Are Apartments Safe During A Tornado?

Tornadoes and severe storms can be some of the most concerning natural disasters all across the United States the question is are apartments safe during a tornado.

Apartments can be safe during a tornado if you go to the lowest level of your apartment building and make sure that you stay in the interior of the building.

Tornadoes can happen no matter what state you live in and have happened in all 50 states. Obviously, the best protection for a tornado is underground either in a storm cellar or basement.  Being below ground provides you with your best protection and odds of survival during the direct hit of a tornado.  

Any structure above ground is not only in danger of being destroyed by a tornado, but it can also become part of the danger itself as it turns into debris.  

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Living in an apartment can pose its own unique challenges.  Where do you go during a tornado in an apartment building? Is the building strong enough to survive the tornado?  Do I have to do anything at all? Should I leave and go over to my friend’s house or a church or other public building?  

Let’s take a look at some of the dangers an apartment building can face and what you can do to stay safe in your apartment.  

Can An Apartment Complex Be Destroyed By A Tornado?

In 2019 alone, there were 3 apartment buildings that were entirely or partially destroyed by tornados. 

A tornado can absolutely destroy an apartment complex.

Most people think that structures as big as apartment buildings are capable of standing up to the intense winds of a tornado.  I have personally seen the aftermath of what a strong tornado can do. Structures were wiped so clean off their foundations that only their concrete steps were left.  I’ve seen trees stripped of their bark, limbs, and leaves.  

Literally anything that is above ground is in danger of being destroyed during an EF-4 or EF-5 tornado.  Wind speeds start at 166 miles per hour and go all the way up to almost half of the speed of sound.  Anything hitting you at 200+ mph is going to leave a mark.  

Don’t be fooled into thinking that simply because you are in a big building that you are going to be protected from the intensity of the storm.

Ask Your Landlord Where The Tornado Shelters Are

Your landlord should know where the best places to take shelter on their property are.  They may not have a plan written out like hotels are required to do, but they will be able to tell you where to go in the case of a severe storm.

Where Do You Go During A Tornado In An Apartment? 

As I mentioned before, the best place to go during a tornado is underground.  Or at least as low as you can go.  There are two reasons for this.  

The first is that the higher you go, the faster the wind speeds are going to be.  As the wind blows across the ground, and over trees and houses and buildings, these structures all provide friction which slows the wind down at ground level.   The higher you go, the less friction there is to slow the air down, and windspeeds can be exceptionally higher.

The same goes for a tornado.  Even though the wind speeds on the ground can be ridiculously destructive, the winds aloft can be even stronger.  So…….knowing this, would you rather be on the 1st floor of your apartment building or the 7th floor?  Obviously the first! 

Secondly, you have to worry about debris.  Debris, or anything that the tornado picks up and throws around, is what usually kills people in tornados.  Not being tossed around like the Cow in Twister. It is the piece of wood coming at them at 200mph, and everything else that comes along with it, that kills. 

Being on the ground floor gives you the sturdiest construction and protection by the building.  You want to give yourself the highest chance of survival, and being on the lowest floor, out of the way of the strongest winds and debris to survive unharmed. 

How To Survive A Tornado In Your Apartment

When tornados come, usually they don’t give much, if any, warning ahead of time.  Weather forecasters are very good about predicting the potential for a tornado to occur, but not exactly when they will happen, or the specific location.  

If you DO have advanced time to get away from the storm before it hits, the best thing to do is to find someplace that is made to survive a tornado.  

Lisa Bedford at “The Survival Mom” gives these tips as well for people who don’t happen to have basements to go to because many people don’t. 

Her first three tips for ensuring your survival are: 

  1. Go To A Friend’s House
  2. Go To A Community Storm Shelter
  3. Go To A Public Building

The reason both Lisa and I agree on this is because these places have rooms built in them for just this contingency.  Most churches and government buildings are going to have places in them specifically designed to last a tornado. Many of them that were built before 1990 have actual Fallout Shelters in them, which nicely doubles as a tornado shelter.   

A friend’s house with a basement is also a great place to ride out a storm or a series of storms during the evening.  But make sure you get there with enough time to spare. I personally have driven with my friends from their apartment to shelter in my basement only to get hammered by the core of the storm we were trying to avoid. 

We absolutely put ourselves in MORE danger by leaving only when it got bad because nobody wanted to be the first person that said, “Ok, maybe we should find someplace safe.”  Tornados don’t care about your ego. Go to someplace safe while you can!

Additionally, you don’t want to be heading to your friend’s trailer house either.  Trailer houses are death traps in a tornado. You want to call or text that friend that has a good basement in their house. 

THAT is the friend you need to call. And if you live in tornado-prone areas, virtually everyone has at least one person they can call to hunker down for a few hours. 

But what if it is already too late and you can’t risk driving to another building?  Maybe the storm popped up suddenly, or in the middle of the night when you were sleeping. 

Now, the tornado sirens are going off and the alerts on your phone are going crazy. The radar is terrible and outside it looks like the world is ending. 

What do you do?

The primary thing you want to think about is Protection.  This is the name of the game.  Here are the places you should go that will provide you with the most protection from a tornado. 

  • The Lowest Floor Of Your Apartment Building

Get as low as you physically can.  Some apartment buildings have a basement or at least half a basement level.  Whatever it has, THIS is where you need to be. Take the stairs down in case the power goes out suddenly and go to the lowest floor your apartment building has to offer.  

Make sure that this area doesn’t have a bunch of windows or outside doors for obvious reasons.

  • Hallways

Hallways are almost always the interior features of a building.  They are meant to go between the rooms of the buildings. Thus, they are usually designed as the innermost feature of the building. 

Hallways are good because no matter what direction the tornado could potentially hit, you are protected by as many interior walls as possible.  

Make sure that the hallway you find is on the lowest floor of the apartment building you are in. 

  • Closets

Just like Hallways, except better.  Remember, you are wanting to put as much material and shelter between you and the storm.  You can find closets in most rooms in an apartment. The space may be small, but you are putting another layer of walls and protection between you and any flying debris. 

For decades, countless lives have been saved simply because people have taken shelter in their closets as the rest of the building around them was swept away.  But because it lasted just a bit longer than the exterior walls, the people inside stayed safe. 

This is even better if you have a good friend or neighbor on the bottom floor of your building.  Text them or ring their buzzer and ask if you can take shelter during the tornado in their closet or bath.  Don’t worry about waking them up if it is the middle of the night, if they didn’t know the danger, they will be appreciative of you that you are there.

  • Bathroom

Bathrooms offer the same protective layer as a closet does with one potential benefit: The Bathtub. 

If it is just you and another person, or maybe your child or a pet, a bathtub is a great place to take shelter as well.   The bathtub provides one more layer of protection from the tornado should the worst happen. 

If you have time, take the mattress off the nearest bed to the bathroom and drag it into the bathroom to use as additional cover.  If you can’t manage that, pull your comforter off your bed and at least put that over whoever is going to be hunkering down in the bathtub. 

Don’t think though that bathtubs offer some magical protection against anything storm-related.  You are still going to be subject to the laws of physics and anything that comes flying through there.  So, make sure you give yourself every opportunity by doing what you need to do to protect yourself. 

The Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Oklahoma, has put together a Tornado Safety Guide.  They themselves say that there is no such thing as guaranteed safety in a tornado.  And that the most violent tornadoes can blow away or level almost any structure. That’s why it is so important to make sure you know what to do if it comes down to it. 

Get a Personal Weather Station

A great way to stay on top of all the weather that is coming your way is to get a Personal Weather Station for your apartment.   These stations can not only deliver you up-to-minute weather data from right outside your apartment, they can be a great warning device if severe storms are headed to your area. 

Check out the article I wrote about getting your own Personal Weather Station!

Make Sure You Have Renter’s Insurance

While we are on the topic of natural disasters, you should check out Renter’s Insurance.

One of the apartment complexes I mentioned above was destroyed in 2019 was in Dallas, TX.  It hit the complex hard and leftover 100 people without a place to stay, as well as a total loss for most of their possessions.  

When interviewed several days after the tornado had torn through, many of the residents were upset with the landlord of the apartment.  They thought it was unfair that the apartment complex was going to be rebuilt because the landlord had insurance on his property, but they didn’t have insurance on their things.  The residents were wanting the landlord to cover their losses.  

I cannot stress this enough: Renter’s Insurance is worth the cost!!  Not only does it protect you from natural disasters, but it also protects you from most things human as well. 

The landlord spent money on insurance, and so his property was covered when it was hit by the tornado.  The tenants have the same responsibility for their things as the landlord does his things. The landlord has no more responsibility to replace their things any more than a car dealership has the responsibility to replace a car wrecked by a falling tree. 

This is what insurance is for.  To protect from those things that haven’t yet happened. 

Don’t be caught like these people in this apartment complex with no renter’s insurance.  Most tenants can get coverage for less than $1 a day, which is a small price to pay knowing everything you own in your apartment is covered in case something was to happen.  

You can stay safe in your apartment building if you know where to go and when.  If possible, go to a friend’s house, or some public building that has a built-in shelter.  If that isn’t possible, make sure you got to the bottom floor of your apartment building, stay away from windows, and take shelter in a hallway or closet.  Knowing where to go during a tornado could save your life!

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John Boettcher

Co-Founder of Apartment School and a previous renter turned owner of many multi-family properties across the United States, with many years of experience in all aspects of the apartment, real estate, and investing world.

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