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A bathroom can be a safe tornado shelter. This family is proof.

Patricia Johnson walks away from her home a few days after it was destroyed by a deadly tornado in Silver City, Miss., on March 24. (Rogelio V. Solis/AP)
4 min

A family credits a bathroom for saving their life during a recent tornado.

Jacob Hill was working at his office, 25 minutes from his home in Spencer, Ind., when his mother texted to warn him that a tornado was 30 minutes away from tearing through their town.

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While tornadoes can happen at any time, spring brings the highest risk for the severe storms. April, May and June are, historically, the most active, with an average of 660 twisters a year in those months. The United States is more vulnerable to tornadoes than any other country, with an average of 1,150 to 1,200 a year.
What causes tornadoes?
The two primary ingredients are heat energy and turning winds: When warm, humid air meets wind shear, the resulting storm can sometimes twist into a tornado. Scientists say when the Gulf of Mexico is warmer than normal, it can make tornadoes worse. New research also suggests that climate change may be intensifying tornadoes at certain times of the year — as temperatures rise, more fuel is available for severe storms.
What is Tornado Alley?
Many people think that tornadoes are most common in the Great Plains, including the vertical stretch of states from Texas through Kansas and Nebraska. But your greatest risk of encountering a tornado is actually in the South — which is why some experts say the term “tornado alley” is misleading.


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Within seconds of him pulling into the driveway, the tornado hit. Hill, his mother, brother, grandparents and godparent sprinted to a tiny hallway bathroom in the middle of the one-story home and listened while the tornado destroyed everything outside those walls.

They heard the windows in the living room shatter. Insulation and drywall from the ceiling crashed down. Their ears popped from the fall in pressure from the storm. Hill braced his grandmother out of fear that one of them would be blown away.

“We could see the stars in the sky. We could feel the rain falling on us. We knew we didn't have a house,” Hill said.

The bathroom was the last room standing: a pillar in all the rubble.

Ten tornadoes were recorded across Indiana the evening of March 31, according to National Weather Service forecast office in Indianapolis. There were no fatalities in Spencer, a town of nearly 2,500, but there were three deaths and eight injuries reported in nearby Sullivan County, Ind. The tornado hit amid a swarm of storms from the central states to the Mid-Atlantic on March 31 and April 1 that killed at least 31 people.

“If we were in any other part of the house, we would have been gone,” Hill said. The home didn’t have a basement.

The incident is one of many over the years in which people have found refuge in a bathroom during a tornado. Depending on their location in a home, bathrooms can be among the safer places to shelter if an underground option isn’t available, but experts caution there may be circumstances in which there are better ground-level options.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention confirms that no place is “completely safe during tornadoes” but suggests that some places are better than others. The CDC advises people seek shelter in a basement or any windowless room on the lowest floor — including bathrooms, closets or center hallways.

While bathrooms have become an in-home tornado shelter for some, there are many safety factors to consider.

In some cases, safety comes down to one thing: the tub. Old steel tubs, generally found in older homes, provide more protection than the fiberglass tubs found in homes today that are easily penetrated by flying objects, said Tim Marshall, an engineer and meteorologist who surveys and evaluates destruction after tornadoes.

“It’s all relative; there is no hard, fast rule,” Marshall said. “You’re going to find lots of stories where the bathroom was left. Where people have survived in their bathroom. That’s fairly common.”

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The bathroom’s location within a home is crucial as to whether it’s relatively safe, said Ahsan Kareem, a professor of structural engineering at the University of Notre Dame. Bathrooms on the interior of homes tend to be surrounded by thick walls with pipes that act as additional anchorage.

“These pipes tend to help that little part of the house [stay] intact after most of the other things have blown away,” Kareem said.

But bathrooms near the exterior of home or that have large windows could pose a threat because they are more exposed to debris.

The smaller and more surrounded the room is, the higher the “avenue for survival,” Kareem said. “Personally, if I don’t run to the basement, I go to the bathroom.”

Teng Wu, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Buffalo, agrees that bathrooms may be a safer option if there isn’t a basement available. But, Wu warns there’s no a guarantee that bathrooms will keep people safe during tornadoes because of the variations in the way homes are built.

“Although the bathrooms are usually treated as a relatively safe place to hide during a tornado, they are not designed [to be] tornado-proof,” Wu said. “Their resistance to tornadoes is not guaranteed.”