Wreckage from the 2011 tornado in Joplin, Missouri. (Photo: U.S. Army/Mark Haviland)

When a tornado warning is issued, emergency management agencies first suggest people take shelter in the lowest level of their home, the basement. But that’s not a plausible option for many people in southwest Missouri. The geologic makeup of the area here means many homes across this corner of the state don’t allow for basements due to unfavorable soil conditions below the surface. 

Of the 62 people killed in their single-family homes by the EF5 tornado that hit Joplin on May 22, 2011, only three had access to a basement, according to a National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) investigation.

The report also stated that only 17 percent of the 7,411 homes in the storm’s path offered a basement for shelter. Springfield is not much different. Without the option to seek shelter underground, experts advise you to have a plan in place and respond decisively to tornado warnings as they are issued.

To help with planning, the Daily Citizen sifted through recommendations, research and myth-busting guides to provide answers to some key questions in advance of the next tornado warning.  

Where do you go if you don’t have a basement?

Short answer: Get low. Get to an interior room on the lowest floor of the house. Get away from windows. Cover yourself with any padding (pillows, blankets, a mattress) available that can provide a layer of protection between you and debris. 

Longer answer: When a tornado warning is issued, get to an interior room, away from windows, on the lowest floor of a building, according to advice from the Greene County Office of Emergency Management, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Centers for Disease and Control and numerous other emergency management and public health agencies. The lowest level and interior room recommendations supersede others that are part of the conversation when it comes to tornado preparedness. As the Missouri State Emergency Management Agency’s StormAware website suggests, “put as many walls between you and the outside.” A closet or interior hallway is a good pick. Getting away from windows, doors, corners and outside walls reduces, but does not eliminate, the possibility of injury. While many more homes in the area have crawl spaces — 80 percent of homes in the Joplin tornado’s path did — it may be impractical to access them due to size or location. Almost no one interviewed by NIST investigators in Joplin used theirs, with many pointing out they would have had to go outside to gain entry into the crawl space. 

Once in the safest space in your home, crouch low facing the floor, ideally beneath a sturdy object like a table, cover yourself with thick padding like a mattress or blankets to provide protection against falling objects and cover your head with your hands, according to advice from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Storm Prediction Center

Is hiding in the bathtub any help?

Short answer: If you have a metal tub, it could provide a protective shell against flying debris. More common materials, like plastic or fiberglass, likely will not. 

Longer answer: One survivor of the Joplin tornado told NIST investigators that he took shelter in his bathtub, and gripped the tub’s faucet to keep from being pulled into the storm after the tornado ripped the roof off of his home. But storm debris that landed on him soon after the roof was blown off is what pinned him in place, according to the report. A bathtub can seem like a sturdy shelter compared to other options, but it depends on the material, according to NOAA. Plastic and fiberglass tubs can be punctured easily by flying debris. A metal tub can provide some protection. If your home has a bathroom in the center of the house or underneath a stairwell, that can be the safest room available. But experts advise you to prioritize a central location over the type of room you choose. 

Is a mobile home safe? 

Short answer: No. Get to a community shelter or other secure space if you have time. If you don’t, experts say you’re safer lying down in a low-lying area with your head covered than you are in a mobile home. But that’s a last resort. 

Longer answer: Also no. Tornado preparedness requires more planning in advance and quicker reactions for people who live in mobile homes, because their living situations do not provide adequate shelter during a storm. According to research conducted after tornadoes whipped across parts of Alabama in April of 2011, mobile home dwellers experienced the highest rate of serious injury when a tornado hits. Research cited by FEMA suggests most people who die during tornadoes were either sheltering in mobile homes or outdoors. According to Missouri’s StormAware website, that means mobile home dwellers need to plan ahead. Jim Kramper, a National Weather Service meteorologist, provided tips in a StormAware video on the subject. They include: 

  • Have a shelter plan in place. Whether it’s a community shelter, or a home you’re welcome in, know where you can go well in advance of severe weather. Talk with family or friends who live in a home with a foundation or basement. (People with such homes can also reach out to mobile home residents and offer.) Make sure you have access to the house at all times. 
  • Time out the route. Make sure you know how long it takes to get from your home to shelter. 
  • Keep track of the weather. Tornado sirens are meant to warn people who are outdoors. Signing up for severe weather text and email alerts with weather apps or local media, as well as purchasing a NOAA weather radio, can help provide advance warning of dangerous conditions. Stay tuned to TV, radio and news outlets for updates. 
  • If it comes to it, take cover outside. If there is not enough time or access to shelter, leave your mobile home and take cover in a ditch or other low-lying area. 

Should you wear a helmet? 

Short answer: If you’re reading this during a tornado warning, get sheltered instead of hunting for a helmet. Being sheltered is the most important thing you can do as a storm bears down. Helmets protect heads, and head injuries can occur when tornadoes strike. But there isn’t research on the subject. Use your judgment, and have it ready in your safety kit if you’re going to use one. 

Longer answer: Windborne debris launched through the air by tornadoes reaches speeds so fast they are referred to as missiles in disaster preparation texts. Impact-related damage is the leading cause of injury and death, and head injuries are a common cause of death during a tornado. The research on the Alabama tornadoes involved interviews with 298 people — 98 were injured during the storms; 200 weren’t. Researchers spoke with eight people who wore helmets, and none of them were injured, but that wasn’t a significant enough population to indicate helmets prevented injury during those tornadoes. The CDC says that there is not yet any research on the effectiveness of wearing a helmet during a tornado. If you decide you are going to wear a helmet, have it ready with the rest of your tornado preparedness kit. 

“Because the time to react may be very short, if people choose to use helmets they should know where they are and have them readily accessible,” the CDC recommends. “Looking for a helmet in the few seconds before a tornado hits may delay you getting safely to shelter.”

What should I do when I hear sirens or find out about a tornado warning? 

Short answer: Enact your safety plan, grab your safety kit and take cover. In an area of the country where residents can grow used to watches, warnings and sirens, false alarms, numbness and fatigue can lead people to wait until — or past — the last minute to prioritize safety. And that can be fatal. 

Longer answer. Only eight of 99 Joplin residents interviewed by the NIST said they immediately took shelter in their homes upon hearing the first tornado sirens sound at 5:11 p.m. Many said they went outside or to a window to see for themselves how the current conditions looked, or contacted family and friends to ask what they were seeing. 

“Unfortunately, very little information or cues were available at 5:11 p.m. for interviewees to use to confirm a threat,” the report states. “Interviewees noted that the weather looked ‘fine’ outside,’ looked like a storm was going to pass to the north, or did not look threatening — just some light rain, thunder, and lightning.”

A second siren sounded at 5:38 p.m. The report states a majority of individuals located in single-family homes and apartments took shelter from the storm after actually seeing, hearing, and feeling the effects of the tornado itself. 

Research shows many people tend to respond slowly, or not respond at all, to severe weather warnings. One research paper in particular examined the reaction of Springfield area residents compared to New Orleans residents in relation to tornado warnings after tornado outbreaks in each area in the spring of 2006 (the set of storms that hit Nixa, Battlefield, Marionville, Verona and Republic). The southwest Missouri area residents, the researchers wrote, “were less likely to take (watches and warnings) seriously.” The reason for skepticism that reappeared in many interviews: “a product of an overexposure to false alarms.” 

The Greene County Office of Emergency Management asks that residents follow instructions issued by local officials and emergency personnel and to know the difference between a tornado watch and a tornado warning. 

A tornado watch means tornadoes are possible in your area, and to get prepared in the event that you need to take action. 

A tornado warning means it’s time to take action and take cover, as a tornado has been spotted or indicated on radar in your area. 

What else to know? (Short answers only)

Consider a safe room. If you’re a homeowner, consider installing a safe room. FEMA offers information about proper construction and the University of Missouri Extension offers a list of safe room and storm shelter manufacturers in the state.

If you’re outside driving, don’t hide under an overpass. As Missouri StormAware points out, an overpass can act as a wind tunnel, which negates any safety it might provide against flying debris. 

“If you are in your vehicle and a tornado is approaching, you should pull your vehicle to the side of the road immediately, get out, and lay flat in a nearby ditch covering your neck and head,” according to the website.  

Don’t open the house windows. Pressure isn’t what causes storm damage during a tornado, according to Missouri StormAware. Wind speeds and debris do. Opening windows takes time that should be spent sheltered in place. 

Homes are damaged and destroyed by the extremely strong winds in a tornado, not pressure. If a tornado is approaching, you should seek shelter immediately. Taking the time to open all of your windows will put you in danger and will not protect your home from forceful winds.

Cory Matteson

Cory Matteson moved to Springfield in 2022 to join the team of Daily Citizen journalists and staff eager to launch a local news nonprofit. He returned to the Show-Me State nearly two decades after graduating from the University of Missouri-Columbia. Prior to arriving in Springfield, he worked as a reporter at the Lincoln Journal Star and Casper Star-Tribune. More by Cory Matteson