How to Prepare for a Tornado

Man outside during tornado GIF
Step 1: don’t go outside during a tornado.

Tornadoes happen fast, so they can turn your happy day into a FUBAR day instantaneously. Don’t get caught without a plan! Below you’ll find our 5-step process to staying prepared and surviving a tornado.

Step 1: Identify Shelter Locations

The safest place during a tornado is a purpose-built storm shelter. Most buildings in Tornado Alley have basements so people can easily shelter underground, but if you don’t have a basement or would prefer to have additional protection, here’s an example of a storm shelter that can be installed anywhere. Check out our guide to disaster shelters to learn more.

how to brace for a tornado, tornado shelter

Find the location in or near your home that is best for your family in the event of a tornado. These are the best options, listed from safest to least safe:

  1. Purpose-built storm shelter
  2. Underground room without windows (basement or cellar)
  3. Small interior rooms without windows (bathrooms, closets, or bathrooms) on the lowest floor. 
  4. Anywhere indoors away from windows and exterior walls.

You may have to make a quick decision about where to shelter from a tornado. Remember these important factors:

  • Make sure there’s enough space for your group to be in the center, away from the corners of the walls.
  • Choose rooms built with bricks, blocks, or reinforced concrete when possible. 
  • Avoid rooms with glass windows and roofs directly above (lower floors are best).
  • Avoid single story locations with flat, wide-span roofs (such as auditoriums, cafeterias, and gyms).

Step 2: Understand Tornado Warning Signs

Is a tornado headed your way? First, let’s talk about the different tornado warnings:

  • Tornado Watch means a tornado may form in the next few hours.
  • Tornado Warning means that a tornado has already touched down nearby; that storm or others might be headed your way.

Scientists can easily predict if conditions are right for a tornado, but the conditions are usually right across a large area (often a few counties) for a few hours. Conditions don’t always produce a tornado, though, and the tornados that do happen are very localized. A school might be pulverized, but a community center next to it will be left completely unharmed.

So, if you live in Tornado Alley, you will probably end up sheltering from a lot of tornadoes that never come near your town. It’s very difficult for scientists to predict exactly where a tornado will form or the path it will take.

Tornado watches and warnings should be delivered to your smartphone automatically if you have weather alerts turned on. Know the signs of a tornado just in case:

  1. Cumulonimbus clouds, which are dense and huge (10,000+ feet tall). These clouds are common and don’t always mean a tornado is coming, but they are a requirement.
  2. Hail without rain. You might notice a slightly green or yellow sky as well.
  3. Dead air. A complete lack of wind and eerie silence often precede a tornado.
  4. A loud, distant roar. You will hear a sound like an approaching train when the tornado is a few miles away. Don’t try to escape; take shelter.
  5. A visible dust and debris cloud below a funnel. Sometimes, the dust along the ground is easier to see than the funnel. Seeing the debris field of an approaching tornado might make you pee your pants, but if you see it and you weren’t aware of the tornado before, it’s time to get the heck inside. Even if it’s far away, keep in mind that the wind around a tornado is often strong enough to move you or the deadly objects around you.
tornado on the horizon

Step 3: Create an Emergency Plan

Tornadoes can happen fast, so make sure everyone in the family knows what to do if one is on the way. Talking about what to do in advance will allow everyone to make faster, safer choices after a tornado watch or warning is issued. Your plan should include:

  1. A family emergency communication plan.
    This should include specific details about who will call whom to confirm locations and instructions, and any responsibilities each family member has, such as closing windows or making sure younger siblings are comforted. Make sure everyone knows where to go for shelter both at home and away from home. Stress that finding a safe shelter quickly is usually wiser than trying to make it home, since a tornado watch can upgrade to a tornado warning at anytime.
  1. A list of important contact details.
    This should include the names, phone numbers, and email addresses of everyone in your household. Include phone numbers of your local resources like 311, schools, close relatives, and neighbors. You can find a more extensive list of which emergency contacts to collect here.
  1. A list of in-house, local, and far away meeting points.
    Make sure every member of your family knows where the safest place in the house is, and that they should stay in that room for the duration of any tornado watch or warning. Hopefully, it will be possible to reunite at your home if the emergency takes place while you are away, but in case it’s not safe to return there, make sure everyone knows the designated meeting spots. For example, your family meeting spots in order of preference might be the basement bathroom in your house, the local elementary school, and grandma’s house. Having this plan will make it easier to regroup if the damage is serious and communication is interrupted.

There’s more to do as well, if you’d like to get into the details. Learn more about creating a family emergency communication plan here.

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Step 4: Build an Emergency Kit

Hopefully you’ll have a moment to grab some string cheese and juice boxes before you head to shelter at the start of the tornado watch, but that won’t last you very long if the tornado does real damage. An emergency kit will make you more prepared to handle not only tornadoes, but also earthquakes, flood, volcano, or any disaster. Here are a few the items that your kit should include:

You can also consider purchasing pre-packaged emergency kits. Learn more about emergency kits and go bags here.

Keep your emergency kit in the designated storm shelter location, and make sure your family knows it’s only for emergency use. Those granola bars won’t do you any good in an emergency if your kids eat them all as after school snacks.

Scrabble blocks on a map spelling out "WE WILL BE OK"
Tornado watches can get boring! Consider storing your boardgames in your storm shelter room.

A note on protecting your documents:  

Even at the F0 level, a tornado causes total devastation wherever it touches down. Cleanup after a hurricane might mean new carpets and sofas for the ground floor and a fresh coat of paint, but houses hit by tornadoes may be razed completely to the ground.

Cleanup after a tornado often means rebuilding your life from the ground up. This is much easier to do if you have all of your important documents and hard drives. Making a claim on your home insurance is much easier to do if you have a copy of the policy, or at least know the policy number. Make a point of keeping up-to-date copies of all of your important documents in your emergency kit. You may want to set a monthly reminder to make sure all of your recent documents and computer backups have been added.

A typical list of documents should include:

  • Identity: passports, driver’s licenses, social security cards, birth certificates
  • Property: lease, mortgage, purchase of property and assets
  • Legacy: death certificate, wills, marriage (and/or divorce) papers
  • Financial: bank accounts, school loan information
  • Insurance: copies of your most recent policies
  • External hard drives: backups of all of the computers in your house
  • Children’s documents: school enrollment information, allergy lists or other important medical info, doctors’ names

This sounds like a Type A nightmare to a lot of people, but having all of your documents will really make a difference if something catastrophic happens. Ideally, you will have originals, hard copies, and a digital backup of each of these.

Where should you store your documents?

The best policy is to keep your original documents in a portable fire- and waterproof safe that will allow them to be taken with you in the event of a disaster that requires evacuation, such as wildfire. The physical copies and the hard drive containing your digital copies should be kept in your emergency kit, ideally in an Important Papers Pack.

  • Make sure to purchase a waterproof bag for your documents in the emergency kit.
  • Keep a printed copy of your emergency plan, meeting locations, emergency contacts, and other important emergency info in your emergency kit as well.
  • If external hard drives aren’t your thing, you might prefer to keep your digital copies in the cloud. Cloud storage is less secure in some people’s minds, but it can make your life easier if you really do lose everything in the disaster.

Step 5: Practice Your Tornado Response Drill

how to brace for a tornado; tornado drill
What are they doing wrong? That’s right, they should be in the hallway, away from the windows.

Being prepared only means something if you can get yourself to safety once the tornado is headed your way. Organize drills for your family at your home and your workplace, if they are not already in place. Your children’s school should have tornado drills if you are in a tornado-prone area, but be sure to check and request a drill if they’re not standard. For more details about how to conduct a drill, read through our guide to practicing disaster drills.

Many towns in tornado country have sirens that sound when there is an impending tornado. Teach your family to recognize which sound indicates an emergency, and which sound is a test of the system. Listening for this sound can be a great way for kids without smartphones to get information and react quickly.

Check out the National Weather Service website for additional resources. One of their best resources is the Statewide Severe Weather Drills program, which stages state-wide drills before tornado season each spring. Click to see if your state has a date, and request one if it’s not on the list!

Once you’ve prepared your family for safety, it’s time to turn your attention to your house! There’s no use letting your roof blow away if you don’t have to.

About the Authors

It takes a village! We are researching, writing and fact checking as a family. Collaboration is the name of the game, whether we’re running from a zombie horde or finding the best way to turn a complex concept into a deliciously digestible set of bullet points.

Katherine Esperanza is a Los Angeles based writer. When she's not conjuring new queer slice-of-life short stories, she's busy watching the newest films, out at queer shows, supporting queer artists, or just checking out the queer community as a whole.

A former international non-profiteer, small business owner, and co-op'er, Katherine is delighted to help introduce more leftist politics into the disaster preparedness/prepper sphere, which is currently far too right-wing.