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.
Don't Seek Safety Under an Overpass
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.
Step Away from the Car
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.
The science debunking this overpass safety myth has a lot to do with something called the Bernoulli effect. "If you could imagine, say, taking a garden hose and putting your thumb over it, the water gets a lot stronger going out through that small opening," explained Brooks. "And that's essentially what the tornado does going through that little area of the overpass. It actually acts as a wind tunnel and accelerates the flow through that little tiny area where people are trying to hide."
And many overpasses don't have any place to cling onto, adding to the danger in a strong wind. In a tornado, that wind will carry debris that will collect in the small space of an overpass, increasing the chance that something will hit you. And there's another problem. Vehicles stopped there can clog the road and make it impossible for emergency vehicles to get through.
So what do you do if you are in your car and tornado is coming right at you? Contrary to what you might assume, the experts say the first thing to do is get away from your car. It's tempting to stay where it's warm and dry but, experts say, to be safe, get out of the car, find a ditch or a gully, and get as low as you can. Typically, tornado winds are more violent higher off the ground. And that's another reason you don't want to climb up into an overpass.
Even with airbags and a seat belt, a car is much less safe than a ditch in a tornado, Brooks said. "Cars get thrown 100 yards. And at that point your airbags don't do you a whole lot of good." Twister Sister Peggy Willenburg put it this way: "The car can instantly become a tumbling piece of debris with you in it."
When a Tornado Hits Home
What if you are in your home when a tornado is coming? For decades, people were told to open doors and windows to equalize pressure to prevent the building from exploding. It is advice tornado watchers have been trying to put to rest for years.
"It's more important to take shelter than try open or close windows, because that's not going to make a difference if a tornado hits," said Metz. "It's going to blow those windows apart anyway."
"A tornado will very efficiently open those windows for you," Willenburg added.
Last year a powerful tornado ripped through Greensburg, Kan. Fortunately, Dathel Mucklow and her neighbors already had heard that the advice to open windows was just a myth. She didn't waste time with windows. "I went in this closet and I sit down on this pillow, and I put a pillow over my head," she said.
Across town, Sylvia and Darol Hall ran down to their basement, and got under the stairs just in time. "We figured the stairs was the best place," Sylvia Hall said. They were right, say experts, to get underground and also under the cover of something that can shield you from debris.
Willenburg says if you don't have a basement, "get into an interior and secure room where there aren't windows, because if the tornado hits it's going to blow the windows apart and you don't want shattered glass flying around. Because the debris is what can kill you, not just the winds."
The Halls survived, but their house did not. Ten people died that night in Greensburg, but the number might have been higher if more people had believed the myths.
Another widespread myth is that big cities are safe from tornadoes. After all, our image of tornadoes comes from Dorothy and her little dog Toto on a Kansas farm. More tornadoes do form in Kansas than many other places, but Atlanta was hit last month and last year a twister touched down in Brooklyn, New York.
"Tornados don't care if there's a city there or not," said Brooks. "Historically, there have been tornados that have hit Washington and Philadelphia. St. Louis has been particularly hard hit. Chicago's had significant tornados. So essentially, any large city, if you wait long enough, will get hit."
The Twister Sisters strongly advise purchasing a weather radio that will warn you of the approach of dangerous weather. A small investment of about $30 could save your life, they say, because the radio will wake you at night when you might not have the television or another radio on. And the weather radio will stay silent until weather in your area is dangerous.
"Things happen in tornados you just can't believe," said Willenburg. "You just don't want them to be happening to you."