Ever since they were little girls, Peggy Willenburg and Melanie Metz shared a passion for weather, the wilder the better. So when they began to chase storms together, they named themselves after some of the wildest weather of all. They call themselves the Twister Sisters, and for almost a decade they've been driving hundreds of miles together, eyes on the radar, to find and photograph tornados.
They regularly see people acting on one very dangerous myth about tornados: that an overpass provides protection. "It's very tempting for people to see this as an area to take shelter, but it's the very worst place," Willenburg said. People who really know tornados, like Willenburg and Metz understand that, but according to weather researchers, many people still believe the myth.
Dr. Harold Brooks, a research meteorologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Oklahoma, warns people not to think of an overpass as a safe place. "There is a chance you could get incredibly lucky and get out of it, but there is also a chance that it can be a very devastating place," he said.
That's what Kevin Weber discovered in 1999. He parked under an Oklahoma highway overpass during a storm to stop his new car from being damaged by the hail. Then, he says he saw, "All of a sudden, you know, this big tornado maybe forming right over the top of me."
It was a category F5 tornado, the strongest there was. With time running out, Weber hunkered down. "I just buried my face. I just tried to hug this concrete and steel as hard as I could. If I would have let go I would have zipped out of there at 100 miles an hour," he said. "I was just constantly sandblasted with debris. Then I got hit. Something came through really hard, it just felt like someone took a baseball bat, just hit my leg and it went numb." Weber was relatively lucky; his worst injury was a broken leg.
Not so lucky were several other people who took shelter the same way that day. Beside him, crouched under the highway, were 11-year-old Levi Walton and his mother Kathalene. Weber remembers: "When it was all done, and after we watched the tornado blow away, he just said something about his mother not here anymore." In an interview a few days later, Levi spoke to a reporter about the tragedy. "They just went out and they just were looking for her, and everyone was calling for her … she was gone." Today, a small memorial to Kathalene Walton still sits beside the overpass, and after nearly nine years, the outlines where people crouched for cover remain where the dirt and mud of the violent winds blew around them. Levi's name is also etched in that mud.
The car that Weber didn't want to get damaged by hailstones was found in a pile a mile away. The only thing that was recognizable was the steering wheel.
The violent Oklahoma tornado that took Levi's mother from under the overpass also killed two other people sheltering under different overpasses in the state that day. The NOAA became so concerned about this dangerous practice that they commissioned a detailed study of the overpass tragedies in that 1999 Oklahoma storm.