Back when I was 8 years old and living in Cincinnati, I was taking the bus home from downtown with a neighbor in the middle of a horrific storm. I think it was hailing and the sky was a weird color. I remember shrieks as someone pointed out the back window of the bus to a funnel cloud that had just appeared out of nowhere. People urged the bus driver to go as fast as he could as we raced the tornado that looked freakishly (at least to a kid) like the one in “The Wizard of Oz.”

When we got off at the bus stop, we ran down the street to my house. My mom gathered me up in tears and we all ran down to the basement where we waited out the storm by candlelight and transistor radio. Later we learned that the tornado touched down in neighborhoods very close to ours and several people died.

It’s a memory that still gives me chills.

If you live in Tornado Alley, you probably have heard over and over what to do when a tornado hits. But it’s always a good idea to hear it again. And remember, tornadoes can and do strike other parts of the country as well.

The signs of a tornado

Often, you’ll know a tornado is coming because of the weather report. A tornado watch means conditions are right for a tornado. Stay alert. Keep listening to the weather reports and get ready to take shelter. A tornado warning means a tornado has been spotted in the area. Take shelter right away.

Sometimes, as in my case, you know there’s a tornado because you actually see the funnel cloud. Other danger signs can include:

  • Dark or green-colored sky
  • Large hail
  • A large, dark, low-lying cloud
  • Loud roar that sounds like a train

When the warning signs are there and it’s time to take shelter, here’s what to do.

In your home

  • Take cover. The safest place is the middle part of the basement where there are no windows. You can get seriously hurt if the storm blows out the glass and it comes heading your way. If you don’t have a basement, pick a windowless interior space — a closet, bathroom or hallway — on the lowest floor in your house.
  • Get under something sturdy. Take shelter under a table or workbench or cover yourself with a mattress or sleeping bag. It’s extra protection from things that can come hurtling at you. Cover your head with a helmet or your hands to protect yourself from flying objects and glass.
  • Know what’s around you. Try not to position yourself underneath the part of the house where there’s something heavy above you — like the refrigerator or the piano. If the floor gives, you sure don’t want to be in the way.

In your car

This is the worst place to be during a tornado. There is no great safe option when you’re caught in your car during a tornado. Unless the tornado is very far away, don’t try to outrun it by vehicle. Instead, park with your seatbelt on. Put your head down below the windows and cover your head with your arms. Don’t park under a bridge or overpass. It’s generally safer to be somewhere low and flat.

At work or school

  • Avoid windows and glass doors. Flying glass can obviously hurt you.
  • Take shelter. Go to the lowest floor possible and move to the innermost part of the building.
  • Make yourself small. Crouch down and protect your head.
  • Take the stairs. Don’t take the elevators, which can fail if electricity goes out, leaving you trapped. Inside stairwells can be a good place to take shelter.


  • Try to find shelter. If you can, quickly get to a sturdy building. If you can’t find shelter, lie face-down, flat on the ground. Protect your head with your arms.
  • Avoid trees. They can fall on your during the storm.

After a tornado

Don’t leave your shelter until you know via the news that the danger has passed. Then be careful when venturing out. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about half of all tornado injuries happen during tornado cleanup and rescue attempts.

  • Be careful when going in or out of any structure that may have been damaged during the storm.
  • Wear gloves, sturdy shoes and long sleeves when walking around debris. Be alert for nails and broken glass.
  • Don’t touch power lines or objects in contact with downed lines.
  • Use battery-powered lights instead of candles if the power goes out. If you have to use candles, keep them away from curtains, wood or anything else that can burn. And never leave them burning when you’re not in the room.
  • Don’t use generators, grills, camp stoves or other gas- or charcoal-burning devices to heat your home. Dangerous carbon monoxide gas can build up and cause serious illness or even death.