How to Survive a Tornado

Tornadoes are powerful, deadly and unpredictable. How do you survive a tornado? This article will walk through what to do if caught in the path of one: stay where you are, take shelter under something sturdy or find an area that has less debris. If you have time hide underground or avoid any large open areas during the storm as winds can pick up during this period

The “how to survive a tornado in a car” is a guide that will teach you how to best stay safe during and after a tornado. The article also includes safety tips and information on what to do before, during, and after the storm.

Man running from tornado illustration survive tornado.

Flowers are blooming, birds are chirping, and storm clouds are forming. Yes, tornado season has returned.

Last month, we had multiple thunderstorms in Tulsa, and the tornado siren has already gone off three times (all in the same night), so I’ve been thinking about how to prepare for a twister to come barreling through my area. Tornadoes strike more often in May than any other month of the year, according to statistics.

Tornadoes are both intriguing and terrifying, with gusts that may exceed 300 mph. Tornado outbreaks kill an average of 60 people each year, but in a particularly dangerous year, such as 2011, they may kill over 500 people. During my stay in Oklahoma, I saw two large tornadoes that leveled whole communities. It’s one of the most bizarre and depressing sights you’ll ever witness.

Tornado safety is simple – literally; if you grow up in “tornado alley,” a friendly neighborhood weatherman will most likely show up at your school sometime during your primary school years to tell you how to survive a twister. Gary England was that friendly neighborhood weatherman for me. Around these areas, he’s a cult hero. For the last 40 years, he has quietly guided Oklahomans through tornadoes and severe ice storms. Gary England is so well-liked that he has his own drinking game.

Despite growing up in the panhandle, I discovered a surprising amount of fresh information (as well as how advice has evolved over time) when researching this piece. In addition, if you’re new to the Midwest or Southeast, tornado survival 101 is something you should certainly understand. Also, just because you don’t reside in a tornado-prone area of the nation doesn’t mean you can’t benefit from this life-saving information; tornadoes have struck all 50 states.

How to Stay Alive During a Tornado

Prepare yourself.

Know where you’ll take refuge in your house if a tornado comes before the storm clouds build, and put some cushioning materials in this designated “shelter” (we’ll go over this further later). Take note of where the restrooms are and whether shelters are accessible while you’re out and about at the businesses and restaurants you frequent. If you reside in an apartment or mobile home park, be aware of the tornado evacuation drill and where you should seek cover in the event of a tornado.

Because tornadoes may knock out electricity and utilities for days, I suggest preparing at least a 72-hour emergency pack and, preferably, supplies for a longer duration of grid-down.

Keep an eye on things.

Even if there isn’t a thunderstorm in the region, tornadoes may strike without warning at any time of day. You may not be able to spot symptoms of a possible tornado if it is midnight or there is heavy rain and clouds in the area. However, most tornadoes strike in the afternoon, and they are often preceded by a few warning signs. A pea-soup green sky and/or a low, black cloud are both warning signs of a probable tornado; noticing a wall cloud near here is usually reason for alarm.


Man pointing to wall cloud illustration survive tornado.

If a tornado is on its way, the NOAA Storm Prediction Center recommends looking for the following signs:

  • In the cloud base, there is a strong and consistent rotation.
  • Dust or debris whirling on the ground underneath a cloud base – tornadoes don’t always have a funnel!
  • Hail or heavy rain with either a dead calm or a strong, severe wind change. Many tornadoes are obscured by heavy rain and hence cannot be seen.
  • Day or night, there is a tremendous, continuous roar or rumbling that does not go away like thunder.
  • Near a thunderstorm at night, there are tiny, dazzling blue-green to white flashes at ground level (as opposed to silvery lightning up in the clouds). Very powerful wind, possibly a tornado, has broken these power lines.
  • Night – a steady descent from the cloud base, highlighted or silhouetted by lightning, particularly if it is on the ground or there is a blue-green-white power flash underneath it.

Tornado Warnings and Watches: What You Need to Know

A tornado watch signifies that conditions are present that might lead to tornadoes in the next hours. This does not indicate that tornadoes are near, but it is something to keep in mind as you go about your day.

An genuine tornado has been witnessed falling from the clouds or on the ground, or meteorologists have identified circulation in the storm on their Doppler radar. Many cities and towns in tornado-prone regions have warning sirens that will sound if a tornado strikes. If you don’t live near a tornado warning system, it’s particularly crucial to keep an eye on the local weather during a tornado watch. Consider downloading the Red Cross tornado warning app on your phone, which will sound an audible alert if a tornado warning is issued. (Even if there are sirens in your region, if you’re like me and occasionally sleep through them, this is a smart idea.)

Professional guidance now says that if a tornado warning is issued, you should take shelter immediately. And that is sound advice. Personally, I turn on the TV to a local news station as soon as I hear the siren, because they give you blow-by-blow reporting of exactly what’s going on, even if 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). Many times, they even specify particular areas or crossroads where people should seek urgent refuge. (Having an emergency radio for updates in case the power goes out is a smart idea.) I keep an eye out to see whether we’re in the line of the twister, and I’m prepared to flee to our underground garage if necessary.

This isn’t to argue that tornado warnings shouldn’t be taken seriously. When you live in an area where the sirens often sound but nothing happens, it’s easy to become that way. Experts believe that’s why the death toll from the 2011 tornado in Joplin, Missouri was so high: many assumed it was just another false alert and continued driving and going about their business instead of seeking cover. Every tornado warning must be treated as if it were the genuine thing.


Take Shelter

The greatest threat, no matter where you are when a tornado hits, is flying debris. While most tornado injuries and deaths are caused by debris that strikes, impales, or lands on victims, most tornado injuries and fatalities are caused by debris that hits, impales, or lands on victims. Twisters can convert 2X4s, bricks, and branches into lethal projectiles as they tear apart houses and homes and level trees. When a tornado strikes, here’s how to be safe no matter where you are:

In a residence. If you don’t have a designated storm shelter, the basement is the greatest location to take refuge in a home (or anyplace else). If you don’t have a basement (which isn’t very common out here), go to an inside bathroom, corridor, or closet on the lowest level of your home with no windows; the more walls you can place between you and the wind, the better. If possible, avoid putting yourself beneath a huge, heavy item on the floor(s) above you, such as a piano or refrigerator, if you reside in a multi-story home. If the house’s structural integrity is jeopardized, it might all come tumbling down.

Man hiding under mattress house cutaway diagram survive tornado.

To protect yourself from debris, such as that which could fall on top of you, attempt to cover yourself with a mattress or blankets, or burrow beneath a strong table or workbench. To protect your head, experts suggest wearing a motorbike, football, or cycling helmet. Curl into a ball and protect your head with your arms and hands if you don’t have any additional cushioning.

In addition to these safeguards, there are a few misconceptions you should be aware of that aren’t true:

  • Myth #1: If a tornado is approaching, open the windows to equalize the pressure inside the home with the tornado’s low-pressure eye; otherwise, the house will explode. There is no truth to this, and racing about opening your windows might result in you being chopped up by flying glass, as well as the tornado’s forces pulling the roof off your home.
  • Myth #2: The safest position in a room/basement is in the southwest corner. I remember hearing this one when I was a kid, but it’s not true. Tornadoes are considered to blow debris to the northeast since they originate in the southwest. A tornado, on the other hand, will smash your home from all sides; no area is inherently safer than the next.

In a trailer park. Get away of here! In a mobile home, people are 15 times more likely to die than in any other area. Even mobile houses with a tie-down system will not be able to resist the high winds of a tornado. If you can, seek refuge in a permanent structure. If you don’t have any other options, lay face down in a ditch and cover your head with your arms and hands.

In a business/office setting. If you’re at work, seek refuge in an inside room or restroom on the first level that’s devoid of windows, or at least far away from them. Cover your head with your hands and arms while crouching facedown. Interior stairwells are another suitable location. If the power goes out, avoid riding elevators since they may get stuck.


The roofs of “long-span” structures (think shopping malls, large box shops, theaters, and gymnasiums) are generally solely supported by the outside walls, and when the buildings approach a “failure threshold,” they may fully collapse. If a specialized storm shelter is not available, descend to the lowest floor and search for a windowless restroom or storage room on the store’s interior. If you can’t find a suitable location, consider hunkering down behind anything robust, such as a doorframe, or under something sturdy, such as theater seats, that will protect you from falling debris.

Outside. If no shelters are available, lay flat in a low part of the ground, such as a ditch or gully, and cover your head with your hands and arms. Choose a location that is free of trees and other possible missiles.

I’m on the go. When a tornado hits, your automobile is one of the most hazardous places to be; even the strongest twisters may flip or pick up your car and fling it hundreds of yards or wrap it around a tree. So, if you’re near a permanent structure, get out, go inside, and look for anything that fits the description provided above; for example, if you’re at a fast food restaurant, take shelter in the toilet or a walk-in freezer, if one is available.

  • Myth #3: It’s a good idea to seek cover under an overpass or bridge. As a twister approaches, an overpass may transform into a hazardous wind tunnel, leaving shelter-seekers susceptible to flying debris. The tornado might also degrade the bridge’s or overpass’s structural integrity, leading it to collapse. Parking beneath an overpass is also forbidden since it poses a serious traffic hazard; if the tornado doesn’t catch you, a speeding automobile may.

You may need to drive away from the storm if there are no permanent shelters nearby. Although you may have heard that this kind of escape should never be tried, the NOAA’s Storm Prediction Center claims that it is a realistic option…if done correctly. Only try to escape a tornado that is far away and not approaching you. Compare the tornado’s velocity and direction to a fixed landmark in the distance, such as a telephone pole or a tree. It’s not traveling towards you if it’s moving right or left instead of staying static and becoming larger. Drive away from the current direction at a right angle. Basically, you’re attempting to put as many miles as possible between yourself and the storm.

Tornado diagram which direction to drive car illustration.

If the twister remains motionless and grows in size, it’s headed your way, and you won’t be able to escape it. When I was a kid, I was taught that if you’re driving and a tornado approaches, you should get out of your car and lie down in a ditch or gully, since the twister may convert your automobile into a dangerous toy. Recent research has shown that most tornadoes aren’t capable of flinging your automobile into the air, and that remaining inside your car is actually safer than getting out. However, there is still considerable debate over which choice is the best. The Red Cross advises going off the road, parking the vehicle, and slouching down as much as possible in your seat while still wearing your seatbelt. Duck and lean away from the windows, and if you have one, cover your head with a blanket or coat.


You may elect to get out of the vehicle, lay facedown, and protect your head if you notice a spot below the level of the highway where you may go.

“Your decision should be determined by your individual circumstances,” the Red Cross advises. Good luck with your choice! And, guys, remain careful out there.


Ted Slampyak created the illustrations.



The “10 ways to survive a tornado” is a list of 10 tips that will help you survive the storm. These are all things that you should do in order to stay safe during the tornado.

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