The Great Underpass Debate

Rob_Davis

Okay, so I got curious and decided to Google "tornado underpass" and see what comes up.

HOLY CRAP! :shock:

Just when I thought I was living in an enlightened age, Google provides me with a cold slap in the face! First link I click, it advises people to seek shelter under an underpass. Must be a fluke, right? An old, obsolete website, right? Nope. There are literally dozens upon dozens of websites out there still advising people to seek refuge from a tornado under underpasses, many of them using the specific term, "under the girders."

The really disturbing part of looking over all these sites is that the great majority of them are governmental websites! Lots of fire departments, city and county governments, rescue organizations, universities, and even the U.S. Navy all recommend underpasses as tornado shelters.

Another interesting statistic is that a large percentage of the sites making this recommendation are Canadian sites. What's up with that?
 
Let me pose this question... is there anything with low cost that could be done to underpasses to increase safety in the unlikely event of a tornado?
 
Perhaps some big steel gates that open and close would protect people from all but the stronger tornadoes. I suppose that if people did have a crawl space in the overpass, were able to calculate the exact strength of the tornado, the projected path and the angle, they might live.

"# If you are driving and spot a tornado in the distance, try to get to a nearby shelter. If the tornado is close by, get out of your car and take cover in a low-lying area or even under an underpass on a freeway. Crawl right up the bank to just under the road of the overpass. If a tornado seems to be standing still then it is either travelling away from you or heading right for you. "

Funny there next bit of advice is to get as low to the ground as possible.

-ScottO
 
I gotta admit that I'm stunned by those search results. Holy cow!

So much for all of the efforts to properly educate the public when those responsible for public safety still haven't caught on. Amazing.

I find this whole underpass thing pretty intriguing overall. It all started with that infamous underpass video in Kansas and spread like wildfire that this is what you are supposed to do. It's like it's etched very deeply into the public's mind and despite such intense efforts to reverse the effects, it's still deeply engraved.

I've even preached this to people I know or meet and they look at me like I'm an idiot sometimes (or maybe it's because of something else...lol!). I ask them why they think it's a safe thing to do and they can't really recall directly, but sometimes I hear the reference to the video.

Along that same line, perhaps the best way to educate people about the dangers is to show similar video with graphic detail about people that actually died from doing that (ie....May 3, 1999). Nothing like shock value to shake the public into reality and the facts. We are too guilty in this country of sugarcoating such truth and facts because some people may find it offensive or too shocking. The result is half-truths and misinformation and in this case ends up getting people killed.
 
Yeah, too bad there wasn't a camera crew blown away at the Moore underpass. That video might have undone the effects of the KS video.

I think there is certainly some legitimate debate over the whole underpass thing. After all, the argument is that a tornado traveling through the underpass will accellerate and cause more injury/damage. Well, as we all know, the people in KS weren't hit directly. Given that fact, it is hard to say they really did anything wrong. In fact, you could make a very good argument (and many people do) that they did exactly the right thing.

The problem is, you can't adequately explain the difference between KS and Moore to the general public. And irrespective of the videos, you simply can't convince most people that a ditch is a good place to be.
 
As I have always said, if it came down to the ditch or the underpass, you can bet I'll take my chances with the underpass. Hell, you might even catch me running! :lol:

Seriously though, I don't think there is a big difference between hiding in a debris-filled ditch vs. a wind tunnel underpass - your odds of survival are probably equal. In that case, the underpass at least gives me SOME peace of mind before I get ripped away... But, as shown in that famous footage, people were actually stopping and getting out of their vehicles to go under the underpass, when they clearly could have just kept going at a safe speed and outran it! That would be my FIRST option.
 
That brings up another big difference between KS and Moore. In Kansas, those people were in the middle of nowhere with darn few options. In Moore, those idiots actually left the safety of their homes to go sit under an underpass! THAT is really the problem with the KS video. Instead of illustrating the underpass as a good "option," it has lead a lot of people to believe that it is the BEST place in town to be!
 
Good point, Rob. An overpass sure beats being caught in your car, or out in the open, but you're better off in a saferoom in a sturdy building if you have that option. Even a tornado like the 5/3/99 one won't flatten every home along it's path, but it doesn't take F5 winds to blow you out of an overpass.

Another problem is that a lot of TV shows featuring the 4/26/91 Kansas Turnpike video still say that the Turnpike tornado was an F5. :roll:
 
Well this is somewhat ontopic with this post. I was forwarded this site by the owner today. Thought some might enjoy this read.

http://www.tipsontornadoes.com/

It is quite funny he's enquiring about something and has my image on there, lol. Not the point of posting this but still quite funny.

Someone should start one up just for underpass situations. Which way you should lay and how exactly you should hold the girders.
 
Rob_Davis wrote:

"In Kansas, those people were in the middle of nowhere with darn few options."

That's exactly right. As anyone who has traveled the Kansas Turnpike knows, it is a very limited access highway especially between Wichita and Emporia - completely exposed and out in the open. Literally, those folks had hardly any options. Regardless of scientific studies about the wind tunnel effect, etc., I believe my instincts would have led to the same course of action.

Also, and I am going from memory here, I believe there are some stuctural differences in the designs of these overpasses. As I recall, these KS turnpike overpasses have a flat concrete area tucked up underneath the girders where a person could actually crouch and hang on to something firm while at least having overhead protection. Other overpasses may just have a sloping edge of concrete all the way up which would make a bodily sheltered position much more difficult. Not arguing for this being recommended, but I could see how a structural difference could indeed make all the difference in the world.
 
http://www.tipsontornadoes.com/

It is quite funny he's enquiring about something and has my image on there, lol. Not the point of posting this but still quite funny.
Haha! I found that site today during the Google search. I found it so amusing that I almost started a topic about it.

Has anybody heard of this Jeff Griffin guy before? I wonder if he's making any money on that deal?
 
Never heard of Jeff Griffin. But that last name sure sounds familar..hmm. 44 years of Tornado experience and he couldn't post a picture of a tornado during his first illustration, let alone one of his own.
 
As I recall, these KS turnpike overpasses have a flat concrete area tucked up underneath the girders where a person could actually crouch and hang on to something firm while at least having overhead protection. Other overpasses may just have a sloping edge of concrete all the way up which would make a bodily sheltered position much more difficult.
Right. And that is another part of the incomplete picture that people get from seeing only the KS video. That bridge offered some lateral protection, wheras many bridges (including that in Moore) offer none. Bridges are different, just like storms are different. Just one more reason why I don't think you can really generalize for or against.

Another factor that has to be taken into consideration is the direction of the tornado movement. If it were travelling on a course to cross the bridge, I wouldn't hesitate as much to seek refuge there as I would if it were on course to hit the underpass broadside. Seems like that would make quite difference.
 
Now the weather channel needs to show some responsibility and stop showing that stupid overpass video on storm stories. :x

Even if they discuss the danger, the only thing John Q. Public remembers is "them news folk what got caught by that there tornader under yonder bridge."
 
The decision by Greg Jarrett and Ted Lewis to take cover under the Kansas Turnpike bridge was because they could not escape the tornado any other way. They were coming back from covering a story in northeast Kansas, didn't have the radio on, and were unaware they were driving toward the tornado.

The bridge in question does provide some cover due the way the girders are placed.

With that said, I am not sure where the idea comes from that the tornado did not pass over the bridge. It did, but it was the "weak" side of the tornado (i.e., the west side of the funnel as the tornado moved northeast). This can be clearly seen in Ted Lewis' video of the rain on the roadway blowing from right to left (north to south).

As the tornado approaches the bridge, the video shows automobiles being blown off the Kansas Turnpike, into the field and back across the roadway. One of the vehicles, a minivan, was tumbling from front bumper to rear bumper to front bumper. Several people were seriously injured but no one died in those automobiles. Two people from Wichita WERE killed in their cars in Oklahoma that same day.

What happens if a wide (mile or wider) tornado approaches a highway? While it is a bad idea for people to go from their homes to take cover under a bridge, it is difficult to tell people stuck in cars not to take cover under a bridge if there are girders on the underside.
 
I really wish that Kansas video hadn't come out. Its almost like saying that crawling into your closet during a house fire will save you because the fire won't get to you as quickly.
 
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