How to Be Prepared for Tornado Season

Treatening skies and dark clouds warn of an impending storm.

Learn how to prepare for tornado season, and the precautions you should take when severe weather is in the forecast. Make a plan and know what to do when your home is threatened by a tornado.

Tornado Safety

In 2013, our future-daughter-in-law and her parents lost their home to a massive F5 tornado in Oklahoma. 

They made a last-minute decision to leave the bedroom closet where they'd always sheltered and go to their neighbors' underground shelter instead.

All that was left of their home after the storm passed was that bedroom closet. 

Their vehicles were tossed into what had been the backyard. Their home was a pile of bricks and lumber and debris. 

Their entire city looked like a war zone. You probably saw photos of the devastation on TV. If not, you'll find photos of that tornado devastation here.

Where do tornadoes occur

Tornadoes occur on every continent, but most often occur in North America. They are most common across a swath of the central United States. 

Although many other states are affected by tornadoes, Oklahoma seems to be where many of those storms are "born." Oklahoma City has more tornado strikes than any other city in the United States.

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We invested in a tornado shelter

Back in 2009 we had a storm shelter installed at Oak Hill. We never had to use it, although I did once stand at the back door, wavering over whether or not I should run for it through the pouring rain and lightning.

Still, the peace of mind has been worth the cost of having it put in. Since we never know what the future will hold, it was a good investment. 

Like our daughter-in-law's family, we might be really thankful for it some day.

NOTE: In April 2023, after we moved closer to town, we were hit by a tornado. We have an in-ground tornado shelter in our garage floor, and yes, we used it and are very thankful for it. 

We also have a new roof on our house, thanks to that tornado.

This post was originally written in 2017, updated in 2020, updated again in 2024.

Before Tornado Season Arrives

Tornadoes can happen at any time of the year, but are most likely to occur between late March and August, with what Oklahomans call "the other tornado season" in late October and November.

Make a safety plan before severe weather is in the forecast.

Newly-installed underground storm shelter on a hillside

Assess your risk

  • Are tornadoes possible in your area? 
  • What kind of home do you live in? If you live in a mobile home, make plans to shelter somewhere else.
  • Do your neighbors have a tornado shelter? Or perhaps there's a public shelter near you. For instance, at one of the churches we served years ago, members and neighbors took refuge in the church basement.
  • Is there a tornado siren within hearing distance? Download your local news app on your phone so you'll be warned of coming storms. 

Now make a plan, what will you do if a tornado is rushing towards your home?

If you don't have a tornado shelter

It's even more important to make an action plan if you don't have a tornado shelter.

Take shelter in a basement if you have one. If not, identify a "safe spot" in the middle of your home, away from windows and the outside walls of your house, such as a closet or in the bathtub.

Put as many walls as you can between you and the outdoors. (I didn't really understand this warning until I saw a 2"x4" sticking out of our neighbors' roof after our 2023 tornado strike. The more walls you have between you and the storm, the better!)

Cover yourself with heavy blankets or comforters to help protect you from debris.

Helmets are an excellent precaution, especially if you have children in your home. Bike helmets, football helmets, and riding helmets are relatively inexpensive to buy, especially if you look for them in thrift shops and yard sales.

I read a suggestion to have noise-cancelling headphones for children. (I might get a pair for myself! Tornadoes are extremely loud - I couldn't hear myself screaming!)

If possible, store these items in your safe spot so you won't forget them or have to hunt for them at the last minute.

Perhaps you, like our daughter-in-law's family, have neighbors or friends who will squeeze you in in an emergency.

Do not ride out a tornado in a mobile home. Do not try to outrun a tornado in your vehicle.

Gather Supplies

You and your family will be more comfortable in the shelter or in your "safe spot" if you plan ahead. Store a bin of supplies in the storm shelter or in your designated safe place.

If you have an outdoor tornado shelter, think through the entire process of running out to the shelter during a storm and make a list of what you might need when you get there. 

Gather these items and store them in a plastic bin to keep them clean and safe from bugs and mice.

You might include the following:

The shelter will be pitch black when you are inside with the door shut, so flashlights, a camping lantern, light sticks, or tap lights will be very welcome. 

Replace the batteries in these items every spring when you clean out the shelter.

Next to the steps down into our shelter, we placed a plastic shelf unit that holds a case of bottled water and our Rubbermaid bin of supplies. Our folding chairs store nicely between the side of the shelving unit and the corner of the shelter.

We have a "power's out" kit (sometimes known as a "black-out bag") for power outages. It holds enough food for three days plus some paper goods and hygiene supplies. 

It's not really for "in case of a tornado," but the tornado shelter a good place to store it and it has some snacks inside too.

This bin is heavy, so it's not something we could carry with us out to the shelter in a hurry. We could move it into the shelter before a storm in case it might be needed, or it can be stored inside the shelter, which is what we decided to do.

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How to prepare for tornadoes

We have a non-negotiable rule: keep junk out of the tornado shelter. 

If we need to use it in an emergency, we want the space to be open and well-organized. 

I certainly don't want to run through heavy rain into a dark place with stuff jumbled all over the floor, plus I hate creepy-crawlie bugs, spiders and icky surprises.

So we keep it well-organized and clean.

We don't use the area for general storage, other than the items we might need during a storm.

We store our insulated coolers under the shelter's steps. We don't consider this "general storage" though. It's dead space so they aren't in the way, and the coolers would serve as extra seating if we had additional people in the shelter with us.

Evaluate your insurance

Before storm season arrives, check your homeowners or renters insurance. 

  • Know the difference between actual cost and replacement value.
  • Take photos or video of your belongings and your home. Include the contents of closets and drawers.  
  • Write down serial numbers for your appliances and electronics, or take photos of the serial number (it's often printed on a sticker).
  • Upload your photos and videos to the cloud for safekeeping.
  • Many policies won't include landscaping and tree damage, so if this is important to you, make sure you have coverage.
  • Some policies don't cover computers, firearms and jewelry. 
  • Are the contents of your refrigerator and freezer covered if your power is out for a long period of time?

Make sure the address on your drivers license is your current address (or that you've changed your address in the state system). If your neighborhood is locked down after a disaster, it could be hard to get back to your home if you can't prove your current address.

When storms are in the forecast

Start preparing before the rain begins. Modern weather forecasting is a blessing, and you'll often know even days before that the chances of a tornado are high.

  • Put on sturdy shoes. 
  • Charge up your cell phones.
  • Locate coats, flashlights, purse and other items you plan to carry with you near the door where they will be easy to grab on your way out.
  • Put collars or harnesses and leashes on your pets if they will accompany you to the shelter. (And if they won't go into the shelter with you, where will you put them? A small interior room or closet is recommended, without windows.)
  • Our house cats are put in a carrier and moved to the shelter before the storm gets close. 
  • If you give your pets anti-anxiety medications (our veterinarian calls them "thunder pills"), administer meds before the bad weather arrives.

It's possible that a tree or large debris could land on top of the shelter door, trapping you inside. Test your cell phones from inside your shelter to be sure you can call for assistance and to let family members know you are safe.

Check with your city or county to see if they register in-home shelters. Many municipalities have a registry so emergency workers will know where to look for people that might be trapped inside.

ADDED NOTE: Now that we've experienced tornado damage, and know people who have lost their homes, I also suggest that you have the following items either stored in your shelter or in a quick-grab bag to take into the shelter in a storm.

  • A basic tool kit so you can turn off the gas and the water to your home if necessary.
  • At least one change of clothes for each member of your family.
  • Heavy work gloves, paper towels, trash bags for after-storm cleanup.
  • Pet food and necessities.

Don't forget your wallet, keys, purse, prescription medications and your grab-and-go binder! If you don't yet have a grab-and-go binder, take your most-important identification with you (passport, social security card, birth certificate) as well as your insurance policy and contact information.

Have some cash too. Your community might be without electricity for some time. Many stores will only be able to take cash, and ATMs may not work.

An in-ground storm shelter with a buckskin horse standing on the flat top, and a white horse nearby.
Seriously? I think Dakota dared her to try it!

Types of tornado shelters

Many homes in Oklahoma and other states in "Tornado Alley" have an underground storm shelter installed. Some are in the ground outside, like in the photo above. 

Don't you think that the horses are a nice touch? Obviously it's a strong structure, and you get a sense of the size compared to a horse.

Others are located in the garage floor, such as in the photo below. A car can be parked on top. 

A storm shelter installed in a garage floor.

In a deep garage, you can park the car as far forward as possible and still access the shelter, or you can park the car outside the garage during storms (which leaves it vulnerable to hail, but people are more important!).

Our daughter-in-law's parents had a safe room installed inside their rebuilt home, a metal structure that is designed to withstand tornadoes even though it is above-ground.

A flatbed truck with a storm shelter on top, ready to install in the ground.

How an in-ground storm shelter is installed

We documented the process of having our in-ground tornado shelter installed at Oak Hill.

The company brought our new storm shelter to our property in two pieces and dug a hole with the backhoe they'd brought on another truck.

Installing a storm shelter in the ground, moving the concrete shelter from the flatbed truck into the hole.

Then they lowered the two pieces into place. They were bolted together and the earth was back-filled around the concrete shelter. 

Lowering the bottom half of a concrete tornado shelter into the hole in the ground.

Every March I clean out the shelter, sweep the floor, wash the towels and blankets, and replace the bottled water and batteries.

Tornado safety

Make a tornado preparedness plan ahead of time, and follow the tornado safety tips in this article. Know what to do and where to go if a tornado threatens your home.

Do you have a plan for tornado season, winter storms, hurricanes or whatever natural disaster is likely in your region? No matter where you live, be weather-aware and stay safe!

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