Blockbuster movie showing overpass as tornado shelter distressing to weather officials

Weather officials in Tornado Alley have spent years urging people not to seek shelter under overpasses when a tornado threatens — and now Superman could derail those efforts.

In the summer movie blockbuster “Man of Steel,” Clark Kent’s earthly father — played by Kevin Costner — sees a tornado approaching as he is driving with his family. He pulls the car over and repeatedly urges his family and numerous other motorists to seek shelter under a nearby overpass.

That contradicts the tornado safety information put out by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“Many people mistakenly think that a highway overpass provides safety from a tornado,” reads a Web page on tornado safety posted on the Dodge City branch of NOAA’s National Weather Service. “In reality, an overpass may be one of the worst places to seek shelter from a tornado.

“Seeking shelter under an overpass puts you at greater risk of being killed or seriously injured by flying debris from the powerful tornadic winds.”

Warner Bros. released a statement following the movie’s premiere that the film is a work of fiction and that events depicted are not intended to serve as emergency preparedness advice. But weather officials fear audiences won’t grasp that.

“Hollywood's decision to include this scene is very distressing since people will remember that film clip more than anything we tell them,” said Larry Ruthi, meteorologist-in-charge of the Dodge City branch of NOAA’s National Weather Service.

It’s been more than 20 years since video of a crew from Wichita’s KSN-TV seeking shelter under an overpass on the Kansas Turnpike on April 26, 1991, received national play. They were spared because the EF-2 tornado, which had wind speeds of 111 to 135 mph, did not hit the overpass and the unique construction of the overpass offered protection rarely available.

Three people were killed and several others injured beneath overpasses when an EF-5 — the strongest category of tornado — struck Moore and Oklahoma City, Okla., on May 3, 1999.

People continue to take shelter underneath overpasses.

In mid-May, vehicles jammed beneath at least one overpass in Wichita, blocking traffic, as a tornado closed in on the city from the southwest.

When a tornado struck the Oklahoma City area on May 31, dozens of vehicles were sheltering beneath overpasses, often blocking passage, across Oklahoma City, storm chasers say.

“Even parked all the way up close to the girders,” Shawna Davies wrote in a blog post about the dangers from that deadly night. “I’m amazed some didn’t roll down embankments.”

None of the eight people killed by the May 31 Oklahoma tornado were under overpasses, NOAA officials say.

Chance Hayes, the warning coordination meteorologist for the Wichita branch of the weather service, said he has all but given up hope of getting people to forget about using overpasses as shelters.

“It will always be in the back of their mind,” Hayes said.

It’s best to avoid the situation altogether by staying alert to weather threats before they occur and by developing an action plan that maximizes one’s safety, he said.

Staying off the road is a key first step.

If they have to be on the road and see a tornado, Hayes said, they should figure out which way the storm is moving and drive at right angles away from it. If that’s not possible, he said, they should make a three-point turn and drive to a nearby shelter.

If they’re stuck on the road, he said, taking shelter in a ditch is preferable to staying in the vehicle or hiding under an overpass — unless the ditches are filling with water due to heavy rains.

Twelve people died in Oklahoma City on May 31 because they took shelter in culverts and drowned in the flash flooding that followed the tornado.

If ditches or ravines are dry, motorists should seek shelter dozens of yards away from vehicles if possible so they aren’t crushed if the tornado sends cars flying.

If the ditches are filling with water, Hayes said, he would encourage motorists to buckle themselves into their vehicles and get below the level of the dashboard to protect themselves from broken glass and flying debris.

“When a person is in that situation,” he said of being on a highway with a tornado closing in, “we’re panicked.”

When considering their options — which are all poor at that point, Hayes said — people may think of the overpass scene in “Man of Steel” and choose that option.

But that “should be their very last choice,” he said.

Related stories from Wichita Eagle