Confusion on What to Do If Car Meets Tornado
National Weather Service & Red Cross agree to disagree
Pop quiz: You're driving along when suddenly the stormy weather turns even more serious -- a tornado is bearing down on your car with strong winds and flying debris. There's no time to turn the car around and outrun the twister, or to reach by car or on foot the shelter of a nearby building. What do you do?
The consensus advice among the National Weather Service (NWS), American Red Cross, and other public- and private-sector organizations has long been to abandon the vehicle and lie flat in a ditch with your hands covering your head. That is until earlier this month when the Red Cross changed its recommendation to: "Pull over and park, keeping seat belts on and the engine running. Put your head down below the windows, covering with your hands and a blanket if possible."
So which is it? Get out of the car or stay in? Or, in more pessimistic words: Risk being impaled by flying debris (the No. 1 cause of injuries and deaths from tornadoes) outside the car? Or stay in the car and hope that you and the vehicle itself don't become flying debris?
Keep reading for more on the conflicting tornado safety advice, and tell us what you would do by voting in our poll...
As first reported by the Weather Channel's Greg Forbes, the Red Cross changed its advice based on research led by Kent State University professor Tom Schmidlin that found that a relatively small percentage of vehicles were moved or tipped over during tornadoes and that a vehicle may be safer than the outdoors.
The NWS, however, has yet to budge from its abandon-your-car approach. Its safety guidelines say that "vehicles are notorious as death traps in tornadoes, because they are easily tossed and destroyed."
The discrepancy in recommendations has now been addressed (papered over?) with the release of a joint statement by the NWS and Red Cross, in which the NWS affirms that its guidance to get out of automobiles has not changed, but that the NWS and Red Cross "are jointly reviewing the science behind the traditional and revised tornado safety statements."
Perhaps most important, the statement pointedly notes that both staying in your car or seeking shelter in a ditch are options of last resort and provide little protection. According to the statement, the NWS and Red Cross agree on the importance of "identifying a safe location in advance of any severe weather" and that during a tornado "the safest place to be is in an underground shelter, basement or safe room."
This controversy has captured my attention in particular because of a personal encounter with a tornado. In 1995, I was in my car one night, patiently waiting the opportunity to turn from a driveway onto a street in Temple Hills, Md., when seemingly out of nowhere the wind increased to what I perceived as hurricane strength. Needless to say, I was totally surprised and scared beyond belief when my car rose at least two feet off the ground. Fortunately, the wind decreased as rapidly as it had increased, and my car settled back down on the driveway.
In my case, there was no time to take action, let alone weigh the possible options. After the fact, I learned I had been only about 100 yards from the path of a tornado spawned by the remnants of Hurricane Opal. The tornado reportedly produced a peak wind of 150 mph, injured three people and resulted in $5 million damage to nearby homes.
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