As a large tornado bore down on a Tornado Alley state’s largest city during rush hour, a major thoroughfare became a parking lot.
People in countless vehicles were sitting ducks.
This didn’t happen only in Oklahoma City on May 31 – it happened in Wichita in 2010. In both cases, the tornadoes never reached the snarled trafficways before falling apart.
But each instance reminded authorities how much people still have to learn about how to best protect themselves when a tornado threatens an urban area.
The short – and unsettling – answer, officials say, is there’s no easy one-size-fits-all option.
Sedgwick County Emergency Management Director Randy Duncan calls them “the rules of expedient shelter,” and he’s come to expect an expression that clouds faces in his audience when he describes the rules.
“There comes a moment I can tell they get nervous,” Duncan said. “They’re realizing that there is not one single thing that they can do that’s guaranteed to protect them every time they do it. They realize they’re taking a chance. That’s a thing that makes people very uncomfortable.”
There are, however, some basic rules that can serve as a launching point for anyone’s tornado safety plan, officials say.
“The things people can do to protect themselves are really pretty simple and straightforward,” Duncan said.
The first is to seek shelter underground if that is an option on short notice.
“In Kansas, we probably don’t take comfort enough in the fact that a good portion of the homes in this state are built with basements,” said Aaron Johnson, the science and operations officer for the Dodge City branch of the National Weather Service.
Those without basements should identify neighbors who have them or a church or nearby business that has a shelter available.
As a general rule, Duncan said, people should stay off the road if a tornado has been confirmed. As the Moore and El Reno, Okla., tornadoes showed last month, striking a little more than a week apart, the road is “a dangerous place to be,” he said.
Major tornado threats now are typically detected several days in advance, he said, so people should be aware of the dangers and map out their day with the possible need for shelter in mind.
“If you are already out on the road and you don’t have anywhere else to go, be willing to pull that vehicle off to the side of the road,” Duncan said. “Be ready to take cover in a ditch or ravine.”
AccuWeather senior vice president Mike Smith cautioned against using drainage culverts as shelter, though. Two people drowned in a culvert while seeking shelter in Oklahoma City when the strong thunderstorms that accompanied the May 31 tornadoes triggered flash flooding.
Wichita does not have public tornado shelters, Duncan said, because authorities do not want a repeat of what happened when Wichita Falls, Texas, was hit by a tornado in 1979. People left houses where they were safe to drive to public shelters and were killed en route.
The American Red Cross does encourage residents of mobile homes to leave those structures and drive to shelter if necessary.
“If flying debris occurs while you are driving, pull over and park,” the organization’s website states.
Then consider these options “as a last resort,” the Red Cross states:
• Stay in the car with the seat belt on. Put your head down below the windows, covering with your hands and a blanket if possible.
• If you can safely get noticeably lower than the level of the roadway, exit your car and lie in that area, covering your head with your hands.
Taking shelter under an overpass is one of the worst things you can do, Smith and others say.
Yet so many vehicles parked beneath the I-235 overpass at K-42 as a tornado threatened Wichita on May 19 that K-42 was completely blocked, Wichita storm chaser and extreme weather photographer Jim Reed said.
“Emergency vehicles wouldn’t have been able to get through,” he said.
An underpass works as a wind tunnel, Duncan said, actually speeding up the winds passing beneath the bridge. That makes them more dangerous for someone seeking shelter than simply lying in a ditch.
More than one person died under an overpass in the May 3, 1999, tornado that struck Moore. Whether any of the 20 people killed in the May 31 storms died under an overpass has not yet been released.