As we go through severe weather season, chances for tornadoes are at their highest. Here are a few facts and myths on tornadoes from the National Weather Service.
“When confronted by a tornado warning, you should open all the windows in your house to equalize the pressure.” MYTH: This just wastes valuable time. Don’t worry about equalizing the pressure, the roof ripping off and the pickup truck smashing through the front wall will equalize the pressure for you.
“I live in a big city, a tornado wouldn’t hit a big city.” MYTH: Tornadoes have hit several large cities, including Dallas, Oklahoma City, Wichita Falls, St. Louis, Miami, and Salt Lake City. In fact, an urban tornado will have a lot more debris to toss around than a rural twister.
“My place doesn’t get tornadoes because it is protected by a river.” MYTH: Many tornadoes have crossed rivers and even gone on to cause widespread damage to the other side. For example, the Nachez, Mississippi, tornado of 1840tracked directly down the Mississippi River, killing hundreds, mostly on the water. Others have crossed large rivers without losing speed (they momentarily became water spouts) and devastated cities that folklore had thought immune to tornadoes. An example was the the Great St. Louis Cyclone of 1896 that jumped the Mississippi River.
“Tornadoes have picked people and items up, carried them some distance and then set them down without injury or damage.” FACT: People and animals have been transported up to a quarter mile or more without serious injury. Fragile items, such as sets of fine china, or glass-ware have been blown from houses and recovered, miles away, without any damage. However, given the quantity of airborne debris, these occurrences are the exception, rather than the norm.
“Hiding under a freeway overpass will protect me from a tornado.” MYTH: While the concrete and rebar in the bridge may offer some protection against flying debris, the overpass also acts as a wind tunnel and may actually serve to collect debris. When you abandon your vehicle at the overpass and climb up the sides, you are doing two things that are hazardous. First, you are blocking the roadway with your vehicle. When the tornado turns all the parked vehicles into a mangled, twisted ball and wedges them under the overpass, how will emergency vehicles get through? Second, the winds in a tornado tend to be faster with height. By climbing up off the ground, you place yourself in even greater danger from the tornado and flying debris. When coupled with the accelerated winds due to the wind tunnel (Venturi effect), these winds can easily exceed 300 mph. Unfortunately, at least three people hiding under underpasses during tornadoes have already been killed, and dozens have been injured by flying debris. If you realize you won’t be able to outrun an approaching tornado, you are much safer to abandon your vehicle, and take shelter in a road-side ditch or other low spot
“To keep from being sucked into the tornado, I can tie myself to a well pipe, just like they did in the movie “Twister.” MYTH: While it is unlikely that a tornado will dislodge a deeply buried pipe, the rope you tie around yourself is more likely to act as a combination tetherball and cheese slicer. Lighter winds will likely cause you to be whipped around at the end of the rope, banging against anything within the radius of the rope. Stronger winds inside the tornado are just as likely to pull your body from the rope (and possibly not in one piece).
“A tornado is not coming directly at me, I am safe.” MYTH: Tornadoes have been known to act erratically, often changing directions quickly. Sturdy shelter is the only safe place to be during a tornado. Although it may be tempting to follow a tornado to get a cool photo, please leave the tornado chasing to trained meteorologists.
For information on tornado safety, visit the National Weather Service Tornado Safety page at www.weather.gov/safety/tornado.
Duane Friend is an environmental and energy stewardship educator with University of Illinois Extension.