Tornado Myths & Facts : What Really Keeps You Safe

Beginning this afternoon, severe weather is expected to impact many states as a strong, negatively tilted storm system marches across the Plains, through the  Gulf states and towards the Ohio River Valley. Large hail and damaging winds are expected in many states, along with an increased potential for some strong tornadoes to develop around the Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas border area known as Arklatex.

tornado facts

With so many people in the path of this system, now is an excellent time to review your safety plans at home, school, or work. Check your batteries on your weather radios and flashlights. In case of an emergency or power outage, are there any supplies you might want to have handy?

weather radio

Knowledge can also help you and your family stay safe during severe weather. There are many commonly believed stories of how to stay safe during a tornado, or about their behavior. Some of these are are true, many are not, and in a few cases, you may actually put yourself, or your family in more danger by following some of these so called "safety" tips. The following  tornado safety myths and facts are by no means an exhaustive list, nor is every possible situation accounted for. There is no expressed or implied guarantee of safety with any of the information contained here. This is not intended as a substitute for monitoring  local media outlets for the most current and up to date weather in your area.


Tornado Damage

Photo Credit National Geographic

"When confronted by a tornado warning, you should open all the windows in your house to equalize the pressure."

MYTH: This just WASTES valuable time. Don't worry about equalizing the pressure, the roof ripping off and the pickup truck smashing through the front wall will equalize the pressure for you.

"I live in a big city, a tornado wouldn't hit a big city."

MYTH: Tornadoes HAVE hit several large cities, including Dallas, Oklahoma City, Wichita Falls, St. Louis, Miami, and Salt Lake City. In fact, an urban tornado will have a lot more debris to toss around than a rural twister.

"Tornadoes don't happen in the mountains."

MYTH: Tornadoes DO occur in the mountains. Damage from an F3 tornado was documented above 10,000 feet, and a hiker in the mountains of Utah photographed a weak tornado in the mountains.

"My city doesn't get tornadoes because it is protected by a river."

MYTH: Many tornadoes HAVE crossed rivers and even gone on to cause WIDESPREAD damage to riverside cities. For example, the Nachez, Mississippi tornado of 1840 tracked directly down the Mississippi River, killing hundreds, mostly on the water. Others have crossed large rivers without losing speed (they momentarily became water spouts) and devastated cities that folklore had thought immune to tornadoes. An example was the tornado of 1953 in Waco, TX  that crossed the Brazos River, or the Great St. Louis Cyclone of 1896 that jumped the Mississippi River.

"I can outrun a tornado, especially in a vehicle."

MYTH: Tornadoes can move at up to 70 mph or more and shift directions erratically and without warning. It is unwise to try to outrace a tornado. It is better to abandon your vehicle and seek shelter immediately.

"To keep from being sucked into the tornado, can tie myself to a well pipe, just like they did in the movie "Twister".

MYTH: While it is unlikely that a tornado will dislodge a deeply buried pipe, the rope you tie around yourself is more likely to act as a combination tetherball and cheese slicer. Lighter winds will likely cause you to be whipped around at the end of the rope, banging against anything within the radius of the rope. Stronger winds inside the tornado are just as likely to pull your body from the rope (and possibly not in one piece).

"A tornado is not coming directly at me, I am safe."

MYTH: Tornados have been known to act erratically, often changing directions quickly. Sturdy shelter is the only safe place to be during a tornado. **Although it may be tempting to follow a tornado to get a cool photo, please leave the tornado chasing to trained meteorologists.

**The following is probably the single most believed myth about staying safe during a tornado.  In 1991 a TV news crew successfully sheltered under a highway overpass during a tornado. As a result,  the National Weather Service also espoused this means as a way to safely shelter from a tornado on a highway. During the May 3rd, 1999 outbreak near Oklahoma City, many motorists who sought shelter under overpasses were killed by flying debris under the overpass, or sucked out from underneath the structure from a wind tunnel effect created by the overpass.  NWS  has since changed their previous stance, and no longer recommends highway overpasses as a good place to shelter from a tornado. It has now been proven to often be MORE DANGEROUS to seek shelter under an overpass.

tornado myths

Photo Credit: NWS Norman

"Hiding under a freeway overpass will protect me from a tornado."

MYTH: While the concrete and re-bar in the bridge may offer some protection against flying debris, the overpass also acts as a wind tunnel and may actually serve to collect debris. When you abandon your vehicle at the overpass and climb up the sides, you are doing two things that are hazardous. First, you are blocking the roadway with your vehicle. When the tornado turns all the parked vehicles into a mangled, twisted ball and wedges them under the overpass, how will emergency vehicles get through? Second, the winds in a tornado tend to be faster with height. By climbing up off the ground, you place yourself in even greater danger from the tornado and flying debris. When coupled with the accelerated winds due to the wind tunnel (Venturi Effect), these winds can easily exceed 300 mph. Unfortunately, at least three people hiding under underpasses during tornadoes have already been killed, and dozens have been injured by flying debris. If you realize you won't be able to outrun an approaching tornado, you are much safer to abandon your vehicle, and take shelter in a road-side ditch or other low spot. Note: If a highway overpass is your only shelter option, only consider it if the overpass has sturdy roadway supports, next to which (at ground level) you can take shelter. Avoid the smooth concrete, support-less spans at all costs.


"Tornadoes may occur in the middle of the night and even during the winter."

FACT: Although the likelihood is lower at night and during colder months, tornadoes have caused death and destruction during these times of day and year. Violent tornadoes, while very unlikely during the winter months, do occasionally occur at night. When severe weather is forecast, ensure your NOAA weather radio is on and working properly before you go to bed.

"Tornadoes have picked people and items up, carried them some distance and then set them down without injury or damage."

FACT: People and animals have been transported up to a quarter mile or more without serious injury. Fragile items, such as sets of fine china, or glass-ware have been blown from houses and recovered, miles away, without any damage. However, given the quantity of airborne debris, these occurrences are the exception, rather than the norm.

"A tornado can drive a straw through a telephone pole."

FACT: The forces inside a tornado are incredible, and still poorly understood. But they are certainly strong enough to turn otherwise harmless items into deadly missiles.

Tornado DamagePhoto Credit: NOAA/NWS

Anything can become a deadly projectile.

* The tornado myths and facts presented here are used in excerpt from NOAA's National Climactic Data Center publication: Tornado Myths, Facts, and Safety