. Remember, if you can hear thunder-you are close enough to be struck by lightning.
If that severe thunderstorm suddenly develops into a tornado follow these tips:
- If you are caught outside or in a vehicle, get out of your automobile. Never try to outrun a tornado in your car.
- Lie flat in a nearby ditch, gulley or depression and cover your head with your hands. If no ditch or gulley is available, lie down as low as you can.
- Be aware of flying debris. Flying debris from tornadoes causes the most fatalities and injuries.
- Never run to a highway overpass. Highway overpasses should never be considered a secure zone in a tornado. Overpasses act as a wind tunnel which actually accelerates the flow of the storm.
Bathrooms may be a good shelter, provided they are not along an outside wall and have no windows. Contrary to popular belief, there is nothing magically safe about getting in a bathtub with a mattress. In some cases, this might be a great shelter. However, it depends on where your bathroom is. If your bathroom has windows and is along an outside wall, it's probably not the best shelter.
Bathrooms have proven to be adequate tornado shelters in many cases for a couple of 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.
A small interior closet might be a shelter. Again, 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.
If a hallway is your shelter area, be sure to shut all doors. Again, 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 as be far inside the building as possible and should not have any openings to the outside (windows and doors).
The space underneath a stairwell could be used as a shelter.
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. Use the guidelines. Unless you are deep underground, there is no such thing as a 100% tornado-proof shelter. Freak accidents can happen.
The basic tornado safety guidelines 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's accessible at all times of the day or night.
Each year, people are killed or seriously injured by tornadoes and severe thunderstorms despite advanced warning. Some may not hear the warning while others heard the warning but did not believe it would happen to them. Once you receive a warning or observe threatening skies, you must make the decision to seek shelter before the storm arrives. It could be the most important decision you ever make.