Storm brewing about tornado safety
Until recently, the guidelines for how to take shelter during a tornado were pretty widely accepted, if a little odd in the details. Your best bets have always been to be underground, or at least in an interior room on the lowest level of a sturdy building or other structure with a foundation. A mobile home, even one that is "tied down",has never been considered a safe place to be. All of the options inbetween, however, are varying shades of "not good", and it's in that gray area where there has been some controversy in the last few weeks.
Consider this scenario.
It's around rush hour on an early May afternoon. Like a normal rush hour, traffic is slow and congested. Unlike normal, though, the skies are dark and foreboding, and the wind is kicking up. Suddenly, the radio station sounds an alarm and a strange voice announces a "tornado warning"!
What would you do? Would you drive home? Find an overpass to take shelter in? Bail out of your car and lie in a ditch?
My scenario could be a description of the scene around here on Tuesday, May 5th, but it's not. It's actually a description of a small slice of what happened on May 3, 1999, in Oklahoma City. Dozens of people were killed as violent F5 tornadoes raked across the Oklahoma landscape -- including a dozen people who were killed either in a mobile home or who had abandoned their cars in favor of taking shelter under an overpass.
Until recently, the guidelines for how to take shelter during a tornado were pretty widely accepted, if a little odd in the details. Your best bets have always been to be underground, or at least in an interior room on the lowest level of a sturdy building or other structure with a foundation. A mobile home, even one that is "tied down", has never been considered a safe place to be. All of the options in between, however, are varying shades of "not good", and it's in that gray area where there has been some controversy in the last few weeks.
That's because the American Red Cross (ARC) has changed their guidance on what to do if you're in a car or mobile home. Before, if you were stuck in either a car or mobile home, the advice was to abandon both in favor of sturdier structures or, absent that, lie down flat in a ditch and cover your head. However, the new guidelines -- released late last month -- suggest taking refuge in a car may be a better option than lying in a ditch.
- If you are caught outdoors, seek shelter in a basement, shelter, or sturdy building. If you cannot get to shelter, a recent study* suggests doing the following:
- Get into a vehicle, buckle your seat belt, and try to drive at right angles to the storm movement and out of the path.
- If strong winds and flying debris occur while you are driving, pull over and park, keeping seat belts on and the engine running. Put your head down below the windows, covering with your hands and a blanket if possible.
Their research suggests that, by and large, the wind speeds required to lift or flip typical passenger vehicles were only found in the strongest of strong tornadoes, and that for the majority of storms, a car would afford sufficient protection from the tornado winds -- more so than being in a mobile or manufactured home or lying in a ditch. Based on these results, they recommended modifying the tornado safety guidelines to reflect their belief that cars are safer than mobile homes or the ditch.
It's unclear right now about the degree to which ARC consulted the NWS or FEMA regarding the change; although, I'm told that officials from the Red Cross and NWS met in Washington shortly after the changes were announced. I would have enjoyed being a fly on the wall during that get-together.
As you might imagine, this new research has reignited a discussion amongst the meteorological community about the safety of cars in tornadoes. On the one hand, the research suggests that for weaker tornadoes, a car may afford superior protection than a mobile home or being out in the open. However, this still leaves a lot of unanswered questions:
- What about debris? Research has shown time and again that even "weak" tornado winds are sufficient to drive debris through even the body of a car.
- Why stay stationary? If you're in a car, attempting to outrun the tornado may be an option. (That is controversial in its own right!)
- How can you tell how strong the tornado is? The research really only holds for weaker tornadoes. Stronger ones -- EF3 and stronger, for example -- were shown to cause all of the nasty things we tend to associate with cars in tornadoes. In a critical moment, could you accurately determine the strength of the tornado, just by looking?
- What about the air bag? The guidelines suggest crouching down in the car while you ride out the tornado. What happens if your air bags deploy?
- Other factors?