Take Shelter in Your Cellar: Tornado Safety

Updated by Jim Deckebach

Tornadoes are revolving funnel clouds that wreak destruction. Created from thunderstorms, tornadoes can tear through cities and towns in seconds, leaving devastation in their wake. Tornado wind speeds can top out at 300 miles per hour, and they may plow a path of destruction as much as one mile wide and 50 miles in length. It may be possible to watch for signs that a tornado is coming, and weather reporters will often provide warnings that a tornado is possible or imminent. Tornadoes might also come with little to no warning.

Having a Plan in Place Before the Storm

Some states are more likely to experience tornadoes, but no state is immune to them. Thus, every state should have precautions and procedures in place that cover tornadoes. Preparedness begins before a tornado watch occurs and includes knowing:

  • What to Do: Close doors and windows at home. Close interior doors to compartmentalize the structure, placing barriers to protect you from the storm.
  • Where to Go: Get to a low interior room without windows, such as a cellar or basement. Avoid a room where there is heavy furniture in the room above you, if possible.
    • Have padded items such as mattresses and blankets to use as shields.
    • Leave your car if a tornado approaches. Find a ditch, lay flat, and cover your head.
    • Away from home in a city, avoid buildings with wide, arched roofs because this design places the ceiling load on the outer walls. Find a smaller building.
    • Designate a meeting place to find each other afterward, and make sure everyone knows how to get there. Have one or two alternate spots if the first choice isn't safe. Don't rely on cell phones for contact, since towers and networks might go down.
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Home Tornado Kit

Keep large emergency items in a footlocker in your shelter space. Place other items in duffel bags or backpacks, each weighing no more than 20 to 30 pounds. These are known as "go bags" because you can grab them and go at a moment's notice. Keep the tornado kit in a closet or other easily accessible spot. A home tornado kit should include:

  • Food and water (one gallon per person per day for three days)
  • First aid supplies
  • Diapers and baby food
  • Pet food and water for pets
  • Prescription and over-the-counter medications
  • Important papers
  • Matches and candles
  • Flashlights
  • Emergency radio
  • Battery-operated phone charger
  • Extra batteries
  • Manual can opener
  • Tent and tarps
  • Rain gear
  • Blankets and sleeping bags
  • Tools for digging
  • Rope
  • Signal flares and light sticks
  • Air horns and whistles
  • Work shoes or boots
  • Cash and credit cards
  • Keys

Car Disaster Kit

A car disaster kit is smaller than a home kit, but it contains essential items that you might need in a tornado or other emergency. Keep your car filled with gas, and store your disaster kit in the trunk at all times. Collect these items:

  • Flashlights with extra batteries
  • First aid kit
  • Cold weather clothing and outer wear
  • Non-perishable food items and manual can opener
  • Water
  • Radio
  • Jumper cables
  • Ice scraper
  • Shovel
  • Cat litter or sand for traction in the snow
  • Blankets and sleeping bags
  • Pocket knife
  • Flares or reflective triangles
  • Cell phone and battery charger

Useful Items to Have Close

When you're out and about, it may help to have a few items with you in case of emergency. These items may fit in your pockets or in your purse or wallet. You might also be able to attach some items to a keychain.

  • Small flashlight
  • Glow sticks
  • Lighter or matches
  • Pocket knife
  • Cash

Know the Signs of a Tornado

You might get information about possible storms approaching from radio, television, or your cell phone. However, there may be times when you don't have access to these warnings. In this case, pay attention to the weather so you can take cover if necessary. Watch for:

  • Any approaching storm
  • A large, dark cloud hanging low and possibly rotating
  • A greenish or dark sky
  • Large hail
  • A loud roar that sounds like a freight train
  • Dust or debris swirling around a cloud base
  • Small flashes near the ground, which could be power lines snapping
  • Lightning and persistent lowering at the base of a cloud

Seek shelter immediately if you notice these signs of a storm. Educate children to recognize these signs, and have regular practice drills so everyone in the family, including kids, knows what to do and where to go. If someone in the family struggles in a drill, be patient and resolve the situation.

Tornado Alerts

Tornado alerts are the first sign that it's time to take cover. Know the difference between a watch and a warning. A tornado watch means that conditions are favorable for a tornado, but one has not been sighted. If a watch is issued, check on your plan and kit and watch the weather. A tornado warning means that a tornado has been seen or is showing up on radar. Everyone in the warning area must take shelter until the all-clear is given.

Ways to receive a warning include:

  • NOAA Radio: The National Weather Service issues alerts.
  • Television: Local television stations will interrupt broadcasting to issue alerts.
  • Apps: Cell phone apps can alert users about storms.
  • WEA: The Wireless Emergency Alerts system sends messages to cell phones.
  • EAS: The Emergency Alert System issues alerts on television and radio stations.
  • Sirens: Local municipalities may have storm sirens to warn residents.

Safest Places to Be During a Tornado

The basement or cellar is the safest place to be during a tornado. An underground storm shelter is also a safe place. If a cellar or storm shelter is not available, find an interior room on the lowest level of the structure. Go to the center of the room, get under a sturdy piece of furniture, and protect your head.

What to Do Where You Are

  • House With Basement: Avoid windows and take shelter in the center of the basement under something sturdy, such as a workbench. Use a mattress or blanket for protection from flying debris.
  • Home Without Basement: Avoid windows and get to the lowest floor in a central room. Crouch down low and cover your head. Use a mattress or heavy blanket for protection.
  • Office, Hospital, or Skyscraper: Get to the lowest floor away from windows. Avoid elevators.
  • Mobile Home: Leave a mobile home and seek shelter in a permanent building.
  • School: Go to an interior hallway away from windows. Avoid large rooms. Crouch low and cover your head.
  • Store or Mall: Avoid crowds and try to find an interior bathroom or space away from windows.
  • Church or Theater: Move to an interior hallway or bathroom away from windows. Seek cover under chairs or pews.
  • Motor Vehicle: Park the vehicle and leave it if possible. If you can't leave the vehicle, keep your seat belt on and crouch as low as possible. Cover yourself with a blanket or seat cushion. If you can leave the vehicle, find a ditch and stretch out flat while covering your head.
  • Outdoors: Seek shelter in a building, if possible. If a building isn't available, lay flat in a low area on the ground away from large objects that might be blown around. Cover your head.
  • On the Water: Get off the water as quickly as possible and seek shelter in a building.

Tornado Safety Procedures and Apartments

When a tornado approaches and you're in a high-rise apartment, get to the lowest floor. Avoid windows; choose an interior hallway, closet, or bathroom. Interior stairwells are also suitable. Crouch low, and cover your head.

After the Tornado

  • After the tornado is over, proceed very cautiously as you explore the aftermath.
  • Wait until the storm passes: Don't venture out until you are sure the storm is over. Tornadoes sometimes reverse direction.
  • Watch the weather: Additional safety issues may follow a tornado, such as hail, lightning, and flooding. Never wade through water in a flood, since currents can be strong. Debris may also cause you to fall.
  • Use flashlights and not candles. Gas leaks are common after a tornado, so don't use candles until you know it's safe to do so.
  • Begin first aid for any injuries, and get help if necessary.
  • If your home is no longer safe, leave it. Grab your go bags and go to your alternate safe place.
  • Avoid downed power lines and water due to the electrocution risk. Avoid debris, fallen trees, and anything that could collapse.

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