March 7, 2013 — -- Jerry Suls had just walked out of a restaurant with a friend from out of town when the visitor pointed over his shoulder and said, "Gee, Jerry, there's a funnel cloud behind you." Moments later, the black tornado hit the edge of the college town of Iowa City, Iowa, and then hopscotched across town, touching down at least seven times and wiping out homes and dreams as it ripped the community apart.
How do people get on with their lives after such a harrowing experience? Suls, a University of Iowa psychologist, began a research project to answer his question.
And the answer, according to his study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, is that after they survive a brush with death, they think a tornado is not likely to hurt them in the future. In fact, they think they have a much better chance of surviving a tornado than most other people who have been through less.
That unbridled optimism in the face of grave danger probably helps them get on with their lives, Suls said in a telephone interview. Other research by a co-author of the study, Paul D. Windschitl, shows that optimism keeps people motivated and allows them to go about their business and do the things they need to do.
Another well-known motivator is probably also at work.
"There's the old idea that lightning never strikes twice in the same place," Suls said.
One side effect of all that optimism is that all those things people planned to protect themselves in the next twister – keep a flashlight handy, tighten the structures that hold their homes together – are probably never going to get done.
Suls, Windschitl and two other colleagues, Jason P. Rose of the University of Toledo and Andrew R. Smith of Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., got essentially the same answer in scores of interviews with college students and local residents, some of whom had been hit hard by the tornado. Even those who suffered the most were optimistic about their chances of surviving another tornado, and that optimism persisted for many months after 150-mile-per-hour winds ripped open their city in April 2006.
"One month after the disaster, participants were quite optimistic that they would not suffer injury in a future tornado and they remained optimistic 6 months post-tornado," the study says. The level of optimism diminished slightly after a year, even though much of the city still bore deep scars from the twister.
Most participants "were more optimistic that they would avoid tornado injury in the future than the average Iowan," according to the study. Why they thought they would do better than their peers is not quite clear, although it's possible that just surviving one tornado breeds confidence.
"They may have known some people who got injured, and clearly some people who had damages to their house and car and other things, but they had survived," Suls said. "They were still alive."
Nothing builds confidence better than success.
However, they actually overestimated the real danger. The average participant thought there was a one in 10 chance, or 10 percent, he or she would be hurt in a tornado.
Tornadoes can be truly terrifying, and deadly, but not as much as they might seem at the time. The National Severe Storms Laboratory estimates there is less than a 1 percent chance that a tornado will even hit any given area in a year's time, and even those that hit will probably produce relatively few injuries and even fewer deaths. Only one person is believed to have died in the Iowa City storm.
So the 10 percent chance of getting hurt by a tornado may be off by a factor of 10.
Just experiencing one tornado can be frightening enough to force survivors to prepare for the next one, but maybe not. Suls thinks the participants in the study who expected to improve their odds in the years ahead probably fell far short of the mark.
"They didn't do much," he said. "It was very rare for people to get even the basic things done."
Iowa City may not be in the heart of tornado alley, but "we get a lot" of nasty storms, he said. More than two years after the storm that demolished a Catholic church and a sorority house – but spared the occupants – "the damage was still visible, sometimes stunningly so."
The evening before the twister hit, Suls had dinner in the home of a colleague. The next evening, his friend's house was gone.
Suls neighbors lost a few trees, but his home was spared.
Tornados are fickle. They wipe out this, leave that.
And the tornado season is just around the corner.