Underpass not safe from tornado

June 8, 2013

Q: Is it really safer under a highway overpass during a tornado?

A: The answer is definitely not, says John Nielsen-Gammon of Texas A&M University.

“This is a myth that has developed over the past few years,” Nielsen-Gammon explains.

“It may have arisen because there are several filmed incidents of people crouching by the girders of a highway overpass while a tornado passes overhead. But several studies show that being under an overpass may be one of the very worst places to be in a tornado.

“One of the main concerns is that there is no protection from the flying debris associated with a tornado, and debris whirled around at up to 300 miles per hour is the main cause of injuries caused by a tornado.”

Q: So what’s the best thing to do?

A: “If you’re driving and see a tornado, evaluate your options,” Nielsen-Gammon says. “If you’re in a rural area, it’s usually possible to get out of its way. Stop and figure out if it’s going to pass in front of you or behind you, then go the other way, keeping a distance of at least three miles.

“Usually the south side of the tornado is safest, because you avoid most of the hail and heavy rain and you can see the danger better. In an urban area, traffic will limit your maneuverability, so often the best choice is to find a secure building and take refuge.

“The walk-in freezers in restaurants and grocery stores can provide protection against even the strongest twisters. In the worst-case scenario, if you’re out in the open with no escape, lie down in a ditch or low spot and cover your head.

“The idea is to avoid being blown away or have other debris be blown into you.”

Weather Whys is a service of the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at Texas A&M University.

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