'GMA' Survival Week: Tips for Surviving a Tornado

Tornadoes can wreak havoc on families and communities. When a tornado watch is issued, there is precious little time to get to safety.

In 2013, Kris Lancaster and his family survived an EF4 twister that ripped through their Washington, Illinois, neighborhood. An EF4 has wind speeds of between 166 to 200 miles per hour, according to the scale used to measure tornado intensity.

Lancaster and his wife, Mandy, were recording the approaching twister before fleeing to their basement. They barely made it in time.

In the past two years alone, tornadoes have killed at least 50 Americans. To survive a strong twister, where you go can mean the difference between life and death.

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Ginger Zee, ABC News' chief meteorologist, visited the National Wind Institute at Texas Tech University earlier this month.

At the lab, a debris cannon behind a safety wall simulated what debris can do to various types of materials.

The cannon was loaded with wood and fired at concrete with tornado-force speeds.

“This 100 miles per hour missile will totally go through the standard residential structure,” said Larry Tanner, research professor at the university’s Debris Impact Facility.

In a real-life tornado threat, people who can get to a storm shelter have a good chance of staying alive.

During a simulation, a two-by-four was fired at brick and cinder block. The lumber went right though both materials.

Just as important as knowing where to go is knowing where not to be during a tornado threat. Stay off roads and away from overpasses.

Some of the most critical moments can happen after the storm. At Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service’s Disaster City, a facility in College Station, Texas, emergency personnel train on how to react in the aftermath or tornadoes and other natural disasters.

There, Zee was pinned under wreckage. In a similar situation, experts say, it’s important not to freeze up. Instead, you should immediately look around for anything that can become a tool.

Zee spotted a piece of lumber on the ground. The once-dangerous piece of debris became a life-saving makeshift lever. Susann Brown, the training manager and search team manager for Texas Task Force 1, an urban search and rescue team, gave Zee pointers on what to do, telling her to wedge the wood under debris to get free.

Then, Zee found her way blocked, so she used a broken table leg to hammer her way through dry wall.

“You have a toolbox that used to be your house,” Brown said.

Other Tornado Survival Tips

  • If you can’t get to a shelter or even a basement, designate a safe place near the center of your home. Consider an indoor closet or location under the staircase -- someplace away from windows.

  • Stay low and cover your head.


Here are several preparedness checklists from Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service.

Emergency Supply Kit

  • Survival guide

  • Water (1 gallon/person/day)

  • Food (3 days non-perishables)

  • Can opener/kitchen accessories

  • Battery-operated radio

  • Flashlight

  • Crowbar

  • Extra batteries

  • First aid kit

  • Hand cleaner

  • Matches in waterproof container

  • Whistle

  • Gloves

  • Extra clothing

  • Warm/dry outerwear

  • Pet supplies

  • Place emergency supply kit in safe room

Other Useful Preparedness Checklists


  • Gas

  • Water

  • Power

  • Credit cards

  • Extra keys

  • Money

Vital Records (stored in fireproof box, electronic backups)

  • Birth certificates

  • Marriage certificate

  • Driver’s license

  • Social Security cards

  • Passports

  • Wills

  • Deeds

  • Insurance

  • Immunizations

  • Account numbers

  • Stocks/bonds

  • Logins/passwords


  • Cell numbers

  • School/Office contacts

  • Out-of-town contacts

Home Inventory

  • Video/photos

  • List of major items

Personal Skills

  • First aid

  • Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR)

  • Fire extinguisher use

Evacuation Checklist

  • Plan meeting locations in and out of neighborhood.

  • Have full tank of gas if evacuation likely.

  • Be familiar with alternate routes out of the area.

  • Leave early to avoid being trapped by severe weather.

  • Use recommended evacuation routes; shortcuts may be blocked.

  • Take your emergency supply kit.

  • Have a battery-powered radio and spare batteries.

  • Take your pets with you; plan for their care during the emergency.

Credit: Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service

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