Tornado Safety on the Road
Vehicles can also be deadly in a tornado. The more surface they present to the wind, the more easily they are blown from the road. Vans and school buses are particularly vulnerable. Cars have been lifted and moved as much as a quarter of a mile by a tornado. They have sometimes been hurled into buildings.
Many people have asked why it is wiser to seek shelter where you are, rather than trying to escape from a tornado in a car. When you are considering what to do if you find yourself in the path of an oncoming tornado, you need to imagine the worst-case scenario, not the ideal situation. Driving away might seem to be the obvious thing to do, but...Just imagine yourself in these situations:
- The road you are taking to escape the tornado becomes impassable because of mud.
- Not all roads are fully paved--they sometimes start paved and turn to dirt. In some states, the quality of the soil is such that rain makes it very slippery and gummy. Storm chasers uniformly avoid dirt roads during a chase. Sure, you could go on a dirt road, but what if it turned to a gooey, mushy mess, and you got stuck out in the open with no protection.
- The road you are taking to escape the tornado becomes impassable because of flooding and wash-outs.
- Just because it is not raining where you started doesn't mean that you won't encounter flooding as you attempt to flee the tornado.
- Flooding on a road may conceal areas where the road surface has washed away, leaving deep holes that your car may not be able to negotiate.Your car would be stuck, perhaps in the direct path of the tornado. If the water was deep, you might even have to abandon your car to be safe from flash flooding and potential drowning. Then, even if you saw that the tornado was not going in your direction, you wouldn't have the shelter of a car to protect you from the rain, hail, and lightning.
- The road you are taking to escape the tornado is blocked by construction or fallen trees, and deep ditches on either side prevent you from going around to the other side.
- Tornadoes may be accompanied by strong straight-line winds, which can fell trees, and unless you work for the road department, you may not know what streets are being repaired. You might have to retrace your steps, perhaps directly into the path of the tornado.
- The road becomes difficult to drive on because of heavy rain, hail fog, and large hail. Driving on a hail covered road is similar to driving on ball bearings. And the faster you drive, the harder the hail hits your car and windshield. Hail the size of a hens egg can crack or break your windshield. If your windshield is smashed out, hail will hit you instead of the windshield. Wind-driven hail hurts! Hail floating on a flooded road may conceal the fact that a road is flooded, and you may drive into water deep enough to stall the car. If you are getting hailed on, you are in the core of the storm, the most dangerous part, not a place you want your car to stall.
- You choose a road that you don't know well, and find that it is a dead end...and the only way to get off it is to backtrack, directly toward the tornado.
- You choose a road that you don't know well and it turns in a direction you don't want to go. You have no option but to continue on it, or turn back towards the tornado.
- You get a flat tire, run out of gas, or have other car problems, and find yourself in peril.
- You encounter a lot of other cars that are trying to do the same thing, and they have blocked the streets, highways and exits, causing one huge traffic jam, with no one moving. It is easy to say that you can drive faster than the tornado is going, but it may not be a possibility.
- You encounter a car accident that blocks the road. People desperately trying to outrun a tornado may not be giving their full attention to the highway and traffic, and may even cause a single or multiple car accident, further complicating matters.
- It is a tornado family and the one you are escaping is disintegrating, but another is forming, maybe right over your head.
- The road system doesn't allow you to move perpendicular to the tornado, and you are constantly trying to outrun it in the same direction that it is moving.
- The video, Secrets of the Tornado, includes a piece of video footage in which two men see a tornado while they are driving along the highway. At the beginning, they are jovial and joking, but by the end they are literally praying as they watch the tornado in the rear view mirror. They had the accelerator to the floor, with the engine roaring, but it couldn't counteract the inflow to the storm, and their vehicle was just crawling along the highway.
An underpass may seem like a safe place, but may not be. While videos show people surviving under an underpass, those tornadoes have been weak. No one knows how survivable an underpass is in a strong or violent tornado. The debris flying under the underpass could be very deadly... head for a ditch.
If caught in the open, when on foot or riding a bike or motorcycle, it is doubly important that you seek a safe place immediately. Remember that the chances of encountering falling trees, power lines, and lightning is greater than encountering the tornado itself. The basement of a sturdy building would be best, but lying flat in a ditch or low-lying area may be the only thing available. A culvert in a ditch MAY be a good choice if there is no rain, but if there IS rain, flash flooding may be more dangerous and likely than the tornado.
If you are in a car, and you can see a tornado forming or approaching, you should leave the car and take shelter as above. You may think you can escape from the tornado by driving away from it, but you can't know what you may be driving into! A tornado can blow a car off a road, pick a car up and hurl it, or tumble a car over and over. Many people have been killed in cars while they were trying to outrun the tornado, and although it is sometimes possible to escape, it is generally not a good idea. The photo to the left shows you what can happen to a car that encounters a tornado.
A few years ago a fellow contacted us and tell us his experiences with the Wichita Falls tornado of 1979. When he was a young man, he outran the Wichita Falls, Texas tornado in a car. He survived, but many people that day tried the same thing and were killed. (You can read his story here.)The rules were developed on the basis of experiences like these...unanticipated problems that people did not forsee. If there was ever a time for Murphys Law to be true, it is in a tornadic situation.