On the night of Wednesday, May 15, 2013, an EF-4 tornado ripped through the North Texas town of Granbury, killing six people and injuring many more. That same night, I was driving home from running errands 72 miles away in Dallas. As I was entering downtown, my passenger exclaimed, “Look at that weird car! What is that?” I glanced over to see a car pulling off the highway that appeared to be the Tornado Intercept Vehicle from Discovery Channel’s television show Storm Chasers. Being fully aware these professional guys know more about tornadoes and severe weather than I do, should I have pulled over as well or kept driving?
Just 15 days later after the same night North and East Texas had 16 confirmed tornadoes on the ground, the widest tornado ever recorded tore through a congested stretch of Interstate 40 in El Reno, Oklahoma. Nine people died, including a woman and her baby sucked out of their car from the tornado’s violent winds. Sadly, the star of Storm Chasers Tim Samaras, his son Paul, and colleague Carl Young were among those who died.
A few days later National Public Radio reported on the El Reno tornado. Oklahoma City meteorologist, Gary England said, “If you want to live through a major tornado, and you have time—10, 15 minutes—and you know where the tornado is, what direction it’s going and you know what direction to go, you would be foolish not to evacuate the premises, get in the vehicle, and leave the area.”
Though we have no idea if the people stuck on Interstate 40 that evening were evacuating because of tornado warnings or not, I’m sure they would disagree with England’s suggestion. Experts advise that if you must remain in the car when a tornado strikes to keep your seat belt on, roll up your windows, cover your head with a blanket and bend down below the windows of the car—a seemingly impossible task. The weight of a vehicle—any vehicle—is nothing to a powerful tornado. A tornado can pick up a car, carry it for nearly a mile and then drop it back down from 100 feet. My car is the last place I want to be stuck in during a tornado.
But what are you supposed to do when on the road and a tornado is approaching? Can you outrun a tornado?
A widely accepted and incredibly incorrect assumption is to pull over and seek shelter under an overpass. This myth stems from an infamous video of a group of people who successfully survived a direct hit from a tornado by crawling under an overpass on a Kansas highway on April 26, 1991. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), these people were extremely lucky. Because of the rural area, there was not much debris, the winds shifted as the tornado passed, and the group had something firm to grasp. NOAA put together a presentation to explain the situation. However, all-weather and tornado experts agree that an overpass is one of the most unsafe places to seek shelter. Instead, foul weather experts, meteorologists and storm chasers all agree— if you can’t find a sturdy building, lay in a ditch or other low-laying area and cover your head.
Due to the Venturi Effect, overpasses act like a wind tunnel during a tornado. Sitting or laying in an overpass, you have an increased chance of debris hitting you—the main cause of death from tornadoes. Further, tornado winds tend to be worse higher up in the funnel, than lower. The lower to the ground you are, the safer you will be.
So, where is the safest place to be during a tornado? Unless you live in a mobile home, experts say, stay home instead of trying to outrun a tornado. A mobile home is one of the most unsafe places to seek shelter during a tornado. Finding yourself in a mobile home in a tornado is one place that experts say evacuate and find alternative shelter.
In any building, whether you’re at home, the office, grocery store or other sturdy structure, the safest area is in an internal room without windows on the lowest floor.
If you are lucky enough to have a basement, it’s the best place when a tornado is coming; however stay away from the west and south walls. Tornadoes, generally, but not always, move from southwest to northeast or west to east. Cover yourself with a piece of heavy furniture such as a workbench or heavy table. If you have room under the stairs, this is a good place, too. Make note of what is sitting above you—a piano, wood hutch or other piece of heavy large furniture could come through the floor.
If your house does not have a basement, you need to seek shelter in an internal room, such as a closet or bathroom. Put as many walls between you and the outside as you can. Experts believe a bathroom is safer because they tend to have smaller windows and theorize that the pipes surrounding a bathroom add protection. Crawl into the bathtub and cover yourself with blankets or a mattress.
Evacuating an area is only safe when you know your route will be clear of debris, congestion and flash floods. If you see a tornado developing in the distance, watch it for a few minutes. Is it moving right or left in relation to stationary objects such as a building, tree, or power pole? If not, then assume its path is straight for you. If you can see the direction it is moving, drive at right angles away from its direction.
Nothing can guarantee 100 percent you will survive a tornado. However, the safest place to be during a tornado is in a basement or other underground storm shelter. If neither of these are plausible where you live, FEMA recommends reinforcing a room in your house as a safe room and even has free plans how to build a shelter in your house.
Know the signs of a tornado:
- Clouds moving quickly towards each other or rotating
- Flying debris
- A sickly green or green-black sky
- The sound of rushing air, turning to a roar or sounding like freight train
- The development of a wall cloud
- Tornado watch- conditions are ripe to produce a tornado
- Tornado warning- confirmed tornado in the area
I did not pull over that night. All the areas I drove through were tornado-free. Being alert, aware, knowledgeable, and listening to NOAA weather alert radio helped me.
Further reading about severe weather:
- Spring Storms Bug-Out Bag Check List
- Are You Ready for Spring Storms?
- Tornado Season is Here
- How to Survive a Summer Power Outage