Used by permission from TORNADO-Accounts of Tornadoes in Iowa by John L. Stanford; copyright Iowa State University Press 1987

For permission to use this material, contact Iowa State University Press, 2121 State Avenue, Ames, Iowa 50010. Telephone: (515) 292-0155.


1. Seek shelter under a sturdy table in the basement.

2. If no basement is available, go to a first floor, small interior room or a room on the opposite side from a tornado. Stay away from windows.

3. In schools, churches, and shopping centers, go to designated shelters away from outside walls, glass, and large rooms (malls, auditoriums). Get under a table or counter or in a restroom or small storeroom. DO NOT GO TO YOUR PARKED CAR

4. In motels, lie down in the lowest-level interior hallway away from glass. Dive under a bed or pull a mattress on top of you as last resort.

5. In a vehicle, drive away at a right angle to the storm movement. DO NOT GET CAUGHT IN YOUR VEHICLE. Abandon your vehicle and lie in a ditch or culvert or under a low bridge.

Overall: Underground and under a table are the watchwords. People who get under something usually survive.


Many people have been saved from injury and death by following a few simple safety rules. Think beforehand where you would go on short notice in your home or workplace. Label the location with a sign, "Tornado Safety Location." Such a sign will aid visitors and babysitters and will serve as a quick reminder to yourself. a few seconds can mean the difference between life and death in a tornado.

1. In a house with a basement, seek shelter in the basement under some sturdy object (such as a workbench or pool table). The sturdy object is required because concrete blocks, boards, and other debris often fall into the basement of a home destroyed by a tornado. Persons under such an object are more likely to escape injury. Any part of the basement is usually adequate so long as a workbench or table is available.

Safety procedures in a home made entirely of brick are less certain. Brick walls, in all likelihood, will not be blown very far by a tornado and may fall into the basement upon occupants seeking shelter there. In these homes a very sturdy table can be constructed in the basement, and persons may hid under it.

2. In a house with no basement, Seek shelter on the first floor in an interior room, such as a closet or bathroom. Small rooms with a small floor area tend to be more structurally sound.

For many years, news releases suggested that tornadoes came from the southwest and that persons should seek shelter in the southwest corner of the basement of their home. This is both helpful and misleading information. As discussed in Chapter 2 not all tornadoes come from the southwest.

Knowing the direction of movement of the tornado can be most important to a person trying to get out of its path or to a person trying to decide the best place in which to take shelter in a home.

Studies of tornado-damaged buildings have shown that the side of a house first hit by a tornado is more likely to receive damage than the opposite side of the house. For example, if a tornado is approaching from the southwest toward a home without a basement, a person should seek shelter on the first floor in a small interior room or on the northeast side side of the house.

In addition to these rules, it is important to stay away from windows, since flying glass may cause injuries.

3. In mobile homes, seek safety in a designated safety shelter. As a last resort, lie down in a ditch or depression or culvert. If a shelter is not available in your park, ask for one or choose a park that has a shelter.

The mobile home is an especially vulnerable target for tornadic winds. A typical mobile home not tied down by guy wires can be rolled over by strong thunderstorm winds of 60-70 mph. In the higher winds of a tornado, mobile homes (tied down or not) may be completely disintegrated and the inhabitants literally flung to the winds. In recent years, nearly half of all tornado deaths have occurred in mobile homes. Mobile homes are relatively inexpensive and movable and are not likely to decrease in popularity. It therefore seems imperative that the safety factor be increased for people living in these dwellings.

The owner of a mobile home park in Emporia, Kansas realized the need for a community shelter for increased tornado protection. He built a shelter/clubhouse for $40,000. The next year this mobile home park was devastated by a powerful tornado. Despite having only minutes warning, about 80 people took refuge in the shelter, which suffered no major damage. In contrast only two of the 101 mobile homes in the park escaped damage. The concern of this mobile home park owner for his patrons led to many lives being saved.

4. Do not get in a car or truck. Vehicles are generally tossed into the air and reduced to a pile of battered junk.

In the April 1979 "Terrible Tuesday" tornado which passed across Wichita Falls, Texas, about half of the 46 fatalities were people trying to escape in vehicles. If you cannot drive at right angles from the tornado movement, abandon your vehicle and take cover in a small depression, ditch, or culvert under a road.

Choose a location such that your vehicle won't be rolled over on top of you. In 1974 an Indiana school bus driver saw an approaching tornado and ordered his pupils into a ditch. Unfortunately, the twister hurled the bus on top of them, killing one student. On the other hand, a 27 year old school bus driver in Minnesota saw a 1984 tornado, picked up the only student left in his bus, a first-grade girl, and ran 100 ft away. As they lay down in a ditch, the bus was picked up by the twister and dropped in a nearby slough. The first-grader's comment was, "Boy, have I got something for "Show & Tell" tomorrow!"

An Illinois first grade teacher who was afraid of tornadoes received safety information at her school. A week later, the teacher, Mrs. Donna Coartney, was driving across the countryside with her mother and teenage son. Suddenly they spotted two tornadoes, one of which was bearing down on their vehicle. There was no chance to drive away from the huge funnel. Mrs. Coartney slammed on the brakes and said, "Mother, we've got to get down in that ditch!" Her mother looked at the ditch, muddy from the rain, and replied, "I'm not getting in that ditch because I've just had my hair done." "Oh yes you are!" was the daughters reply, and they got out of the car and lay down in the ditch. The teenage son lay on them to protect them as the tornado ground over their location. They were pelted by gravel and their clothes were muddied, but otherwise they were uninjured. The type of hairspray used by the beautician isn't known, but there was not a hair out of place on the mother's head, even though it was packed with mud and pebbles. After the storm, their vehicle was nowhere to be seen. It was later found hundreds of yards away, a mangled wreck. Another lady was driving behind them. She stayed in her car and was badly injured.

5. Large rooms with poorly supported roofs are not safe areas in tornadoes. Auditoriums, gymnasiums, and church sanctuaries are examples of such structures.

In schools, move to the basement or a designated shelter area on the first floor. Restrooms and other small, sturdy rooms are usually good choices. Avoid areas into which tall chimneys or high walls could collapse. Stay away from windows. If there is no time to move to a safer location dive under tables or desks.

When a new section was built on an elementary school in Algona, architects suggested putting tornado safety areas in two restrooms. After the summer of 1979 tornado at Algona, inspection showed that those two rooms were the only ones left intact after the storm. They would have offered good protection had school been in session.

In shopping centers, go to designated storm shelters (ask store personnel). Stay out of mall walkway areas. Stay away from outside walls and windows. Get under a table, behind a counter or in a restroom or small storeroom. DO NOT GO TO YOUR PARKED CAR.

In churches, move out of large rooms such as the sanctuary or fellowship hall areas. The safest areas are interior hallways, small rooms opposite to the approach of the storm, bathrooms or closets, or under tables or chairs in basement areas. The latter are preferable.

Every church, school, store, and other public buildings should have well-thought out plans and clearly labeled tornado safety locations. County civil defense directors are happy to assist in determining safe locations.

6. Modern reinforced concrete buildings, such as large institutional or office buildings, are usually not heavily damaged by a tornado. While major structural damage or collapse of such buildings may not occur, windows can be blown out (or in), along with other minor damage. These structures will generally provide relatively safe areas during a tornado, providing persons stay away from windows. Hallways on lower floors or in the basements of such buildings are the preferred safety areas. It is also not advisable to use elevators during a severe thunderstorm or tornado warning, since the electrical power may go

1. Seek shelter under a sturdy table in the basement.

2. If no basement is available, go to a first floor, small interior room or a room on the opposite side from a tornado. Stay away off.

7. In motels, go to a designated shelter area. Alert others as you go. Underground locations are the best. Stay away from windows. As a last resort, get under a bed or lie flat in an interior hallway on the first floor with a mattress or blanket covering you. DO NOT get caught in your car.

Final comment: Tornado safety rules aren't just academic! Take another look at that monster tornado on our Home Page