Severe Storms
9:12 am
Sun June 2, 2013

No 'Universal' Best Practice To Save Yourself From Tornadoes

Originally published on Sat June 1, 2013 5:11 pm

Friday's tornadoes came less than two weeks after an F-5 tornado destroyed a large section of Moore, just south of Oklahoma City. Both episodes raise two sides of one question: When caught in a tornado's path, should you run or hide?

For Morning Edition the day after the powerful tornado on May 20, NPR's Wade Goodwyn spoke with Molly Edwards, who was covered in pink insulation and standing on the rubble of her home with her family.

Just before the tornado slammed into her neighborhood, she and her husband had rushed to pick up their children from Plaza Towers Elementary School. Seven third-graders later died at the school after suffocating under fallen debris.

"We thought it might be safer for them to be there than to be here 'cause we didn't have a shelter, but we just didn't want to chance it, so we went and picked them up and just decided we would get in the car and head away from it," she said. "And that's probably what saved us, 'cause if we would've all been in here, somebody would have ended up hurt."

Her family's story was just the tip of an iceberg.

Barely Making It Out In Time

Moore City Manager Steve Eddy says the casualty count — 24 — wasn't higher because many people fled.

"I promise you," he says, "thousands of people left Moore, Okla., on that afternoon."

This reaction runs counter to the current counsel by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other authorities. They advise residents to shelter in place in an interior room with no windows until a tornado passes.

But when it comes to major tornadoes, this advice is being increasingly ignored by Oklahomans.

Meteorologist Gary England has been tracking tornadoes for KWTV in Oklahoma City for the last 40 years.

"If you want to live through a major tornado, and you have time — 10, 15 minutes — and you know where the tornado is, what direction it's going and you know what direction to go, you would be foolish not to evacuate the premises, get in the vehicle, and leave the area," he says.

England was actually able to help Oklahomans do that for the May 20 tornado. Through his station's helicopter camera, he could see where drivers were stuck in traffic, and he tried to lead them away from the twister.

"We were giving street directions — where to go and all that type of thing 'cause a lot of people were in their cars. And let me tell you, a few of them just made it by the hair on their chinny-chin-chin," he says.

Storm At Rush Hour

But Friday afternoon's tornadoes in Oklahoma were a lesson in what can happen if too many try to flee at once.

Combined with the rush hour, traffic on the interstates came to a halt. Cars were lifted and flipped upside down, 18-wheelers were mauled, and a mother and child died after being sucked out of their car as it was lifted into the sky. It was bad, but it could have been even worse had the tornadoes not dissipated.

Just hours before those tornadoes slammed into the Oklahoma City area, NPR's Goodwyn spoke with Rick Smith of the National Weather Service. Smith, the warning-coordination meteorologist in Norman, Okla., agreed that fleeing a massive tornado could be a good strategy — if your escape path was wide open.

"To me, if I lived in a rural area in western Oklahoma where the population was 100, it would be a very easy decision. If there's a tornado coming, and I've got just a few minutes, and I know that I can drive five minutes south, and park and wait for it to pass, I would probably do that," he said.

Oklahoma City is a different scenario completely. Residents would need much more than five minutes — or even 45 minutes — to make an escape, he said, since everyone else in the area is also trying to flee.

Saturday, after the tornadoes had passed, Smith spoke with Goodwyn again, and heard his own advice from the day before.

"That's eerie to listen to that because that is precisely what happened yesterday," he said.

He says his team did try to put out extra guidelines ahead of time, considering the timing of the storms. Though there were success stories of people escaping the Moore tornado, Smith says Friday's situation was very different.

"[The Moore tornado] was at 2 o'clock in the afternoon on a Monday, not complicated by flash flooding and other storms in the area. All this happening in the afternoon rush hour was just a recipe for ... disaster," he says.

Finding The Right Messaging

So what are meteorologists supposed to do if every situation has its own swirl of risk factors?

"There is no universal, one-size-fits-all guidance or safety rules for tornadoes," Smith says. "I don't think I've ever had a more helpless feeling as a meteorologist watching the TV coverage than seeing a helicopter shot of a line of headlights stranded, stopped dead still on the Interstate ... knowing that this horrendous beast of a storm was bearing down on them."

Smith says he doesn't have answers to such a complex issue, and that tackling it will take a group effort by "people who understand — or attempt to understand — human behavior and messaging and all kinds of things."

In Moore, those who hunkered down as best they could died anyway, including a mother and infant who'd taken shelter in a 7-Eleven's metal freezer box.

Friday, Oklahomans got in their cars and trucks to flee, but some of them died at the wheel, including a mother and infant.

Without a storm shelter, Oklahoma can be a dangerous place.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

WADE GOODWYN, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Wade Goodwyn.

We start our program today with news out of Oklahoma where a series of tornadoes accompanied by violent rainstorms have left at least nine dead. This comes less than two weeks after another round of tornadoes devastated the state. Kurt Gwartney is the news director at NPR's member station KGOU. He joins us from Norman, Oklahoma. Welcome, Kurt.

KURT GWARTNEY, BYLINE: Thank you, Wade.

GOODWYN: Kurt, how much notice did Oklahoma City have before the tornado hit?

GWARTNEY: A tornado watch for Central Oklahoma was first issued at 3:30 Friday afternoon, and then the first tornado warning came nearly two hours later at 5:37 p.m. But the National Weather Service had really started raising awareness for severe weather this week at the end of last. Forecasters were saying the storms would start Wednesday and continue into Friday. And each day, the weather was more severe.

And by Friday morning, we were expecting significant tornadoes. And on Friday, the Oklahoma Department of Transportation even put specific warnings on its electronic road signs along the major interstates to alert drivers to the danger.

GOODWYN: There were a lot of people on the road at the time of the storm. How come?

GWARTNEY: Well, I talked to Trooper Betsy Randolph with the Oklahoma Highway Patrol, and she told me there were several ingredients that led to so many people being on I-40 - that's Interstate 40 - at the time of the tornado. First of all, it was rush hour. And even though a lot of employers let their workers go home early, there were still a lot of cars on the road.

And the second, I-40 is a major traffic pipeline not only for Oklahoma City but for the nation. It also intersects another major roadway, I-35. And there were just lots of people traveling through who didn't understand the severity of the storm and the risk they were taking. But she also said there were people who left their homes to get to what they believed would be a safer place.

GOODWYN: Kurt, we heard an awful story last night about a mother and child killed on I-40 during the tornado. Is there any more information?

GWARTNEY: Well, the mother and child who died in the storm were tossed from their vehicle while it was lifted into the air by the tornado. Trooper Randolph told me that another trooper actually watched as they fell to the ground. She didn't have any details on why they were on the road or even where they were headed, but she did say the woman's husband and two other children actually survived the incident. And she didn't know if they were still in the vehicle after it was in the air or if they fell out.

GOODWYN: There's been a lot of flooding.

GWARTNEY: There has been. The storm dumped more than seven inches of rain in the Oklahoma City metro in just a few hours. Most of that occurred in places that we know have problems with water. There were several rescues through the night, and most of those happened because people actually drove into the water. One mobile home park had to be evacuated this morning due to flooding.

And now just recently, the Oklahoma County Sheriff's Office is reporting that a man missing since early this morning has actually been found dead in a creek. His vehicle was found washed off the road in the eastern part of Oklahoma County.

GOODWYN: KGOU's Kurt Gwartney, thanks and be safe.

GWARTNEY: Thank you.

GOODWYN: The tornadoes yesterday were preceded nearly two weeks before by an EF-5 tornado, which destroyed a large section of Moore just south of Oklahoma City. And both episodes raise two sides of one question. That's our cover story today: When caught in a tornado's path, should you run or hide?

At 4 p.m. on Monday, May 20th, I got a call in Dallas from NPR senior national editor in Washington, D.C. He told me to turn on the TV.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS REPORT)

GARY ENGLAND: And you see it's a violent tornado. This is a tornado emergency. My God, get below ground if at all possible.

GOODWYN: A small suburb of Oklahoma City had just been hit by a tornado, and it looked bad, real bad.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS REPORT)

ENGLAND: And so Moore - you get - Moore's in the bull's-eye, so I'm going to give - as we look at the shots there, we can see it.

GOODWYN: I was instructed to get my stuff together and go north as quickly as I could. When I got to Moore, Oklahoma, the swath the tornado had cut through town was awe-inspiring and sickening. A little after midnight, I began writing the piece for MORNING EDITION from Oklahoma.

Toward the end of the story, a young woman named Molly Edwards covered in pink insulation dust stands on the rubble of her home with her family. Just before the tornado slammed into her neighborhood, she and her husband had rushed to pick up their children from Plaza Towers Elementary School. That's the school where seven third graders died after suffocating under fallen debris.

MOLLY EDWARDS: We thought it might be safer for them to be there than to be here because we don't have a shelter, but we just didn't want to chance it, so we went and picked them up and just decided we would get in the car and head away from it. And that's probably what saved us. Because if we would've all been in here, we - somebody would've ended up hurt.

GOODWYN: I didn't completely understand at the time that I was hearing the tip of an iceberg. But as the day wore on, I was surprised that the death toll wasn't higher than 24 people. After all, hundreds of homes had been completely wiped off their foundations. So when I interviewed Moore City Manager Steve Eddy later that day, I expressed my mystification, and Eddy's answer was an eye-opener.

STEVE EDDY: Now, this kind of a situation, the larger - this massive tornado, many people - and why there's not very many casualties compared to the amount of destruction is that people leave. I promise you thousands of people left Moore, Oklahoma, on that afternoon.

GOODWYN: This runs counter to the current counsel by FEMA and other authorities, which is to shelter in place in an interior room with no windows until the tornado has passed. But when it comes to major tornadoes, this advice is being increasingly ignored by Oklahomans.

Chief 9 meteorologist Gary England is one of the country's leading experts on tornadoes. For the last 40 years, he's been tracking tornadoes at KWTV in Oklahoma City. And you heard some of his reporting at the top of this story.

ENGLAND: If you want to live - if you want to live through a major tornado and you have time - 10, 15 minutes - you know where the tornado is, what direction it's going and you know what direction to go, you would be foolish not to evacuate the premises, get in the vehicle and leave the area.

GOODWYN: And England was actually able to help them do that. Through his station's helicopter camera, England could see where drivers were stuck in traffic, and he tried to lead them away from the tornado.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS REPORT)

ENGLAND: It's moving toward Southwest 149th and Portland, and it's moving toward Southwest 160th.

And so we were giving street directions, where to go and all that type of thing, because a lot of people were in their cars. And let me tell you, a few of them just made it by the hair on their chinny chin chin.

GOODWYN: But yesterday afternoon's tornadoes in Oklahoma were a lesson in what can happen if too many try to flee at once. As we just heard, combined with the Friday afternoon rush hour, traffic on the interstates came to a halt. Cars were lifted and flipped upside down by the tornadoes. Eighteen-wheelers were mauled, and a mother and child died after being sucked out of their car as it was lifted into the sky. It was bad, but it could've been even worse had the tornadoes not dissipated.

Yesterday, just hours before those tornadoes slammed into the Oklahoma City area, we spoke with Rick Smith of the National Weather Service. Smith is the warning coordination meteorologist in Norman, Oklahoma, and he agreed that fleeing a massive tornado could be a good strategy if your escape path was wide open.

RICK SMITH: To me, if I lived in a rural area in western Oklahoma where the population was 100, it would be a very easy decision. If there's a tornado coming, and I've got just a few minutes, and I know that I can drive five minutes south and park and wait for it to pass, I'd probably do that. If you're in Oklahoma City, five minutes isn't enough. Twenty minutes may not be enough, 30 minutes, 45 minutes, because of everybody else is going to do the same thing.

GOODWYN: And this afternoon, we talked to Rick Smith again.

SMITH: That's eerie to listen to that because that is precisely what happened yesterday.

GOODWYN: Do you think people were trying to flee the tornado when they got trapped on the highway?

SMITH: I really don't know. We've been chatting on social media all night and all morning today and just trying to wrap our brains around this. I mean, we - when you and I talked yesterday, I came back to the office here, and our discussion really sparked something in us here in the office to say, hey, this is going to be an issue today. It's exactly what we described. Friday afternoon rush hour, people wanting to get out of the way of the storm. So we set about putting special information out, information describing the recommended tornado safety precautions. And for people that if you decide later today that you think you need to flee, here are the guidelines.

So I think it was - it's a combination of being so close to the Moore tornado. There were evidently some success stories with the Moore tornado, but that was a very different situation. That was at 2 o'clock in the afternoon on a Monday, not complicated by flash flooding and other storms in the area. All this happening in the afternoon rush hour was just a recipe for disaster.

GOODWYN: In Moore, 24 people died, although they hunkered down inside as best they could. Yesterday evening, we had people die in their vehicles as they tried to flee or simply tried to get home from work. I think this points to the fact that there's no single strategy that will save you no matter what the circumstances.

SMITH: And that's what's so complicated and frustrating for those of us whose job it is to try to save people's lives when these storms are in the area. What do we do? There is no universal one-size-fits-all guidance or safety rules for tornadoes. I don't think I've ever had a more helpless feeling as a meteorologist watching the TV coverage than seeing a helicopter shot of a line of headlights just stranded, stopped dead still on the interstate as motorists tried to drive south out of Oklahoma City and knowing that this horrendous beast of a storm was bearing down on them.

I don't know the answers. There are no easy answers, but this is something that needs to be addressed, not by meteorologists necessarily, but by the multidisciplinary group of people who understand - or attempt to understand human behavior and messaging and all kinds of things. It's a very complex issue.

GOODWYN: Rick Smith is the warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Norman, Oklahoma. Rick, it's just the beginning of the tornado season. Thank you and good luck.

SMITH: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GOODWYN: In Moore, people who hunkered down as best they could died anyway, including a mother and infant who'd taken shelter in a 7-Eleven's metal freezer box. Yesterday, Oklahomans got in their cars and trucks to flee, but some of them died at the wheel, including a mother and an infant. Without a storm shelter, Oklahoma can be a dangerous place. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.