Tornado Survival: No Shelter, No Basement, No Problem


For an entire week leading up to the April 2011 storms and tornados that devastated parts of my town and Northern Alabama in general, the local weather forecasters gave us warnings.


We were told to be ready for tornado survival because they saw the emerging weather pattern as it travelled across the country and how dangerous it would likely be. Fortunately, my family knew how to survive a tornado, but all too often, people are caught by surprise.

In our case, we were fortunate that our weather forecaster was taking the incoming storm seriously and you should know that if your local weather experts start talking like this, you need to start planning ahead. Many storms won’t give that much warning, but staying weather aware will give you enough lead time (usually hours at least) to enact your pre-determined tornado plan.


If you live in an area that is vulnerable to tornadoes, such as the Joplin, Missouri area, you have undoubtedly heard the advice to head to your shelter or basement as a severe storm approaches. Tornadoes are such violent events that it’s surprising just how many people haven’t given much thought about tornado survival or where they might find shelter.


So what do you do if you don’t have a shelter or a basement?


1. Go to a friend’s house to survive an oncoming tornado


Consider leaving your home and staying with a friend who has a shelter or basement. Of course, you must ask first! Don’t just assume there will be space for you or that they will even be home. If you’re invited to stay with your friend, you don’t want to be a burden, so bring enough food and water to last your family a minimum of three days. Be sure to take your emergency kit and important papers with you in case your home is damaged or you are not able to return to your neighborhood for a period of time. Since you probably don’t use that emergency kit all that often, have a few rechargeable batteries like these that use a USB charger. They’ll come in handy for flashlights and emergency radios.


DO THIS NOW: Print out my instructions for making an emergency kit and a Grab-n-Go binder with all your most important documents. Also put together your own Last Minute Checklist using these instructions for things like prescription medications that you can’t pack up until the very last minute.


2. Go to a community storm shelter


When you create your emergency binder,  include a list of community storm shelters in your area. Know where they are and the quickest route to get to each one. List the rules of the shelter — most don’t allow pets, some don’t allow large bags or bins, and many request that you bring your own bottles of water and snacks. Know that shelters often fill up quickly so don’t wait until the last minute to arrive. Community shelters are often cramped, sweaty, and full of frightened and/or bored children, but the safety and peace of mind they provide will be worth it. To get an idea of what a Red Cross shelter is like, read this article for more details.


3. Go to a public building


Some public spaces like churches, libraries, malls, large stores, and government buildings have storm shelters or “safe areas” built in for their employees and customers. Going to these locations and waiting out a storm is an option. Speak to a manager ahead of time and ask them what their policy is for allowing members of the public to use their location. Include this information in your emergency binder. If you choose this option, be sure to leave your home well ahead of the storm. Keep in mind that tornadoes can happen in the middle of the night and public buildings are unlikely to be open and available.


DO THIS NOW: If you live in tornado country, you probably drive by many of these public buildings that act as shelters. Begin to take notice of them and make a list of the building and its address for future reference. Someday, surviving a tornado might count on knowing where the nearest public shelter is.


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