How to protect your home from a tornado
A twister can occur just about anywhere in the U.S. Here's how to be prepared, alert and safe.
© Eric Nguyen/Corbis
Science has greatly improved the art of predicting tornadoes, and that advanced warning, along with home preparedness, saves lives.
Tornadoes occur most frequently in the famed Tornado Alley region of the central plains, from South Dakota down into Texas, while the powerful storms also hit Florida and Gulf Coast states hard. The Federal Emergency Management Agency says the peak tornado months are March through May in the Southern states and from late spring through early summer in the North.
Tornadoes have touched down in every state in the U.S., according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. So it's prudent for most Americans to have a basic tornado plan.
Know the signs
It's important to know when there might be a tornado versus when there actually is one in your area. NOAA's National Weather Service will issue a tornado watch when conditions are right for a tornado to form though none has been detected. A tornado warning is issued when a twister is spotted or radar indicates one.
- On our blog, 'Listed': Why aren't homes built to withstand tornadoes?
Tune into the local weather reports for alerts during a tornado watch. You can buy a NOAA radio transmitter for about $80 that gives detailed information during severe weather. Some transmitters also have alarms for when warnings are issued.
Know where your house is located in relation to other parts of the county or city so you can determine if a watch or warning affects you, says Greg Carbin, warning-coordination meteorologist at NOAA's storm-prediction center in Norman, Okla.
During a watch, keep an eye on the windows. Tornado signs include dark, low-hanging clouds, frequent lightning and large hail, Carbin says. Often, the electricity will cut out right before a tornado hits because nearby transformers were struck first.
"But in many parts of the country, because of terrain and trees it's very hard to see the tornado before you feel it," Carbin says.
Protect your family
Designate one room in your house as the safe room during a tornado. You'd be most protected in a storm shelter underground. The concrete walls of these rooms are reinforced with steel or Kevlar and protect occupants from flying debris and high winds. Most homes don't have these storm shelters, however.
The next best place is in a basement under stairs or sturdy furniture to help protect from falling debris, says Greg Forbes, a severe-weather expert at The Weather Channel.
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If your home doesn't have a basement, get to the most interior, windowless room on the first floor. The goal is to get low and to put as many walls between you and the outside. A closet or bathroom works best. Carbin says steel piping helps to reinforce bathroom walls, and there's also evidence that getting in a bathtub can be protective.
If there's time, put on a bike or sports helmet. Head trauma has been the main cause of death in recent tornadoes, Forbes says. Shield your body and head with blankets, pillows or even a mattress. Put pets in carriers.
It's best to gather extra padding and protective gear during a tornado watch. As soon as the watch turns into a warning, get in your safe location immediately. Don't bother moving a mattress or collecting pillows, Forbes says.
For mobile-home residents, locate a nearby sturdy building where you can seek cover when a tornado watch is issued. Mobile homes provide little protection against tornadoes. Apartment residents should get to the lowest floor possible and find a windowless area.
Make sure everyone in the family knows which room or building is the designated safe place and when to take cover.
Prepare your home
Efforts to protect your home from tornadoes must start at construction. Many homes in tornado-prone areas are built to the local building code, which may stand up to the weakest of tornado winds — up to 90 mph — but will buckle in higher winds, Forbes says.
Homes built to hurricane building codes, such as those on the Gulf Coast, can withstand stronger tornadoes, though they are no match for the fiercest twisters. The roofs on these homes typically are strapped to the walls, and the walls are bolted to the foundation, Forbes says.
The Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety says anyone renovating an existing home or putting on a new roof should make sure connections are firm. The group has found that homes with strong connections between the roof and walls and between the walls and foundation have a better chance of withstanding tornadoes.
On its website, The Weather Channel advises homeowners to install impact-resistant windows and patio doors and to attach exterior doors to their frames with three hinges, in addition to having deadbolts for the doors. Keep up on maintenance to the roof, gutters and outside walls. Cut down dead or diseased trees and limbs near the house.
Bring deck furniture, planters and any other loose furniture or equipment inside when a tornado watch is called, but only if you have time.
"Realistically, if winds get above 100 miles per hour, the house is going to begin to fail in some places," Forbes says. "It's more of a matter of saving yourself."
The best way to protect your house is to observe which way the tornado is spinning, once you determine that, climb into your vehicle and then start driving around your house in the opposite direction, and as fast as possible. You should be able to create enough counter winds to allow the tornado to harmlessly pass overhead. Remember that you must open the car windows a little bit to allow the pressure to escape.
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--Pay attention during each tornado watch; you never know when this will be the one that drops a twister on your area!
--Don't go outside to film the tornado. Flying debris in advance of the storm can be deadly.
--If your house does get hit, get out and don't go back in looking for stuff. The damaged house could collapse on you. Wait for emergency personnel and stay together. Watch out for downed power lines that still could be live.