How to survive a tornado

Peter Wehrwein

Contributor, Harvard Health

The storms that have recently ripped through the South included dozens of tornadoes. And as the bad weather barreled north today, the National Weather Service declared a tornado watch for eastern parts South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, and Maryland, and warned of severe weather as far north as Boston (the sky outside my window is definitely looking a little ominous).

Strong wind from any sort of severe weather can wreak havoc, but the speed and spinning winds of a tornado are especially destructive.

Remarkably, relatively few lives are lost to tornadoes. During an average year, tornadoes kill about 60 Americans, which is about the same number of people who killed by lightning strikes.

But this is not going to be an average year. The death toll from the terrible storms in the South is approaching 300. And the number is climbing.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has some suggestions for what to during a tornado. The National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center has posted a tornado FAQ (frequently asked questions) that covers tornado safety—and pretty much anything else about tornadoes you can think of.

Here are some the main points from the CDC, the weather service FAQ, and a few other sources:

  • Head to the basement. If you are inside, below ground is the safest place to be. But it’s a myth that you should head to the southwest corner. Tornadoes can come from any direction and the swirling winds can be blowing from any direction. 
  • Get away from windows. Tornadoes can make windows suddenly shatter as if they were exploding. It’s another myth that opening windows can somehow equalize the pressure inside the huse and out. In the words of the National Weather Service’s FAQ, opening windows “is absolutely useless, a waste of precious time, and can be dangerous.”
  • If there is no basement, head to an inside room or hallway on the lowest floor. Although some people think the safest place is in the bathtub, the main thing is to get away from the windows and outside walls. Researchers who studied the deaths and injuries from powerful tornadoes that hit the Oklahoma City area on May 3, 1999, found that basements and hallways were the safest places to be.
  • Hide under a heavy table. Most deaths and injuries from tornadoes are from falling or flying debris. A heavy table or work bench could protect you. The CDC also advises covering your body with a blanket, sleeping bag, or mattress.
  • Do not stay in a mobile home. Mobile homes don’t attract tornadoes. But they are a dangerous place to be if a tornado hits. In the Oklahoma City storm, people inside mobile homes were 35 times more likely to die than people in other sorts of buildings, and 12 times more likely to suffer severe injuries.   
  • If you’re outside, get low and away from trees. Find a gully or ditch, lie flat, and cover your head. And get as far away as possible from cars or other objects that the tornado could lift.
  • Avoid “long-span” buildings. Shopping malls, theaters, and gymnasiums can be especially dangerous because the roof is supported only by the walls. If there is no time to leave such a building to get to a safer place, get under a door frame or something else that could deflect falling debris.
  • A mixed message on cars and driving. The least desirable place to be during a tornado is in a motor vehicle, and the CDC warns against trying to drive away from one. In some tornadoes, a disproportionate number of people in cars have been killed. But in the Oklahoma City storm, researchers calculated that the death and severe injury rate was lower among people in cars than among those outside or in mobile homes. The weather’s services FAQ says vehicles are a “notorious deathtrap” in tornadoes, but advises either leaving the vehicle or driving out of the tornado’s path.


  1. Anonymous

    This is a good common sense Blog. Very helpful to one who is just finding the resources about this part. It will certainly help educate me.

  2. Annie

    Thank you for posting! This was very helpful with my project.

  3. Anonymous

    cloudz can be agresive lols! P;

  4. Anonymous

    2 thumbs up for this very informative post.

  5. FreeSpirited

    It was one of the worst years, if no the worst year, for storms like this in Maryland. We had important roads closed down for several days at a time. Was it actually one of the worst in recent history, or did it just seem that way?

  6. Cody

    I’m glad I don’t live in tornado country, but I guess if one comes I will know what to do.

  7. davis vantage vue

    Great information Peter.So true about this not being an average year. What do you think it will be like next year? I will remember these great tips just in case a time comes when i may need them.I was in the Philippines a few months ago and the weather was not so good there as well.I also bought a weather instruement just to be on the safe side
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  8. Mark

    Great post, especialy liked the part about using a large heavy table to hide underneath to keep out of harms way.

  9. Janifer

    I am amaze. You really did a great Post. We don’t really have tornados in our city, but we actually have strong winds, so I might apply the idea that I got from you.
    Thank you so much!
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  10. Steveallen

    The above content article is very impressive, and I genuinely enjoyed reading your weblog and points that you simply expressed. Thanks.

  11. Brian

    We in Tennessee have has our share of nasty weather this summer too. High winds and tornados have caused much damage. We’re seeing more people building safe tornado rooms in their homes. My neighbor actually started his own business doing nothing but that. At least you feel a little more secure when the sirens go off.

  12. Mike Cohen

    Great post Peter. You were spot on saying that this would not be an average year. We have been getting pounded here in the Midwest. I actually printed up this post and will keep it handy for the great tips. I was in Israel last month and the weather was crazy there as well.
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  13. Steve

    When I was in the MARINES we always were sent out to disaster areas whether it be Hurricanes or Tornados.
    We built tent cities for all to live in. Bet you guys never new about that. The government keeps that news to

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  14. Max

    Great post! I once was on a trip through Ohio and just as we were about to leave the tornado sirens sounded. I was gripped in fear as I had only heard such sounds (being from the NE US) in movies with atomic bomb warnings.

    It is was interesting that most people just went on with their days because they were used to the sirens, while my friends and I were stricken and confused.

    Also, as a professional roofer, I wonder the incredible stories roofers have in tornado alley, such as cows falling through people roof’s, etc.
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  15. Brady Sutherland

    I am very young once we had a tornado warning which scared me to death but good to know

  16. James

    Good information. In Rhode Island we don’t usually have tornadoes, but this past season we have had a couple, as well as Massachusetts. So, even in our little corner of the country, good stuff to know.
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  17. Blanket Polar

    Great information here, good thing I’m on the west coast where a tornado wouldn’t likely hit. If it does happen, this article would be a great reference.

  18. Houston Transmission Experts

    There is always a degree of luck in the survival with nature. You could take all the tips, but when it’s your time; it’s your time. But I do agree you would do anything/everything to survive even if it gives you at least an extra fraction of survival

  19. Chris Hunsicker

    I always wonder how much warning is ever available that a tornado is coming.

  20. Anonymous

    Good methods,very useful!

  21. Miranda Kolthoff

    I’ve been fighting panic attacks for monthsI think. Completely taken over my life, I can tell you that much.

  22. Stuart Clarke


    After a storm, there are other dangers to be aware of. Many homeowners will be trying to secure their property and some will have to climb on their roofs. I would like to share some ladder safety tips to help prevent injuries.

    Ladder safety:
    Falls are the number one cause of accidental death in the home. Even experienced builders and construction workers make mistakes, so here are the things you should always do when using a ladder.

    OSHA states that for every 4 feet a ladder goes up, it should come out 1 foot. If the roof is 12 feet high, the base of the ladder should be 3 feet from the edge of the roof.
    Next, the ladder must be level. If the ground is not level, move to a spot that is. The ladder must be set firmly and evenly on the ground. I prefer to fold out the ladder’s pointed feet and embed them into the yard. Others prefer to have the ladder’s rubber feet on concrete. If you prefer the latter for your ladder, then be sure to sweep the concrete clean before setting the ladder to prevent it from sliding out.

    Securing the ladder:
    If possible, drill a hole in the fascia of the house and insert an eye hook or other means to tie the ladder to. We use two of them that are three quarters of an inch thick to tie our ladder to the roof. It is stronger than we should ever need, but your life is worth more than a few dollars and a few minutes to secure a ladder.

    Proper footwear:
    Wear good fitting shoes or better yet, work boots! Do not wear loose fitting shoes like flip flops or crocs on a roof or while climbing. If your foot rotates inside or slides out of the shoe, you have a very good chance of falling off the roof and being hurt. As the angle of the roof increases, the force exerted on your shoe surrounding your foot can cause your shoe to roll around your foot.

    Although this should be obvious, if you are not stable on flat ground or you are prone to tripping and falling, please have someone else repair your roof.

    Finally, there are volumes of books on construction safety; please consider going to the OSHA website for more information.

    Those of you in the storm-hit areas have been through enough; there is no reason for anyone else to be hurt by having an accident on a ladder. With these tips, hopefully you will get your damage repaired safely.

    You are in our prayers,

    Stuart Clarke

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