How to Survive a Tornado — Dos and Don’ts

Snow White's Evil Queen in basement GIF
Get in that basement, queen.

Whether you use your basement primarily for crafts, ping pong tournaments, or dastardly poison apple projects, it’s a great place to park your butt during a tornado watch or warning. A purpose-built storm shelter is even better! Wherever you end up, there are some things you should do.

When a tornado strikes, your state’s weather authority will be informed first. They will broadcast alerts. Your job is to receive them and act quickly. What’s the difference between a Tornado Watch and a Tornado Warning? Let’s review!

  • Tornado Watch means a tornado could form in the course of the next few hours.
  • Tornado Warning means there has been a touchdown close by, and the same storm or others might be headed your way.
Tornado WatchTornado Warning
What it meansA tornado is possible. The atmospheric conditions are likely to cause a tornado.A tornado is expected or occurring. A tornado has been detected on the radar or sighted by someone in your area.
GeographyTornado watches are issued for multiple counties or sometimes even for the entire state.Tornado warnings are issued for specific areas which are likely to experience or be affected by the tornado.
The severity of threatModerateHigh
What to do1. Review your tornado shelter plan.
2. Ensure your emergency supplies are in place and accessible.
3. Keep your electronics charged.
4. Keep an eye on weather changes.
5. Stay tuned to local broadcasts.
1. Take shelter immediately.
2. Follow your tornado preparedness plan.

If you’re inside, stay inside for the duration of the tornado watch or warning. Your shelter can only protect you if you stay inside it. Brace against an interior wall while covering your head for extra protection, if you lose the roof or are concerned that objects could fall from the ceiling. Stay hydrated and try not to panic. Keep your radio on to stay updated.

If you lose power, stay in your shelter room, even if you think you can restore power or if you lose access to your smart device’s data. Use your flashlight and power bank as needed. Most tornado warnings are over within a few hours, so stay calm and stay sheltered until it’s safe to exit.

What to do if you are outdoors?

  • If possible, get inside a building. Any building is a better tornado shelter than no building at all.
  • If you cannot get inside, lie in a ditch or crouch alongside a strong building. 
  • Tuck your knees under you to make your body as compact as possible, with your face toward the ground.
  • Always cover your head and neck with your arms to avoid head injuries. Putting your hands over your neck is not sufficient. Cover as much of your head and neck as possible with your arms. Your arms will help protect your delicate skull and brainstem from damage much better than your hands.
Rule of Thumb

If you’re into yoga, just remember Child’s Pose. The best posture for protecting your body from injury is Child’s Pose + your arms over your head and neck. See? Those 600 hours of yoga weren’t a waste of time.

What to do if you are in a vehicle?

  • Do not try to outrun the tornado by continuing to drive on the open road.
  • If you are a few hundred yards from a building, drive to it and take shelter indoors.
  • If the nearest building is further away, leave the vehicle and take shelter in a ditch.
  • If there is not a ditch or similar low area in the landscape, get as low as possible in your car and assume the brace position. Cover yourself with blankets or pillows, if possible, since your vehicle’s glass will likely break.

Getting out of your car seems counterintuitive, but it is safer to be in a ditch than any vehicle during a tornado. Overpasses and bridges are also unsafe in tornado conditions, so stay well away.

4 Things to Never Do

  1. DO NOT Ignore the watch/warning.
    Not all tornado watches mean there will be a tornado warning. But you should never take a watch (let alone a warning) lightly. Take all precautions even if you are confident the danger isn’t heading your way. 
  1. DO NOT Rush towards the windows to see a tornado.
    If you are lucky enough to be indoors when you get a tornado warning, don’t rush outdoors or towards the windows to see the skies or check if the tornado is approaching your area.
  1. DO NOT Take shelter in an elevator.
    They seem safe (no windows, always on the interior of the building, encased in layers of steel), but the drama isn’t worth it. Power may be out for a long time during tornadoes, leaving you stuck inside an elevator.
  1. DO NOT Seek shelter under a bridge or an overpass
    Another place that seems safe, but definitely isn’t! If you are outdoors or in a vehicle, these places provide little to no protection from flying debris.

Tips and tricks to keep in mind

  1. If there is a tornado watch, carry an AM-FM radio with you. You can get warnings from the NOAA and your local stations. These forecasts will be especially helpful in the 20 minutes before a tornado reaches you.
  2. If your area is under a tornado watch, shut the windows and storm shutters around your house before heading to shelter. (If it’s already a tornado warning, go straight to shelter.)
  3. If you don’t have a basement or storm shelter, ask a neighbor with a basement if you can shelter with them in the event of a tornado watch. They’re unlikely to say no, unless you’re a terrible neighbor. They may even offer you an extra key so you can have access if they are not home. It never hurts to ask! Don’t forget your emergency kit if you shelter away from home.
  4. Avoid sheltering under a tree or awning if you are outdoors. A ditch is safe because debris will be blown over you; everything else outdoors is just waiting to become a projectile, including trees.
  5. If your indoor shelter is not ideal (i.e. has exterior walls or windows), bracing under a sturdy table or next to a large piece of furniture can give you additional cover.
  6. Concrete buildings are more resistant to tornado damage than wooden ones.
  7. Comfort your pets and make sure they are secure with you in the shelter room. They can sense the approaching storm and might try to escape.

Stay safe by making smart choices while the danger is high, and keep your fingers crossed that you’re not in the tornado’s path! Once all’s clear, there’s just a little more to do.

dog snuggling in bed
If you get nervous during emergencies, make sure you have comfort items in your emergency kit so you can stay calm.

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.