It was the tornado video that rewrote the rules for tornado safety in vehicles - if only for awhile.
This week marked the 20th anniversary of the April 26, 1991 tornado outbreak that hit areas from Iowa to Texas. Fifty-four tornadoes were reported that day. The hardest hit were central and southern Kansas. At one point, one F-3, two F-4 and one F-5 tornadoes were reported on the ground at one time within a few-county area of south-central Kansas and north-central Oklahoma. Twenty-one deaths were reported from the storms.
Most might not remember the actual day, but one particular piece of video shot that day still ranks as one of the most watched tornado videos of all time.
A news crew from KSNW-TV in Wichita had their cameras rolling as they were attempting to outrun a tornado near El Dorado, KS. The crew realized that they weren't going to be able to outrun the storm, and sought shelter underneath an overpass. As the tape continued to roll, the tornado passed near the overpass.
The key word is near .
The tornado did not pass directly over the group of people crowded under the bridge. The tornado passed off to the side. Everyone walked away from it - scared and shaken, but OK.
There were two reasons that the video was played over and over again. First is that it was 1991, and there simply wasn’t the abundance of tornado video that we see today. There were fewer chasers, and very few chase luxuries. Camcorders and cellphones were very expensive. The movie “Twister” was still five years away from propelling chasing into the national spotlight. Most people took shelter from storms, instead of leaving shelter to go outside and see them.
The second reason is how unique the video was. It was dramatic and up-close. The reporters weren’t chasing, they were being chased. They were driving back from a typical news story in the same manner that one could be coming home from grocery shopping or a trip to a relative’s house. It was something that we could both relate to, and hope to never be a part of.
As the video caught on, people started leaving perfectly safe shelters (homes, businesses) to take shelter under bridges and overpasses during tornadoes. Even though it was understood that being in a car was not a safe place to be, getting out of that car and getting under a bridge was seen as the new storm shelter. Until one very violent day in 1999.
On May 3, 1999, a wave of tornadoes struck Oklahoma and southern Kansas. The most violent was the F-5 tornado that struck the south side of Oklahoma City and the Moore community, in particular.
Again, people clustered under bridges and overpasses for one reason or another. For some, it was a shelter of last resort. For others, it was a conscious decision.
Tornadoes passed directly over three bridges and overpasses in Oklahoma that day. Three bridges, three fatalities. And of those who walked away from the bridges and overpasses, many were severely injured.
Dan Miller, then a meteorologist at the National Weather Service office in Norman, researched the topic of bridges being used for tornado safety. Dan’s research pointed out the “wind tunnel” effect - funneling the winds through the bridge increases the windspeeds and gives a path for flying debris to pass through. The change in wind direction associated with the tornado also makes conditions more dangerous under bridges.
Tornado safety at home is pretty simple - if you don’t have a basement or cellar, go to the lowest level, center part of the house. Tornado safety in vehicles is more complicated. You don’t want to be in the car - that’s well known.
But, what you do from there could simply depend on where you are at the time.
If you read Dan Miller’s presentation , the key to tornado safety in vehicles is to remain calm. When you’re calm, you are more likely to have a level-headed assessment of your options. If you can, drive away from the storm at a 90-degree angle. But, there might not be a highway option that allows that, or the road might be blocked. If so, try to get in the first open business (gas station, grocery store, mall). If you have nowhere else to go, lie flat in a ditch or ravine and cover the back of your head to protect your body from flying debris.
One final note - it’s easy to point fingers at the news crew from Wichita for the negative impact that their video had. They did what they needed to do at that time, and it worked. What we have been slow to commend them on is that they did obey the one major severe weather safety rules in cars - get out of the car!
Copyright 2011 Scripps Media, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
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