The Best Tornado Safety Tips for Your Best Chance of Survival

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The Best Tornado Safety Tips for Your Best Chance of Survival

The Best Tornado Safety Tips for Your Best Chance of Survival | The Survival Doctor

by James Hubbard, MD, MPH

My mother was in the deadly Tupelo tornado in 1936. She wasn’t injured, but over 700 people were. And well over 200 more died. She often recalled the people yelling for help when none was available. Hearing her tell stories about the aftermath is one reason I became so interested in disaster- and survival-medicine. I learned tornado safety tips early.

I remember very often sitting up with my family as a child at night, away from the windows, as the thunder shook. Once I even heard the signature freight-train sound go over my house. That tornado touched down and destroyed a gymnasium a few miles away.

I’ve experienced the energy in the air when conditions for a tornado are ripe, the fear of waiting with the sky so dark you couldn’t possibly see it coming, and the aftermath. I’ve had friends killed in the midst of the devastation.

So the recent tornadoes in the South really hit home. You may have seen Tupelo in particular all over the news. In addition to growing up in Pontotoc, about 18 miles west of Tupelo, I later lived in Tupelo and practiced medicine in and around there for a number of years.

But tornadoes can occur pretty well everywhere. A few years back there was one at 10,000 feet in the Tetons near Jackson, Wyoming. So even if you don’t live in tornado alley it only takes one in the right place to reap destruction. And you may occasionally travel into areas of the South and Midwest where they’re much more frequent.

Either way, I think it’s good to know a few of the basics about surviving one. As the phone woman says on the company recording, (paraphrase) “Some information has recently changed, so pay attention.”

3 Top Tornado Safety Tips

1. Heed the weather people. Usually, before a tornado hits, local radio and television announcers will give you a “watch” about weather conditions. Although that doesn’t mean a tornado is necessarily going to touch down, take the announcement seriously. A tornado watch means conditions are ripe for a tornado. A “warning” means it’s on the ground: Take cover immediately.

2. Don’t depend on tornado sirens. I know firsthand you can’t depend on sirens for much advance notice. Many times the tornado is unseen and unheard until it’s on you. I think keeping a battery-operated weather radio on your shelf, which will warn you of any impending disasters, is a good idea. And pack a small one for trips.

3. Get inside. Debris coming at you from over 100 miles an hour is the danger, so you don’t want to be outside. Take cover in a building, and proceed to an inner room without windows. A basement is ideal. Another option is to get in a tub and cover yourself with blankets or a mattress.

Updated Tornado Safety Tips

Every year, in the midst of the horror, we learn new things about protection—what helps and what we thought would help but doesn’t. So here’s what may have changed from your last update:

1. Close the windows. It used to be the prevailing wisdom to open windows—that the house could explode from the inside if the pressure difference between the interior and exterior became extreme. That’s no longer thought to be the danger, compared to debris flying through open windows.

2. Consider a helmet. Another slight controversy is the use of helmets. Since about 20 percent of severe injuries from a tornado include the head, it was thought, but not proven, that helmets could help. Others thought that since tornadoes usually caused so many multiple injuries, helmets didn’t help that much. Studies on recent tornadoes have shown that people wearing helmets fared better.

3. Don’t trust bridges. It’s no longer thought that if you’re outside, taking cover under a bridge is a smart idea. Recent experience has shown it’s not very safe. Many people have been severely injured by blowing debris when taking this kind of cover. The prevailing wisdom is no outside area is really safe. Try, try, try to take cover in a sturdy shelter. If that’s impossible, lie down in a depressed area like a ditch and put your hands over your head.

4. Don’t (necessarily) trust an engine. Trying to outdrive a tornado is usually not a good idea, although some organizations still recommend it. Of course never drive toward it, and I guess driving away from it might be your best bet if you see the tornado from a distance, but it’s pretty impossible to predict the direction changes. So, if the tornado is close, get out and run for a sturdy shelter if one is around. If you have to stay in your car, keep your seatbelt buckled, and try to get below windshield level. Cover your head with whatever is available.

What about you? Can you add any precautions? Have you ever experienced, been close to, or been in a tornado? Or seen the aftermath?


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  • chad

    Don’t forget a battery radio with weather band. A quality one that also has wind up for recharging is even better. Found a small Eton with led flashlight, weather, amfm, wind up power for $20 at online clearance site. Small and works great, if your electric dies you may not hear warnings.
    I also have a few ups that are usually used for computers with a lamp with low wattage fluorescent bulb which lights the room for a few hours and a small 120 v radio wouldn’t draw much wattage.
    I’ve had great luck with the APC brand, electronics covered for life and battery is replaceable from Amazon for less.

    • James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      Thanks, Chad.

  • MalikaBourne

    I survived an F4. I was alerted by a weather man in a helicopter. I could feel coming for days. About the sirens. I heard the sirens momentarily as I stood in the doorway. My neighbors inside their apartments never heard it. One lady was in the shower; she never heard it.
    When the tornado hit and ti did so fast there was sound void; a frightening deafness.too late to hear a siren warn…
    thank you for sharing with us once again!

    • James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      Thank you, Malika

  • Heather Ross Tipsword

    The tub is not safe unless it is in a room that is safe. You need to have as many walls between you and the tornado, so if you cannot get underground, only pick the tub if it is in an interior room. Otherwise you are better off in a closet, with a helmet of course.

    • James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      Thanks, Heather.

  • GoGators

    I have never experienced a tornado but one hint that I have come across is make sure you have shoes on! After the storm you have to walk out. Huddling in the home can allow you to forget your shoes. Helmets make sense. Heart goes out to those in Mayflower, AR and all of the other sites that were hit.
    Sorry I missed the earlier post about shoes, but still a reminder…..

    • James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      Thank you.

  • Jeremy Armour

    Having been somewhat of a tornado junky for most of my adult life (I can’t help it, they absolutely fascinate me) and having been through several in Texas, I’ve spent more than a little time studying the affects of tornadoes and what to do to survive in the event of one. So, I have just a couple of comments on the tips above.

    Close your windows – Definitely, if you have the time to do so, close your windows! (If the tornado is right on top of you TAKE COVER and forget the darn windows!) If you allow the wind to get inside your house the damage will be far more severe from a near miss or even just a bad storm. Not only will things inside be damaged that otherwise wouldn’t have been, but it’s a lot easier for wind to take your roof off when it can get inside the house. If the tornado makes a direct hit it won’t matter either way. Even if there was a possibility of your house blowing up from internal pressure (there’s not, houses aren’t air tight) the tornado will happily open all your windows for you when it hits anyway! Don’t waste time opening windows!

    Don’t trust bridges or overpasses – the only exception to this is the rare bridge/overpass that creates little cubbyholes (for lack of a better term) where the heavy support beam enters the concrete at the ends of the bridge/overpass. These are extremely rare, but if you find one it’s a safer place to be than in a ditch (not safe, safer). The key is that these will protect you on five of the six sides leaving only one side open. The problem with these bridges, actually I’ve only ever seen overpasses constructed this way, is that they are extremely rare. I haven’t seen one in years, and a regular bridge or overpass acts like a wind tunnel and actually increases the wind speeds putting you in even more danger than you would be in if you lied down out in the open! People typically only survive under overpasses when the tornado actually misses them, like in Andover, Kansas.

    Don’t try to outrun it – whether you can successfully outrun a tornado depends a great deal on where you are at the time. If you have a straight road leading away from the tornado, and the tornado isn’t following the path of the road, odds are that you can get away from it in a reliable vehicle. If this is the case, and all you have to shelter in is something like a mobile home, it may be in your best interest to try to get away. However, if your escape route is a bunch of narrow, curvy back roads or traffic filled city roads then trying to escape can easily be the most deadly decision you can make! Generally if there is any doubt that you can successfully escape the tornado the best decision is to find shelter where you are and stay put. A vehicle is death trap in a tornado.

    • James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      Thanks, Jeremy.

  • Zoomer

    Helmet? Absolutely. If you Pareto the tornado fatalities, you find head injury as the leading cause of death, closely followed by thoracic injury. So if you are a prepper with hard or soft body armor, wear that too.
    While there just isn’t enough study data to be conclusive, common sense dictates that you use the tools already available to deflect high-speed objects. While you couldn’t put on body armor and run out on a highway to stop a tractor-trailer rig, the dissipation of kinetic energy in a flying 2×4 board might be similar to a baseball bat or a shotgun slug.

    • James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      Thanks, Zoomer.

  • James Hubbard, MD, MPH

    Donna emailed me these tips and gave me permission to post.
    Always wear sturdy shoes. Keep heavy duty gloves nearby. Always have plenty of hydrogen peroxide on hand for treating the scrapes you will get from recovery/escape efforts.

  • Nurse Laura

    Having lived in the south all my life, I have too much experience with aftermath and once saw a tornado approaching from a distance while I was on the 11th floor of a hospital. I remembered feeling cold at the thought of our having to deal with 500 patients if we took a hit. Fortunately it turned away. I also remember driving through Tuscaloosa a couple of days after the recent killer tornado cut a path through there. Unlike other areas of tornado damage I had seen personally or on TV, it was the absence of anything that most amazed me. No, it wasn’t great and rapid clean up by the community, it was that the tornado was so powerful, it literally cleared to ground level everything in its path for a distance. (I looked for places I had known since college days and had seen a couple of weeks earlier and found no sign of them.) That left me with the greatest lesson- clear out before it clears you out. My parents experienced a tornado that hit the corner only of their home taking a piece of roof and another time had a tornado that circled from the side to the back of their rural home, not touching the house but taking out 50+ trees beside and behind the house in a semi-circle path. You are right- they are totally unpredictable related to how and where they go. I think all your points are excellent. The other I would add is “Keep your faith and pray”. It is calming and I have seen many miracles in my life – I do believe in them.

    • James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      Thank you, Nurse Laura.

  • Sunnie Mitchell

    I lived in various spots along the US Gulf of Mexico for 20+years, raised my son there. The worst for me tornado wise was the 18 hours I spent in the bathroom of my office when Hurricane Ivan eastern side tornadoes caught me at work. We didn’t expect the storm winds to be that bad where I was so after we’d closed ‘just-in-case’ I went back to make an office check. Very suddenly the winds were just there and the NOAA weather radio was alerting multiple tornadoes on the ground all around me. I left the Gulf Coast a year later when I found a job in Atlanta, and five years later left the US altogether. Please note I didn’t leave the US owing to weather concerns, I remarried and moved to my parents’ native UK:)

    My son is still on the Gulf Coast and I’m going to hit post then email him a link to your article. I left him and his family well packed BOBs but now they’ll need to add helmets. That’s an outstanding tip!

    • James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      Thanks, Sunnie.