Tornado Myths Busted

tornado myths
(Photo Credit: The N&D Group)

Tornadoes can form at anytime and almost anywhere if the conditions are right. While accurately predicting their formation and movement can sometimes prove impossible for meteorologists, the damage tornadoes cause is widely documented and studied. Still, due to unique firsthand experiences, word of mouth, and sensationalized news stories, there are many widely spread myths about tornadoes that, if believed to be true, can put people in the path of danger. This list includes some of the most common misconceptions surrounding tornadoes.

Using Highway Overpasses as Shelters

Perhaps the most notorious and dangerous tornado myth is believing that a highway overpass is a suitable storm shelter. This stems from a 1991 Kansas event in which a TV news crew sought shelter under a highway overpass during a tornado and escaped with only minor injuries. The footage captured was shown across the US and led viewers to believe that highway overpasses are a good place to hunker down during a tornado. However, several unique and specific factors led to the crew’s survival, including the unusual design of the bridge in question as well as the path of the storm, which changed directions at the last minute, avoiding the bridge. A typical highway bridge’s shape could act as a wind tunnel, actually intensifying wind speeds and making overpasses some of the worst places to seek shelter. Wind speeds also increase with elevation and if a bridge’s embankment is higher than the surrounding area, it compounds the effect. In addition, vehicles stopped on roadways under bridges may disrupt the flow of traffic and block emergency vehicles, creating a traffic jam and/or cause accidents, putting others in danger.

The National Weather Service recommends that if you’re traveling in your car into the path of an oncoming tornado, immediately pull over and seek the nearest sturdy shelter – preferably an interior basement or first floor room of a well built municipal structure like a school or town hall. If no suitable building is available, as a LAST RESORT, lie flat in a ditch or low lying area to avoid flying debris, or drive away from the tornado only if it is far enough away and the road is clear.

Tornadoes Themselves

There are several widely held, but inaccurate beliefs about the storms themselves. The first is that the size of the funnel cloud is an indication of its relative strength. In reality, size does not matter when it comes to the wind speeds observed in tornadoes. Some of the strongest F5 tornadoes have measured less than 100 yards wide.

Another incorrect assumption is that tornadoes always move northwest, which may leave those southwest of a storm in a false sense of security. The truth is that while most tornadoes move in a general northwest direction, many times they do not and more importantly, a tornado can change directions suddenly and without notice.

Finally, the funnel cloud does not have to reach the ground in order to be destructive. Many believe the funnel cloud marks where the intense winds are located when in actuality, it’s just condensation. The destructive winds can reach the ground even if the funnel cloud does not. Furthermore, not all tornadoes have visible funnel clouds, and some may be obscured by heavy rain.

 Where and When Tornadoes Strike

When most of us think of tornadoes, thoughts of storms over expansive corn fields and flat prairie lands come to mind. And while the majority of tornadoes in the US do indeed occur in the Great Plains known as “Tornado Alley” during the period of March through June, they can occur just about anywhere and at any time. Tornadoes can traverse mountains, lakes, rivers, cliffs, and valleys. In fact, tornadoes have been documented in every state of the US and during every month of the year, in both rural and heavily urban areas. Dallas, St. Louis, Nashville, and even Brooklyn for example, have been hit multiple times, though many think that cities, especially ones with tall buildings, cannot. Tornadoes can also form on water (phenomena known as waterspouts), and the presence of a body of water does not weaken or stop a tornado.

Outrunning a Tornado

There are times when people try to outrun a tornado in their car, but this can be very dangerous. It is true that an average tornado moves slower than most cars at highway speeds, and at a great distance, motorists can avoid a visible tornado by driving away from it at a 90 degree angle relative to its path. However, this doesn’t take into consideration that a tornado doesn’t have to deal with traffic, obstacles blocking the road, emergency vehicles, flying debris, following a specific route (the road), or other drivers. Panicked driving can lead to fatal car accidents, and put others in danger. A vehicle can be swept up and tossed several hundred feet by a small tornado, even if the funnel cloud appears far away. Cars can also be damaged by debris and become disabled, blocking roadways and putting the occupants and other motorists in danger.

Never leave the protection of a sturdy building to escape in a vehicle. An interior room, preferably in the basement (or lowest floor) is the best place to be in a tornado. Vehicles offer very limited protection during a tornado. Whether you are in a car or not, if you are outside, seek suitable shelter immediately.

Opening Windows

Because tornadoes cause changes in atmospheric pressure, it is believed that the difference between the inside and outside air pressures can cause a home to explode outward. This is false. In even the most violent tornadoes, the differences in pressure rarely exceed 10%, which most frame homes could withstand with closed windows. The “explosion” like damage can be attributed to disintegrating roofs and walls that have blown inwards into homes, causing the other three sides to fall outwards, creating the appearance of a house that has exploded. Not only does opening windows cause more damage to the interior of the home by allowing rain and wind inside, it also wastes valuable time that should be spent seeking shelter. Additionally, being near windows in a storm is dangerous as it potentially exposes occupants to flying glass.

In general, there is no guaranteed safety when in the path of a tornado. With winds up to 300 miles per hour, these forces of natures can derail trains, rip up highways, and destroy skyscrapers. But preparedness is the best way to increase your chances of survival. Knowing where to shelter is an essential part of tornado safety. If you live in a mobile home or are planning on traveling in a vehicle, make sure you have an evacuation plan and pick suitable shelters before an emergency takes place. A car or mobile home offers very little protection during a storm as they can be easily damaged, rolled, or thrown by weak tornadoes. Practicing a tornado drill with your family and coworkers will help educate them with what to do if a tornado does form. Finally, pay attention to weather forecasts and storm watches & warnings as these will provide you and your family more time to get to a safe location.

Edwards, Roger. “The Online Tornado FAQ.” The Online Tornado FAQ (by Roger Edwards, SPC). NOAA, 1 May 2017. Web. 05 May 2017. http://www.spc.ncep.noaa.gov/faq/tornado/.

“Tornadoes.” Tornadoes | Ready.gov. Department Of Homeland Security, n.d. Web. 10 May 2017. https://www.ready.gov/tornadoes.

“Tornado Myths.” Storm Aware. State of Missouri, n.d. Web. 05 May 2017. https://stormaware.mo.gov/tornado-myths/.

US Department of Commerce, NOAA, National Weather Service. “Highway Overpasses as Tornado Shelters: Fallout From the 3 May 1999 Oklahoma/Kansas Violent Tornado Outbreak.” National Weather Service. NOAA’s National Weather Service, 27 Sept. 2016. Web. 10 May 2017. https://www.weather.gov/oun/safety-overpass.