If you want to walk down Main Street, in downtown America, you can do that, because it is America. This is a free country and public space is public. But if the Acme Office Building, on Main Street, is on fire, broken glass is blowing out of windows and fire trucks and other emergency vehicles are trying to gain access to the building and nearby fire hydrants, and ambulances are trying to get in to pick up injured, and out to bring them to hospitals, you can’t walk down Main Street. The police can close off that street and nearby streets and as annoying or inconvenient as that may be, they are not taking away your rights. They are acting in the interests of public safety.
We’ll get back to that in a moment.
After a large and violent tornado went through Moore Oklahoma a few days ago, several people in various media outlets including CNN mentioned that given the (seemingly enigmatic) lack of good shelter in homes and public buildings in Oklahoma, that a good option to protect yourself in case a tornado comes your way is to drive away. In some but not all cases, this advice was qualified; If you know several hours in advance that there is a high probability that a tornado will come through your area, then it is a good idea to just go away and be somewhere else. This advice sounds reasonable, but it really isn’t. During the United States tornado season, it seems that we experience repeated tornadoes and other severe storms in a given area over several days. That area might include three or four of the several states that make up “Tornado Alley.” However, within that area, the exact location of a killer tornado isn’t predictable at the scale of several hours. So, if you live in Oklahoma City and figure there may be tornadoes coming later in the day, there is nothing to guarantee that driving north to Aunt Millie’s house in Enid, OK will not put you in the path of one of the tornadoes that happen to form that day. A tornado could hit Oklahoma City, or it could hit Enid.
So, the driving away several hours in advance isn’t really smart, because you don’t know that far in advance where “away” might be. Perhaps, the day before tornado-warned storms are expected, you could fly to France, but that is not really an option for most people.
The unqualified version of that advice is “If there is a tornado coming your way now, get in your car and drive away fast.” That is also bad advice. The reason that is bad advice is very simple. If you are directly hit by a strong tornado, ending up in the vortex, and you are in the bathtub of your home on the lower floor, you’ve got a pretty good chance of survival. Despite the horrible fact that some two dozen people died in the Moore tornado last week, there were tens of thousands of people directly in that tornado’s path, hiding out in low interior rooms within their homes or other buildings, who survived. Alliteratively, if you are in a car and hit by the vortex of an F3 or stronger tornado, your chances of survival are much lower. Roughly speaking, this is the equivalent of driving down the highway at several tens of miles an hour and suddenly flipping, three or four times. Or, perhaps, you are driving down the highway at 40 mph along with a dozen other cars also driving down the highway and suddenly you are all flipped. Then, when the car is done flipping, it gets flipped again. And again. And for several minutes you car is shoved around on the surface like you were a puck in a game of air hockey, with the car slamming into other cars and other cars slamming into you, and each car being turned over now and then. To make this point, here are photographs from major media of a handful of examples of cars that got hit with the vortex, most but not all from this latest tornado:
I admit that a flattened house may look pretty bad, may even look worse than a mushed up car, but generally speaking the interior lower floor room in a house that is badly messed up by a tornado is a survivable shelter, while there is no such shelter in your car.
So, let’s go back to the advice again. Say you are sitting in your home and you know there is a tornado coming and you are watching TV and the following breathless reporting is happening. Pay special attention to what the weather forecaster says starting at 4:35:
“… if you can drive south, anywhere around Whitewater Bay, State Fair Park, the Ballpark, downtown Oklahoma City, southwest Integres, US Grant District, Rose State college, Midwest City regional medical center, Midwest City, and Parts of Del city, you need to drive south now….” (approximate transcript)
The Oklahoma City metro district has about 1.3 million people. Of those areas mentioned in this quote, “Downtown OK city” has about 7,600 people living in it. Del City has 21,000 people in it. What this weather forecaster just did was to advice a couple/few tens of thousands of people in the path of a tornado to get in their cars and drive in the same direction.
That wasn’t the only broadcaster telling people to evacuate instead of hunker down.
The thing is, this tornado was heading roughly from west to east into a highly populated area. News casters were telling people in the direct line of the tornado do “drive south.” But then the tornado made a turn and headed straight for the “south” that people were being told to drive to. Here is a compilation of broadcasts and events documenting this:
I have no idea how many of the people in the viewing area of this station saw or heard this report and responded by driving into the path of the tornado. Of those who did I don’t know how many of them were primed to use “drive away” as a strategy by earlier chatter in major media outlets, and elsewhere such as twitter and other social media. I’m not sure how many people actually got in their cars and “drove south.” We do know, however, that the highways in the area became jammed with cars, and the vicinity around the intersection of I35 and I40 was described as a “parking lot.” One thing we do know is that many people who “drove south” to get away from the tornado in fact drove directly into its path, created a traffic jam, and most of the deaths associated with this tornado were among those people in those cars.
Three experienced tornado “chasers” … actual meteorological scientists … were killed when their truck (one of the vehicles depicted above, probably) was destroyed by the tornado. Other professional meteorologists, from The Weather Channel, were injured. As of this writing, the death toll stands at 13 with another 6 (though I’ve also heard 7) people still missing.
In his writeup of this event, meteorologist Paul Douglas made this point:
Every time I went down to Oklahoma [with storm chasers] I was struck by the number of people tagging along. Often scores, even hundreds of chasers would converge on the same cell by late afternoon. It’s a free country – you’re obviously free to drive when and where you want, and I certainly don’t want that to change, but something has to be done to avoid another tragedy like the one that killed 9 motorists Friday evening, including 3 professional tornado researchers Tim Samaras, his son, and intercept partner.
Paul is right. This is a free country, or at least we want it to be a free country, and being able to freely travel on public thoroughfares is part of that. If you want to walk down Main Street, in downtown America, you can do that, because it is America. But if the Acme Office Building, on Main Street, is on fire, broken glass is blowing out of windows and fire trucks and other emergency vehicles are trying to gain access to the building and nearby fire hydrants… you can’t walk down Main Street… you are not really free to walk or drive up and down Main Street to take pictures of the event. Public safety officials have the right and responsibility to restrict access to Main Street and areas nearby in order to save lives and property.
Until proven otherwise, I will assume that the special category of people known as “Professional Storm Chasers” like Tim Samaras and his crew as well as Reed Timmer, and others, are risking their own lives to make observations and collect data that help us understand tornadoes better, to make better predictions about storm behavior, and thus to make better predictions about unfolding storms. Also, their data helps us to better understand the dynamics of what happens in tornadoes which can help make safer structures. Reed Timmer and Sean Casey and their crews modified vehicles that successfully survived being in powerful tornados (for Mythbusters fans, you may have seen these two teams’ vehicles go head to head with a jet engine to see how they would survive tornado strength winds on the episode Storm Chasing Myths).
But the hundreds, or even thousands of non-professional “storm chasers” are probably not contributing to the science of tornadoes and tornado safety. Rather, they are jamming roads in the very places where a traffic jam can be deadly if a tornado happens to pass over the gaggle of cars stuck in place. If you watch the Discovery Channel’s Storm Chasers show, you will notice that as the seasons progress the professional storm chasers encounter more and more traffic as they try to move to the predicted path of oncoming tornadoes to drop data collecting probes or carry out direct intercepts (where the specially modified vehicles equipped with data collection devices are directly hit with a tornado).
There is a great irony to the deaths of the three storm chasers from Twistex. Tim Samaras’s strategy was never to get into the direct path of a tornado. Rather, his team would predict the path and drop machines on the ground designed to directly measure variables such as temperature, humidity, wind and so on, but with the team and their vehicles getting out of the way before the tornado comes. It is probably true that Samaras abandoned attempts at dropping probes more often then strictly necessary, cautiously avoiding rain-wrapped tornadoes where they would not have been able to see where the tornado was, in order to be extra safe. It is also true that the relatively cautious “drop and run” strategy meant that they missed getting their equipment in the direct path of a tornado more often than not. I can only assume that Tim Samaras had no intention of being in the path of the the tornado that killed him, his son, and his colleague, but was unable to get out of the way because of the traffic jam.
And that traffic jam was probably caused by the exodus of people following very bad advice, and possibly as well as non-professional storm chasers moving in on the likely path of the storm.
I suggest that law makers in tornado alley states consider legislation making it a violation to intentionally drive into or near the path of known or likely tornados. This is not an especially enforceable regulation but having such a thing on the books would probably encourage amateur storm chasers to think twice about putting others in danger by contributing to blocked roads. Such a law or regulation could be more general, specifying that police have the authority to direct people generally in relation to emergency disaster zones that have not happened yet. In other words, it is now probably legal and appropriate for police or fire departments to close off roads or direct traffic or tell people not to drive in a particular area where there is currently a major fire, explosion, storm devastation, and so on. A new law or regulation merely needs to specify that tornado-related disasters that have not happened yet (because the tornado hasn’t formed or has not yet arrived) can be considered in this public safety action. In fact, one could argue that a new law is not needed and this power is already available to police and emergency response agencies. That might be preferable because making a new law to address particularistic new circumstances that are already covered by existing law, regulation, and best practice is probably a bad thing. But a law or explicit regulation, or even a well publicized set of best practices in the interest of public safety, might make the point that needs to be made, thus discouraging people from making decisions that endanger others.
One might argue that if someone wants to drive their car into the path of a tornado they should be allowed to do so because it is a free country. But once your car is inside an F3 or F4 tornado, that is no longer your problem alone. Because of your action, your car has become a very large and dangerous projectile. You shouldn’t be allowed to do that.
Such a regulation or law would also require consideration of a certification of “professional” status for actual professional storm chasers. This, in turn, would require storm chasers to make their case that they are professionals that are doing something worthwhile, and that they take appropriate action related to their own safety and the safety of others. In fact, we probably need more professional storm chasers, and among storm chasers my feeling is that we need a better more comprehensive research design. For example, most storm chasers are individuals or small teams, and they benefit with direct contacts with actual tornadoes, and often fund their work this way as they sell their video to news outlets. But what about big storms that don’t drop tornadoes? It seems to me that we should be collecting equivalent data from storms that do and storms that do not drop tornadoes, because, after all, one of the things we want to know more about is the difference between those two types of storms.
What do you think?