According to FEMA, tornadoes are most common from March to August and more likely to occur between 3 pm and 9 pm. But tornadoes may strike with no warning and can occur at any time.
Expert opinion varies when it comes to tornado safety tips you should follow if you find yourself trapped on the roadway during a tornado; however, most experts agree on a few key tornado safety do’s and don’ts to abide by when you find yourself face to face with a violent storm.
Tornado Safety Do’s
Know the Signs of a Tornado.
“There is no substitute for staying alert to the sky,” according to Roger Edwards of the Storm Prediction Center in Norman Oklahoma. His report on tornado safety provides some things to look and listen for:
- Strong, persistent rotation in the cloud base.
- Whirling dust or debris on the ground under a cloud base — tornadoes sometimes have no funnel!
- Hail or heavy rain followed by either dead calm or a fast, intense wind shift. Many tornadoes are wrapped in heavy precipitation and can’t be seen.
- Day or night — Loud, continuous roar or rumble, which doesn’t fade in a few seconds like thunder does.
- Night — Small, bright, blue-green to white flashes at ground level near a thunderstorm (as opposed to silvery lightning up in the clouds). These mean power lines are being snapped by very strong wind, maybe a tornado.
- Night — Persistent lowering from the cloud base, illuminated or silhouetted by lightning — especially if it is on the ground or there is a blue-green-white power flash underneath.
Get to a Sturdy Building.
The National Weather Service Forecast Office in Norman Oklahoma has noted that “Motorists have found truck stops, convenience stores, restaurants and other businesses to be adequate shelters in tornado situations. Walk-in coolers can sometimes make a good shelter.”
Understand the Lingo.
Be prepared! Tune in to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s weather radio, local radio, or local television weather reports and check alert notifications. Review possible locations where you can get off the road and to shelter.
Take action! A tornado has been sighted by weather radar. There is an imminent danger to life and property. Get off the road and to shelter.
Tornado Safety Don’ts
Do NOT Seek Shelter Under a Highway Overpass.
According to the Ohio Committee for Severe Weather Awareness (OCSWA), overpasses offer NO PROTECTION from a tornado and should NOT be used as a sheltering area.
According to OCSWA’s website, “Wind speeds in tornadoes can exceed 200 mph. These destructive winds produce airborne debris that are blown into and channeled under the overpass where people might try to seek shelter. . . . A person can even be blown out or carried away from the overpass by the fierce tornado winds.”
Unfortunately, in 1991 a television crew took shelter under an overpass, survived, and shared their footage as evidence that overpasses are good places to take shelter during tornadoes. This gave rise to a common misperception that overpasses can provide protection from tornadoes. Later analysis showed that the tornado didn’t directly hit the overpass the television crew was huddled under and that they were subject to relatively light winds.
Sadly, there is plenty of documentation of people being killed when sheltering from tornadoes under overpasses and there are no expert opinions that support the idea of using them for refuge. In fact, experts are all 100% unified in advising that you should NEVER use an underpass as a shelter during a tornado.
Additionally, cars parked under an overpass can interfere with traffic trying to continue down the highway and create a glut of vehicles in the path of a tornado.
Don’t Get Stuck on the Road.
Expert opinions vary regarding tornado safety when you’re stuck on the roadway during a tornado. There is truly no safe option when you are caught in the path of a tornado in a vehicle; just slightly less dangerous ones.
Your best course of action will depend on your exact location, the tornado’s location, its speed, its direction of movement, the road options available to you, nearby structures, the time of day, and traffic. In other words, there is no single recommendation for which last-resort action you should take because many factors can affect your decision.
What to Do if You Are Stuck on the Road.
There are three primary pieces of advice that the experts give out for those who find themselves stuck on the road during a tornado. The fact is, though, that people who have followed each of these instructions have both survived and died.
- Drive Out of the Path of the Tornado. You may, in some situations, be able to get out of the tornado’s way by driving out of its path. This can be very dangerous unless traffic, time of day, and road options align in your favor.
- Park the vehicle as quickly and safely as possible. Pull to the side of the road and park your vehicle. Stay inside with the seat belt on. Put your head down below the windows and cover your head with your hands, a blanket, or a coat.
- Get lower than the level of the surrounding ground or roadway. If you can find a ditch, ravine, or culvert running under the roadway, make for it and get as far away from any vehicles as possible. Cover your head and neck with your arms and cover your body as best you can with a blanket or coat.
Parting Thoughts on Tornado Safety
When facing a tornado, the best option is always to get to a safe shelter.
To make sure you have a path to safety, stay alert to the threat of tornado activity wherever you are and wherever you are going. Listen to local weather reports, check ahead for where you will be traveling, and keep an eye on the skies for warning signs.
If you end up stuck on the road, assess your situation and see if any of the last-resort options above sound reasonable. Know, though, that stepping outside your vehicle will put you at risk for a number of things beyond your control such as tornado winds and debris flying through the air.
And, remember: NEVER seek shelter under a bridge or overpass!