Before the news of "storm chaser" deaths associated with the tornadoes near El Reno, OK on May 31, 2013, the big buzz within some parts of the media and across the entire severe weather safety community had to do with scenes like the one above - a heavily congested I-35 heading South out of Oklahoma City, away from the incoming storms.
So, what exactly are we looking at here? Is this simply rush hour traffic on a Friday afternoon? Is this a scene showing people attempting to flee the tornado warned area and get out of the danger zone? Could it be some of both?
Assuming that even part of the congestion was caused by folks attempting to flee the danger zone, why would they do that instead of "sheltering in place" as they have been advised to do for many years? Was it because of the devastation that they had witnessed in Moore just over one week earlier, or were they following someone else's advice in a moment of fear and/or panic? Again, could it be some of both?
If they were following another person's advice, chances are that it was that of meteorologist Mike Morgan at KFOR-TV. Mike was part of KFOR's live coverage that was broadcast not only on their air, but also on radio stations and internet streams that afternoon and evening. KFOR is also an NBC affiliate, so The Weather Channel (which is owned by NBC Universal) also carried significant portions of KFOR's coverage live, including segments like this one below.
Pay particular attention to Mike's words from about 0:50 to 1:25 into the video:
My main takeaway was that his advice to residents was:
• You can't survive this tornado if you're not underground
• Get away (in your vehicle) from the tornado if you don't have adequate shelter
This particular segment addressed the threat to residents of Yukon, but a very similar (if not identical) message was relayed as tornadoes threatened El Reno, south Oklahoma City and other areas as well.
So, was this good advice or was it not? In my opinion, the answer is mostly "no", but to be completely fair, let's take a closer look at each point:
• "You can't survive this tornado if you're not underground..." Obviously, that's not a true statement, as nothing is impossible when it comes to tornado survival. In the least, this was a poor choice of words, but they were the same words that he would repeat numerous times that day.
With that said, it is absolutely true that if you want to ensure your survival in a strong or violent tornado situation, your best bet is always to shelter below ground. This is not a news bulletin to anyone living in Oklahoma or other areas that are frequented by strong and violent tornadoes. It's a fact of life (literally).
Another important point to remember when considering the underground vs. above ground sheltering option is that it's not necessarily a "direct hit" by a tornado that causes deaths. More often than not, tornado deaths are the result of debris hitting the victim in the head, chest or torso, and that can happen well away from the actual "center" of the tornado's path. This is the main reason, in my opinion, that getting below ground is always the best, safest option, if such an option is available...
...and many folks in this region do have such an option, either via a basement or storm cellar that has been in place for years, or via a storm shelter that has been installed following violent tornado events of recent years).
Many folks in this area also have a friend or relative that has such an option if they don't have one of their own - but you have to assess the threat well ahead of time (i.e., when the Tornado Watch is issued - don't wait for the Warning) and be able to safely get to that location well before the actual threat exists.
• "Get away from the tornado if you don't have adequate shelter..." Very good advice, but not when you have only minutes to react. This is particularly the case when you live in a heavily populated metropolitan area where roads can become congested quickly on their own, much less in an emergency evacuation type situation.
For years now, I've been advising residents of mobile homes and other vulnerable locations without a nearby sheltering option to leave their home and go to a friend or relative's house or other more suitable structure as soon as a Tornado Watch is issued for their area. You absolutely do not want to try and flee by vehicle once you're in a warning situation, particularly in a heavily populated area where there is a potential for you to get stuck on a log jammed roadway.
Should you do this every time a Tornado Watch is issued? That's a matter of personal opinion and is unique to your specific situation. If you are "scared to death" in almost any tornado situation, then you probably should. If you're only concerned about "the big one", you'll likely be given clues by trusted meteorologists and other sources before the event actually begins to unfold. On my blog, I always use words like "pay particular attention to the weather in this area", or "one or more strong and/or long track tornadoes are possible today" when trying to get the word out about a particularly volatile situation.
After making repeated statements like the ones in the video above, many were understandably quick to jump on Mike Morgan's case over the weekend, particularly when it was revealed that several of the deaths in the OKC Metro area on Friday took place on roadways. While I believe that his intentions were probably good, I feel that he delivered the advice either (1). using a poor choice and/or combination of words and/or (2). when it was too late for people to safely do something about their situation, potentially causing more of a "panic" mode.
In my opinion, the 12 Noon newscast that day (if not before) would have been the time to suggest that folks line up a more suitable sheltering option if they weren't comfortable with the one they would have later in the afternoon and evening. That would have given folks some time to contact a friend or relative, make a plan and not have to rush out in a moment of panic into a potentially dangerous situation.
The fact of the matter is that we'll probably never know why all of the people that did choose to flee made that decision on Friday. Not everyone in OKC watches KFOR-TV or The Weather Channel. I feel that many probably reacted that way when they heard that another potentially devastating tornado was headed their way again, especially after what they had witnessed in Moore the week before. Add some traditional and/or social media "hysteria" to the mix, and you have all of the necessary ingredients for a full blown panic situation for some.
Without a doubt, the combination of rush hour traffic, people fleeing based on bad advice and people fleeing based on their own fear of the situation turned out to be a major problem for almost all involved, and it may have even resulted in death for a select number (although that is difficult to quantify based on the information that we have to date). A tragic situation anyway you look at it, and one that could have been avoided last Friday and should be avoided in the future.
"No Other Options"
So, what do you do if you don't have an underground shelter and a strong or violent tornado will potentially affect your location in minutes?
Do the same thing you've been told to do since Kindergarten: get in a small interior room or hallway on the lowest floor of your location and cover your head and upper body as much as possible.
Bathrooms and closets offer great protection, but be sure to put as many walls between you and the exterior of your location as possible (don't go to one on the outside wall). The bathroom is probably the best option in this case, as the pipes in the walls may offer additional support and protection.
If you have a bicycle, motorcycle, football or other type of "crash helmet", put it on, especially on the kids. Head injuries are among the leading causes of tornado fatalities, particularly in children.
"Caught In the Car"
If you are caught in your vehicle and a tornado is approaching (whether you're stuck in rush hour traffic, blocked by a flooded road or took some bad advice and tried to run away from the tornado when it was too late), by all means get out of the vehicle!
I was shocked and appalled to see the American Red Cross of all people recommend last year that it was "safe" to stay seat belted in your car if a tornado was approaching. I could not disagree more, and the statistics from Joplin, Moore, and most recently in El Reno prove that without a doubt, a vehicle is no safe place to be during a strong or violent tornado.
If you are caught in your vehicle and have no way to safely get out of the situation, leave your car immediately and lay low in a ditch, ravine or other low spot. Again, cover your head and upper body as much as possible, and if you have a helmet available, put it on!
As I always try to point out, you can survive a tornado regardless of your circumstances. The main thing is to plan ahead, that way you are less likely to panic and make a bad decision when the critical time does come.
Our thoughts and prayers continue to be with the folks that have been devastated by tornadoes over the last month, and we hope that the worst of this season is behind us - but please take some time to prepare and have a safety action plan in place now, just in case another threat does develop in your area.
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