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Tornado Myths & Realities

By: Mark Kennedy Email
By: Mark Kennedy Email

1. When traveling by car seek shelter under an overpass.
(FALSE: The number one priority in tornado safety right now is to discourage people from seeking shelter under overpasses. Wind currents are concentrated as they are squeezed under the overpasses and are increased in speed. This increased speed with flying debris INCREASES the risk of injury or death.

2. Mobile homes attract tornadoes.
(FALSE: Mobile homes are not more likely to be hit, they are just more vulnerable to wind damage).

3. Cities/hills/rivers deflect or inhibit tornadoes.
(FALSE: Tornadoes have been observed crossing the Appalachian Mts., 30 significant tornadoes have crossed the Mississippi river and major tornadoes have plowed right through Dallas, Kansas City, Omaha, etc.

4. We should open windows if a tornado is approaching.
(FALSE: STAY AWAY from all windows. It won't make any difference whether the windows are open or closed IF your home is struck by a tornado).

5. The southwest corner of the house is the safest location during a tornado.
(FALSE: Always go to the lowest level and center of house during a warning. A small interior room like a bathroom is structurally the strongest. Cover your head!).

6. Deaths from tornadoes are more likely in the Southeastern U.S. than in the Great Plains.
(TRUE: Partly due to: population concentration, lack of basements, also diurnal timing, higher concentration of mobile homes, and finally, religious belief structure).

7. There are small U.S. regions of unexpected high tornado frequency and areas with unexpected low frequency of tornadoes.
(TRUE: There are several "holes" in the map of tornado distribution and small regions of extreme concentration.

8. Tornadoes, like lightning, never strike twice.
(FALSE: Guy, Arkansas has been hit 3 times by a tornado damaging the same church each time. AND, Cordell, KS had a tornado hit it on May 20th >>> 3 years in a row!! -- 1916,1917,1918).

9. Tornadoes are the number one weather killer in the U.S.
(FALSE: 1960-1996 total fatalities: flash floods: 4629; lightning: 3221; tornadoes: 2734; hurricanes: 1104).

10. The "clash of the seasons" causes tornadoes.
(FALSE: A temperature contrast is important, but circulation dynamics (shear), upper level support (jet stream) and high moisture content are more important than a temperature contrast).

11. Reported tornadoes are increasing in frequency.
(TRUE, but, is it real? It is assumed that since the number of days with tornadoes is NOT increasing nor are the larger tornadoes increasing in number, just the smaller ones, that the increase might be the result of better reporting of the smaller tornadoes).

12. Annual tornado deaths are decreasing in number.
(FALSE: Early on in the data record it was true, but during the last decade the fatality rate has leveled off and stopped decreasing. But, with increasing population, and the rate remaining static, it is actually becoming safer!).

13. Tornadoes can rotate clockwise as well as anti-clockwise.
(TRUE: A few small F-0 and F-1 tornadoes can rotate "anti-cyclonically" (especially late summer, NW flow tornadoes). Also, rare, small tornadoes can change "morph" from anticyclonic to cyclonic!).

14. Most tornadoes are the large size that you see on the evening news.
(FALSE: Most tornadoes are small 50-100 feet wide, travel < 1 mile, last a few minutes. The large EF-4 and EF-5 tornadoes combined represent less than 5% of all tornadoes).

15. Tornado damage is caused by rapid reduction in pressure (leave windows open as tornado approaches).
(FALSE: Open windows will NOT equalize the air pressure if a tornado strikes. Damage is caused by wind gusts and flying debris.)

16. Tornadic thunderstorms produce an above average amount of lightning and and a larger than normal amount of hail compared to non-tornadic thunderstorms.
(TRUE: Intense updrafts amplify charge separation and electrical build-up as well as increased lifting to freeze layers of supercooled water drops).

17. Doppler radar will observe ALL tornadoes.
(FALSE: Doppler, although much more accurate than earlier radar, cannot see the very smallest of tornadoes that are "rope-like" in size, plus due to the curvature of the earth, Doppler radar can only see the upper portions of storms that are more than 60 miles away from the radar).

18. The movie "TWISTER" with Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton was based on the National Severe Storms Laboratory and University of Oklahoma storm chasers and was therefore, very factual.
(FALSE: Hollywood produces fantasy. For reality, check out the many documentaries shown by the Weather Channel, Discovery Channel, The Learning Channel, and the IMAX movie, "Storm Chasers").

19. Cars are safer than mobile homes during a tornado (with no other shelter available).
(TRUE..FALSE..WELL, MAYBE. Both are deadly locations but cars might be marginally safer according to researchers. However, the best advice is to abandon both for shelter!).

20. Tornado chasing looks like its fun. I should try it!
(FALSE: It may look like fun, but it is extremely dangerous. Leave the chasing to the professionals and watch their photographs from the safety of your home.)


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