April 10, 2012

Drivers can use storm shelters along Kansas Turnpike route

Most motorists don’t realize it, but nearly 30 public tornado shelters are scattered along the length of the Kansas Turnpike.

Most motorists don’t realize it, but nearly 30 public tornado shelters are scattered along the length of the Kansas Turnpike.

That knowledge may prove particularly valuable later this week, when severe weather is forecast to threaten large chunks of the state — including the turnpike’s path.

The shelters are located at toll plazas and service areas, said Lisa Callahan, a spokeswoman for the Turnpike Authority.

The turnpike has service areas in Belle Plaine, Towanda, Matfield Green, Emporia, Topeka and Lawrence. Most of the storm shelters are located in restrooms of the main buildings of the service areas.

Lesser-known shelters are those found at the turnpike’s toll plazas.

“These are really small, but . . . I think you can get as many people in as you need,” Callahan said.

Most of the shelters are underground and are accessed by opening a hatch and climbing down a short ladder. They were built for the safety of the toll plaza workers, Callahan said, but motorists seeking shelter will be welcomed as well.

At least 20 people can fit comfortably in the smallest shelters, she said — and more if circumstances require it.

“Our biggest problem is getting people to do something safe,” she said. “Mostly people just want to keep driving.”

The two exits at Mulvane each have shelters, Callahan said. Turnpike employees are reminded every year where the shelters are so they can take motorists there if necessary. New employees are given a tour of the shelters and are tested to make sure they can lift the lid to the entrance.

Turnpike officials want to get the word out about the shelters so motorists near a toll plaza will come there rather than seek shelter beneath an overpass — a dangerous choice that officials are trying to discourage.

Every turnpike toll plaza has a tornado shelter except Tonganoxie/Eudora, according to data supplied by the authority. There are no storm shelters along I-70 or any highways under the supervision of the Kansas Department of Transportation, state officials said.

Motorists who aren’t close to a turnpike toll plaza when they see a tornado are urged not to try to outrun it or seek protection beneath an overpass. Overpasses serve as wind tunnels and debris collectors, making them more dangerous.

If a nearby building isn’t available, the National Weather Service encourages drivers threatened by a tornado to lie in a ditch away from the vehicle and cover their head to protect it from debris.

The American Red Cross, meanwhile, recommends that drivers pull to the side of the road, lie flat on the seat and cover their heads.

Severe weather appears likely to threaten the Wichita area Thursday night and other parts of the state Friday and Saturday, forecasters say.

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