Spring has sprung severely this year. Tornado season is already in full swing across the central United States:
On March 5-6, 2022, multiple tornadoes swept across Iowa, causing mass mayhem and destruction. At least seven people died when an EF4 tornado (winds 207-260 mph) hurtled through Des Moines.
On March 22, a category EF4 tornado tore through the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, nearby St. Bernard Parish and other areas in Louisiana. Then the severe weather continued eastward through Alabama and onward through parts of the Deep South, according to the National Weather Service.
And that was just the beginning of the spring tornado season. It’s no fun to be out driving during a storm, and it can be downright deadly to be caught on the road during a tornado. The real-life story below illustrates some of the dangers.
A harrowing road trip
On Tuesday, March 22, “Marcy” and “John” were traveling in their car on Interstate 55 in southern Illinois when a line of severe storms formed right on their heels. In fact, it kept pace with them all the way to Louisiana. The couple were taking a spring-break road trip, heading south from the northwest suburbs of Chicago, passing through Shawnee National Forest in southern Illinois, and traveling on from there to New Orleans. Unfortunately for them, much of their drive turned into a harrowing experience as they dodged scary storms and pulled off the highway repeatedly to avoid multiple tornadoes. “Whole trees were downed on I-55, some completely blocking the road,” Marcy reported.
After many delays and detours, the couple finally arrived — safely — in New Orleans. But an hour later, so did the EF4 tornado mentioned at the top of this story. John and Marcy soon learned that the tornado had decimated the Arabi neighborhood in St. Bernard Parish (see this photo capture from a drone video published by the Plaquemine Post South), only a few miles away from where they were staying. The tornado severely damaged homes, knocked out power, injured multiple people and killed at least one person.
Marcy and John’s experience is a reminder of the importance acting quickly and safely if you are caught on the road during a tornado. Follow this three-point strategy to protect yourself and your passengers.
What to do if you are on the road during a tornado
The first thing to do is stay calm if you see a tornado touch down or hear a tornado warning. Travelers suggests three basic steps to stay safe:
- First: Get off the road as soon as possible. Travelers advises pulling off the road completely instead of pulling over to the side, if possible. Additionally, drivers should never try to outrun a tornado. According to this Accuweather video, tornadoes travel fast “and do not follow roads.” If you see a tornado forming, it can take seconds to touch down and head toward you.
Other options: If you see the tornado and it is far enough away, drive away from the tornado at a 90-degree angle. If the threat is more immediate, and you have no way to drive away in another direction, the meteorologists at weather.com say the next best thing is to abandon your car and seek shelter in a sturdy structure. A sturdy structure might be a gas station, restaurant or other building along the road. It’s important that the building have either a basement or an interior room without windows. Never take shelter in a mobile home.
- Second: Do not seek shelter under a bridge or underpass, or in a tunnel. Underpasses are not safe and should not be considered shelter. It is even more dangerous to be under an underpass during a tornado than out in the open. “These structures can actually amplify the speeds of the winds and they offer little to no protection from flying debris,” Accuweather meteorologist William Clark said.
As pointed out above, tornado winds can accelerate through small spaces, causing the underpass to collapse or your car to be blown away, according to weather.com. Your car can also cause a traffic bottleneck, trapping others in the tornado’s path. Additionally, if you are on foot and choose to hide under a bridge, know that the flying debris can be deadly and you can even be blown through and carried away by the accelerated winds.
- Third: Stay low. If you choose to abandon your vehicle and a solid structure is not available, find a ditch or a low spot far away from your vehicle. Lying flat in a low ditch will allow the strong winds and flying debris to pass over you. Cover your head with your hands. Do not hide under your car. Remember to get as far away from your car as possible.
If you do get stuck in your car and have nowhere else to go, make sure your seatbelt is on and your head is covered (with a blanket, for example) and below your windows and windshield, to protect your head from glass. Leave the car running so the airbags still work, and keep your seatbelt on, say the meteorologists at weather.com.
Following these strategies may save your life one day if you get caught on the road during a tornado. Perhaps the best advice of all is to pay attention to the weather and stay home if there is any chance of a tornado.
by Kris A. Mainellis