Your car is not a tornado shelter

Last Friday, a tornado near El Reno, Oklahoma killed scientist Tim Samaras, as well as his son and a colleague. The three were tracking the storm in a vehicle — storm chasing, if you will — as part of their ongoing efforts to deploy probes that could capture high-resolution video from inside a tornado. (Samaras' team was one of many practicing a type of science that can basically be described as Twister in real life.) Chasing storms was an important part of what Samaras did. National Geographic reports that tornadoes only developed in roughly two of every 10 storms Samaras tracked, and the probes were only useful in a fraction of the tornadoes they were deployed in.

Samaras' death is tragic, but he wasn't some untrained yahoo out running around on county roads in a tornado for fun. He was there to do a job; a job that would, eventually, help other people survive. That said, if a situation kills experts, you probably don't want to be that untrained person trying to navigate it on your own.

Which brings us to a key point. After a handful of people who survived the Moore tornado credited their survival to driving away from it, people in Oklahoma City apparently responded to Friday's storms by trying to do the same thing. For some, it worked. But others were killed or injured when traffic on highways in the tornado's path ground to a complete halt, clogged with cars full of people who were (either accidentally or intentionally) trying to flee the storm instead of hide from it.

NPR reports that driving away from the storm is actually a growing trend in Oklahoma. The interesting thing is that, for certain people in certain situations, it may not be the worst decision you can make. Here's what Rick Smith of the National Weather Service told NPR:

... fleeing a massive tornado could be a good strategy — if your escape path was wide open. "To me, if I lived in a rural area in western Oklahoma where the population was 100, it would be a very easy decision. If there's a tornado coming, and I've got just a few minutes, and I know that I can drive five minutes south, and park and wait for it to pass, I would probably do that," he said.

The problem, Smith said later, is that this advice is heavily dependent on a) the size of the tornado, b) whether the person in question has a good storm shelter and (most importantly) c) the local population. If you live in a town of 100, or out in a rural area on a farm, that's one thing. In a city, a suburb, or even a crowded exurb, the result can entirely different, especially if the tornadoes are striking around rush hour, which is when the storms that caused the El Reno tornado, and others, hit the Oklahoma City area. Even non-tornadic effects of the storm can change the calculus — in Oklahoma City on Friday, the storms caused severe flash floods, which are really not good things to run into while in a vehicle.

Basically, the "right" answer can vary. But, if you live in a densely populated area, getting in your car is probably not the right way to respond to a tornado siren.

But what if you just happen to be in the car when disaster strikes? Here's one bit of advice — don't hide under an overpass. Following that myth would actually expose you a wind tunnel effect and make you more likely to be hit with flying debris, which is the stuff that kills most tornado victims. Instead, NOAA recommends going to a place that has a tornado shelter (a rest area, a truck stop, etc.) or lying face down in a ditch or ravine below grade.

Image: Harrisburg, IL tornado - flipped car, a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No-Derivative-Works (2.0) image from statefarm's photostream


  1. Apparently, fixtures of the infrastructure like the Kansas Turnpike have storm shelters placed along the route, as one local news reporter noted.

    For 28 of the 46 years I’ve lived in Kansas, this essential fact has never been pointed out to me or my family. One would think they would advertise about those shelters more often.

        1. i’ve lived on the Kansas/Missouri border for most of my life and didn’t know about the ones in kansas. I knew Missouri’s rest stops had them, but they’re only a few on the interstate.

          Saw an article on an Oklahoma state senator that has been trying to increase tornado safety in the state for decades. They won’t even pass mandatory safe rooms in schools because that would increase gov’t spending. I imagine state tornado shelters are too expensive as well.

          1. Just find a barren patch of ground where a collectivist might have sited a tornado shelter, probably by eminent domain and cruel taxation of wealth creators, put your hands over your eyes, and chant ‘Better dead than red’ until the storm passes.


          2. It might be due to my Kansas sense of entitlement, but I always considered a house without a finished basement only half a house.

          3. Oklahoman houses frequently don’t have basements because expansion & contraction of the clay soil can crack the walls and begin leaking.

            Although they can prevent that these days, many property owners equate basements with leaks and having a basement can reduce the value of the house.


          4. Does that make California half a state? Everything here (and the Southwest) is on slab, which by the way, has a number of advantages.

          5. Common sense steps to prevent deaths by tornadoes in areas always being hit by tornadoes would be big government tyranny…

            I came in here to wonder aloud why the state and municipalities don’t do much more in the way of making public shelters and such, but I already knew the answer…

          6. Building codes too. Here in the North East buildings are often required to be hurricane ready even in areas where hurricanes are unlikely to hit or do much damage. Family who work in construction or government in other parts of the country tell me half the reason Tornado and Southern hurricanes are so damaging is the complete failure to address the possibility of storm damage in the way buildings are constructed, and the generally lax building codes. Apparently the large number of trailer parks doesn’t help either.

      1. Maggie – You provide a lot of good information in your
        article which is evident in the great dialogue continued in the comments. We
        wanted to follow up on the topic raised by @knoxblox about shelters on the
        Kansas Turnpike.

        The shelters we have at the toll plazas along the turnpike
        were installed for the safety of our employees. While no customers have ever
        been turned away, most are small in-ground shelters and space is tight. They
        are adequate for one or two toll collectors and for travelers who are in an
        unfamiliar area and wouldn’t have other shelter options. However, most of these
        shelters could not accommodate a large volume. Thus, area residents are not
        encouraged to designate these areas as their shelters. In many instances, our
        employees have assisted travelers in seeking shelter and because – until
        recently – most of our toll plazas were staffed 24 hours a day, the need to
        publicize the shelters to customers has not been necessary. At the Turnpike’s
        six service areas, the storm shelters are larger to accommodate an anticipated
        larger number of travelers and employees. In the past, the biggest challenge we
        faced during severe weather was getting customers to actually leave their
        vehicles. As you mentioned, another challenge is educating travelers that
        overpasses/bridges are not safe shelters.

  2. I have to wonder if running away soothes peoples’ wounded sense of agency in a way that pragmatic cowering doesn’t… 

    1. driving south has been a tactic for getting out of the way a tornado for years. Twisters tend to form on the southeast edge of the storms and travel northeast. Usually it works, except when everyone is trying to do it and the storm is dropping tornadoes everywhere.

    2. That’s the most terrifying thing about earthquakes. All you can do is sit tight until you die, or you don’t.

  3. I distinctly heard the male weather forecaster on KFOR (the OKC NBC affiliate) telling people on the air, live, that if they lived on the south side of OKC, and if they didn’t have access to an adequate place of shelter, they should get into their cars and drive south–out of what was then projected to be the tornado’s most probable path. I’d never heard anyone give that advice on the air before, and I remember thinking at the time that while it might make a bit of sense on the surface of it, overall it sounded to me like a stupid thing to advise people to do, and for much the same reasons as discussed in the article above. I can’t have been the only one to have noted that. I was on their live stream, In this particular case, that advice may have cost some people their lives, but I’ve yet to see it even mentioned anywhere in the media, including the Web-based. Seems odd to me. I’d think that it would be news that any supposed professional in that kind of situation could’ve said or done anything any more irresponsible or incompetent.

    1. If you don’t have shelter then what should you do? Wait and hope? Is getting into a car that much worse than no protection at all?

      1. My understanding is that the advice would go something like this:
        1) Is there a nearby shelter you can quickly get to? At a neighbor’s house, for instance, or a public building? 
        2) If you’re not talking about a great big F4/F5 sort of tornado, you might just be best off hunkering down in a windowless room. The recommendation I always heard when we lived in a basement-less apartment was to get in the ceramic bathtub in the windowless bathroom, for instance. 

        1. From what I understand, the recommendations are being rethought due to advances in forecasting. Things like community storm shelters used to be laughed at due to only having maybe 5 minutes from the warning to impact. Now warnings can exist half an hour before the impact. So if there is a really big storm or a large tornado sighted, it might now be possible to evacuate people who don’t have protection. For example, with the Moore tornado, they had 30 minutes from the warning to impact. There is at least one story of a parent who evacuated his son from the Plaza Towers Elementary school between the time of the warning and the tornado impact. With these expanded warnings, getting into your car might not be a terrible idea if you are trying to seek a decent shelter.

      2.  From what I have heard (documentaries and such), a car provides no protection at all.  Flying debris will easily shatter windows and high winds can pull you out.  If you are trying to use your car to get someplace safer, then whether or not that it is a good idea depends on distance and traffic.  Getting stuck out in the open would be worse than hiding in a windowless bathroom (one documentary mentioned that the pipes would help anchor the room down).

        Also, 94% of tornadoes are EF2 or lower which means that the interior walls of a house will generally still be standing afterwards.  With an EF3 (about 5% of tornadoes), you have a chance of surviving in an interior room.  Your car, on the other hand, will probably be picked up and thrown at the nearest tree.

    2. I’ve seen it mentioned on Twitter and a local, social blog, but have yet to see any response from Mike Morgan (the forecaster) or the NBC affiliate. Even Rick Smith, mentioned above, was on Twitter wondering why so many people were on the interstates at the time. 

  4. I was 14 when I saw a tornado obliterate a trailer park (and about 30 people) near Edmonton – I could see it out the back door of the Mcdonald’s where I was working.  A huge (1km wide) black funnel about 10 miles away.  Very terrifying and awesome.  But our manager would not let me go home, and amazingly, the restaurant remained busy as if nothing was happening.

    Had I been even a bit older or wiser I’d have told the manager to bite me and left (in fact I did for much less important reasons a few months later). 

    Reading this page has me realizing that there is no tornado shelter infrastructure that I know of in Alberta, and there have been deadly tornadoes (though nothing like tornado alley).

  5. the national weather service has free maps that show, in big letters, “here be tornadoes.”

    anyone who builds or buys a house in a tornado alley without a shelter is a fool.

    anyone who approves, plans or builds a school without a shelter there is a criminal.

    1. Please show me the territory that doesn’t have earthquakes or floods or blizzards or wildfires or any other natural disaster. That also has flat land on which to build. And water resources. And that is affordable to an average worker.

      1.  Yes, natural disasters happen everywhere, but what does that have to do with the above poster’s point that everyone should have access to tornado shelters?  We have building codes for earthquake zones and levees for flood zones … is it not the same idea?

        I disagree that everyone living in a house without a shelter is a fool … they probably just cannot afford one.

      2. The Palouse. It’s an area of Northern Idaho and Eastern Washington. OK, it’s not very flat, but there are flat parts, and people build on those rolling hills just fine. And it seems to have no major natural disasters. There used to be bad flooding around rivers some times, but with concrete rivers in the worst-hit towns now, that hasn’t happened in a long time (more than the 15 years that members of my family have lived there). My brother used to go on and on about how the Palouse would be the perfect place to put server farms because of its stability and lack of natural disasters.

      3. Slate did an article on just this subject a few years ago. The answer is Connecticut near Hartford.

    2. “anyone who approves, plans or builds a school without a shelter there is a criminal”


      In California they have earthquake standards that buildings have to meet. In Israel there are rules regarding bomb shelters, and places that don’t have shelters in every home have communal shelters that are well marked in every neighborhood. In Oklahoma, they tell people in apartment buildings to get to know their downstairs neighbors and they act as if hiding in a corner of your classroom is good enough when the tornado goes right over top of you. 

      It’s all fine and dandy to live in tornado country, but you should have proper shelter against the tornadoes. The fact that they don’t have building codes that require shelters on the first floor of apartment buildings, and in all schools and hospitals is just NUTS!

  6. I would be curious if there was a difference in survivability for different vehicle types.  Minivans and SUV’s have a higher center of gravity and have tall, flat sides to catch the wind with.  How do they compare with a sedan or sports car?

    PS  I recall, but can’t find, old footage of a sedan on a rocket sled to simulate tornado winds.  It remained level, but that was head on wind.

    1.  Depends on the size of the storm – but tornado winds aren’t head on and if a big one can lift a 9 story hospital and move it several inches (Joplin) you aren’t safe in a car.

      The only correct statement about driving out of a tornado is “if you drive out of the watch area when the watch is initially issued and wait until the watch is over to drive back – that is an OK strategy – otherwise once a warning is issued there is not enough time.”

      Mind you the lead time on a warning averages just 12 minutes.  That’s not enough time to get out of the way in a car in *most* situations… thus not safe.

      1. I’m not suggesting any vehicle is safe.  And not everyone in a car hit by a tornado is fleeing.  Just curious if there is a difference in safety. 

        For instance, impact damage should be less on vehicles with lower profile.  Nearer to the ground, wind speed is lower.  And smaller area for impact. 

        As for the car on the rocket sled, it was going 400 mph when they released the restraints on the car.  It surprised the researchers that it didn’t fly off the platform instantly.  Which begs the question: what influences roll-over in a tornado?  Vehicle height and wind direction seem two strong factors.

        1.  Were they throwing debris at the car (probably breaking windows and possibly getting underneath the tires)?  Was the ground wet and oily like a typical road might be?  And do tornado winds really just more in one direction for any significant amount of time?

          1. Nope.  I think they just used “tornado research” as an excuse to accelerate a 1970’s sedan up to 400 mph.  Best part is when the sled stopped, but the car kept going.  Apparently a car is not stable at 400 mph on sandy desert soil.  Gave new meaning to “careening out of control”

  7. Tragic, but not surprising at all. From the live news coverage, there appear to be a LOT of storm chasers out there, and, like Steve Irwin’s death from pestering one too many wild animals, this was an inevitability. 

  8. I have heard… many tornado storms move fast enough that attempting to drive out of their way is a bad idea. Likewise, a fast moving tornado will also be moving out of the affected areas quickly, causing less damage, increasing survivability.

    Alternatively, a slow moving tornado storm is going to be easier to out run, and will also cause a lot more damage as it slowly passes through.

    That being said, I’ve never heard an “official” advise to get on the road to outrun any type of storm. The usual word is to head to a shelter, and if no shelter is available or if you are in a vehicle, lay face down in a low lying area or ditch, with your hands/arms covering the back of your head.

    Did you hear about the tsunami survivor that was able to climb a tree, only to get bitten repeatedly by a poisonous snake that had also climbed the tree? Ughh.

    1. It isn’t the tornado I can see that worries me, as much as the one’s I see in the videos that get sucked up into clouds, only to drop back down somewhere a few minutes later.  How do you outrun those?  When is it safe to pop back up from the ditch?

    2.  A whole family died in a ditch from the flash flood while trying to take shelter from the tornado on Friday.

  9. It still amazes me that so many people in Oklahoma don’t have basements in their houses. I understand the ground there is very rocky, and that basements are therefore expensive to excavate. So what? It could be a 4’x4′ root cellar, not even ten feet deep, and it’d be better than nothing. It’d be safety.

    Nebraska doesn’t get nearly as many tornadoes, and most of us have basements. I don’t know that any born and bred Nebraskan would feel comfortable living in a house that didn’t have somewhere underground to go, just in case.

    1. It’s not the rock. It’s the red clay. It tends to swell and contract and does not drain water. The foundation needs to get below the frost line, which up north may be a much as 5 or 6 feet deep, so going down another few feet for a basement for you makes is much cheaper. In Oklahoma, we only need a slab foundation.

      In a bedroom community like Moore, most people live in tract housing, built by contractors looking to save every penny they can. And to be honest, for most people in Oklahoma who have a storm shelter, it becomes an expensive closet. However, that one time a tornado tracks your way, it is very useful.

    2. Actually it’s the other way around.. Oklahoma is pretty much clay and limestone. These materials absorb water and become unstable once soaked.  I guess it’s okay to build on top of, but it’s extremely expensive to reinforce once you start digging downwards.

  10. Last Wednesday, hubby and I were traveling through OK on I-40, and another set of storms with tornado activity were passing through.

    I grew up in OK, and I admit that I felt the tiniest little bit bad-ass, knowing what and what not to do when my lifelong-Californian hubby didn’t.

    Me: This looks bad. We’re pulling over for shelter.
    Hubby: It’s just rain and hail.
    Me: That’s a tornado sky.
    Hubby: Okay, we can stop under an overpass.
    Me: The fuck we are! That’s the WORST place we could be! Imma keep driving till we find a sturdy building!

    We stuck around at a McDonald’s for five hours (part of that time in the mens bathroom with all the employees) waiting for the storms to clear our path. (When it gets dark, you can’t see tornados coming, so I wanted all dangerous storms to be out of our way.)

    1. We stuck around at a McDonald’s for five hours (part of that time in the mens bathroom with all the employees) 

      As someone who has cleaned fast food restaurant bathrooms, you made the correct choice of the men’s room.

      1.  It was the innermost room and the designated tornado shelter. And yeah, it was surprisingly clean.

        In places where there’s one lockable-room toilet for men and one lockable-room toilet for women, I’ll often go ahead and use the men’s room, if the women’s line is too long. It’s strange how it varies as to which is cleaner.

  11. During this outbreak we had 5 families for a total of 20 people including 8 kids at our house to ride it out in our basement. For the most part everyone was freaking out around the ground floor because the storm predictions had been coming all week. We heard the call to go south and my sis-in-law, her husband and their 2 little ones decided to hit the road 10 minutes before the tornado was supposed to hit. Our neighbors had already bailed out form their house which didn’t help. We all went to the basement (this is when everyone is the most calm) and the storm turned south. The family that left had turned back after a complete freak-out in the car and avoided heading into the storm. 
    Recap – They left our house that has a BASEMENT and headed TOWARD the tornado. This is a slow burning fuse but there are going to be serious repercussions from this panic inducing terrible call from the weather-porn stars. There is still no local commentary or investigation but I don’t think it can be avoided forever.

  12. 5 kiddos in this pic mostly under pool table. Stuff on top is blankets and a small mattress. They are not having fun and some start crying every few minutes. Adults are highly stressed and making questionable decisions. Then, as odds would have it, we are not hit by a tornado. 

  13. I have some friends that moved to Oklahoma for work a couple of years ago. When the tornadoes hit the other day, they said that they were being told to head south to get away from the tornados. Things were made worse by the fact that their apartment was right in the apparent path of the tornado at that point, there is no shelter in their building, and their downstairs neighbors were not home. So, they piled themselves and their twin boys into their car and headed south… right into a traffic jam. Then the tornado turned. Wife saw a parking lot and a building and said, “We’re going there, NOW” and so they did. They ran into a bar, which was the only thing open in the building, and apparently they got followed by a bunch of other people who saw them and thought, “yeah, that’ll keep our kids safe!” The bar clientele were not pleased to have their space taken over by a bunch of families, but under the circumstances, what else were they to do? The tornado passed by within a hundred yards or so. They survived. They would not have done so well if they’d stayed in their cars, let’s just put it that way.

  14. As an Oklahoman that went through all that Friday, I’d never been so terrified. Here’s the situation: very few houses have storm cellers, even fewer have basements. The track houses you see in all of the suburbs are built by out-of-staters and there is no interest in building below-ground shelters. It costs minimum $3000 to build a small 5-person storm cellar, so not many home-owners can out-right afford one. Yukon, Moore, OKC have no public shelters whatsoever. OKC metro had closed what few public shelters there were (supposedly to discourage people getting out on the roads during the tornadoes). Yeah like that worked. When Mike Morgan the meteorologist is yelling to either go underground or head south, EVERYBODY took to the roads. The highways were at a standstill, and we were all sitting ducks.

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