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Friday, July 11, 2014

During a tornado, run, don't gawk

BY STAN FINGER
The Wichita Eagle

One video circulating in cyberspace, shot by a 12-year-old boy with his cellphone in the back seat of his vehicle, shows a tornado closing in on a family driving in North Carolina last month — right up until the tornado hits them.

Another shows a tornado closing in on a Walgreens in Wilson, N.C., shot by a man in the parking lot who seems oblivious to the danger he's in until the last second.

"Hang on — I love you," he tells his wife as the tornado bears down on him, as if finally realizing he may be moments from death.

The videos startled officials at the Wichita branch of the National Weather Service. In response, they're issuing a fresh round of tornado safety tips today, to counter bad information — or simple ignorance — when it comes to safety from tornadoes.

People seem to be "just clueless" about what to do if a tornado threatens, said Dick Elder, meteorologist-in-charge of the Wichita branch.

"We are saddened and humbled by the number of people who have been killed and injured" in the tornado outbreaks in the Deep South last month, Elder said.

More than 300 tornadoes touched down last week in six states, killing at least 344 people.

"I am saddened and frustrated at the growing number of lost lives from the recent tornado outbreaks," Charlene Miller, assistant director of emergency management for Butler County, said in a statement. "As public servants, we can only go so far. There is a level of personal responsibility that each and everyone of us are accountable for."

Eleven of the tornadoes that touched down last week were rated EF-4 or EF-5 on the Enhanced Fujita Tornado Scale.

Tornadoes in those categories can be killers even if people take all the proper steps to protect themselves, weather officials said.

But far too often, they said, videos showed people doing absolutely the wrong thing as violent weather struck.

"You would look at that and go, 'My goodness, they're pretty stupid,' " Elder said.

More and more, he said, the desire to capture a dramatic storm on video seems to be trumping common sense and safety.

Yet others may simply have forgotten what to do.

That's why weather officials are relaying the safety information again, just as they do for Severe Weather Awareness Week in March.

"It's always a good reminder to tell people where to go to save themselves," Elder said.

Elder said he is still troubled by the video of then-KSN reporter Gregg Jarrett and his cameraman taking shelter from the weakened Andover tornado under a highway overpass on the Kansas Turnpike in 1991.

The clip recently surfaced on Fox News, where Jarrett works. In the piece, an "expert" on tornado safety says using an overpass for shelter is a good idea — even though weather officials have stated for years that an overpass can be a lethal place to be if a tornado approaches.

"I hate seeing that because then people will start thinking, 'Maybe that's what we should do,' " Elder said.

Three people were killed in May 1999 in Oklahoma when they took shelter under overpasses during a significant tornado outbreak.

The overpasses become wind tunnels and debris collectors as a tornado nears, authorities have said, making them particularly dangerous.

Reach Stan Finger at 316-268-6437 or sfinger@wichitaeagle.com.

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