Posted at 3:55 PM on May 1, 2009
by Paul Huttner
NWS image shows what's left of a Ford pickup mangled among trees after the EF3 tornado in Henderson County, Kentucky on March 28th. Fortunately there was nobody in this truck when the tornado struck.
Remember the old advice to go to the southwest corner of your basement during a tornado? Well we may have another "duck and cover" moment on our hands.
This week Dr. Greg Forbes on The Weather Channel caught my ear when he reported that the Red Cross has changed safety advice for people in cars during tornadoes. The going advice was if you are caught out in the open in your car during a tornado to abandon the vehicle and lay flat in the lowest depression. In other words, get into the ditch and start kissing the mud and pray that your car or the roof from what used to be a home or a barn doesn't land on you.
Dr. Forbes (who I really enjoy watching) was passing along new safety advice from The American Red Cross that says you should stay in your car if a tornado approaches. The advice is to attempt to drive at right angles to the tornado, and if the vortex is about to hit you to pull over and "duck and cover" below the level of the windshield. The theory is that your car would offer more protection from flying debris than being outside.
There is some data to support this idea in weaker tornadoes. (There's an oxymoron for you!) Studies have shown that you may be safer in a car or truck than inside a mobile home in EF0-EF2 tornadoes. Close to 80% of all tornadoes fall into these categories.
But if you're hit by a violent EF3 or stronger tornado you're in big trouble in a car. Just look at the photo above again and try to imagine surviving that one.
So Craig Edwards and I got to talking and feeling around to see if NOAA had changed their advice after hearing the TWC report on the Red Cross. They have not. Their advice remains to try and get to safe shelter if you can, and to abandon your vehicle if you cannot.
The following email is a response from Kim Runk with the Central Region of NOAA.
"Our position hasn't changed - people need to plan for weather emergencies like tornadoes in advance by identifying a safe shelter, such as a basement, storm cellar, or safe room, now - before bad weather strikes. Owning a NOAA Weather Radio is also recommended, so citizens will be alerted when a tornado is in their area. If they hear a tornado warning, it means a tornado is threatening their life and they should immediately head to their safe shelter, not wait until they can see a tornado.
Mobile homes, vehicles and outside are not safe places to be during a tornado. If people plan in advance, they will not be forced to make a life or death decision on the fly. If a tornado is threatening and people are caught outdoors or in a vehicle, they should always seek sturdy shelter - even if it means knocking on the door of a stranger.
The attached photo was a Ford pick-up tossed a quarter mile in the recent Henderson County, KY EF3 tornado of March 28, 2009, and then becoming mangled with large trees. It leaves little doubt as to what would have been the fate of any occupants. Thankfully, there were none."
Thanks to Kim for the clarification on NOAA's advice.
What would you do?
It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the coming months. And this will be good discussion fodder for our 2nd annual MPR Severe Weather Forum next week!
Have a great weekend!
The answer to:
"If a person is stranded away from shelter should they remain in their vehicle or get out and lay in a ditch?"
Isn't "own a radio and get in a building".
The picture doesn't support their position well either. I doubt someone laying in a ditch near there would be safe with that truck and trees flying around. If you are in that situation without shelter you are pretty well dead.
Neither side should be making recommendations without data to back them up.
Luckily no one was killed in that tornado, even though it caught many people off guard.
The change of recommendation by the Red Cross was based, in part, on our research at Kent State University. There is ample evidence in the peer-reviewed science literature, some going back 20 years, that a person is safer in a car than in a mobile home or in a ditch during a tornado warning. There is NO research to show you are safer in a ditch. Remember, the NWS tells residents of mobile homes and motorists without nearby sturdy shelter that "when a tornado warning is issued" they should go outdoors and lie down in a ditch. Then stay there for the 45 minute duration of the warning. The only change is to recommend instead that they use their vehicle to get to sturdier shelter, not go outside to a ditch for the duration of the warning.