This guest post comes from Dr. Harold Brooks, a Senior Scientist in the Forecast Research and Development Division at NOAA’s National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Oklahoma, and an AMS Fellow. A thoughtful and useful contribution to the national discussion prompted by the most recent Moore tornado. The views expressed by Dr. Brooks are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of NSSL or NOAA or the US Government.
At the heart of it, this single sentence summarizes most of tornado safety advice. Although there are special situations that require additional information, if someone in the path of a tornado follows this advice, their chances of survival dramatically increase. For the most part, the partnership between the National Weather Service, the media, and emergency management personnel emphasizes this same message. The words may differ (lowest floor, interior room, bathroom or closet), but the core idea remains the same. Obviously, having a purpose-built shelter is ideal, but not everyone has one.
Occasionally, someone strays from this basic messaging, potentially causing problems. Many in the tornado safety community are concerned about an inappropriate message that seems to have become very popular recently, but that differs significantly from the basic safety idea. Some broadcast meteorologists have offered the advice that “if you don’t get underground, you won’t survive.” Sometimes, it’s couched in terms of “this tornado is so severe, the usual advice doesn’t work” or “you can’t survive an EF5 above ground.” The message suggests that even in-residence shelters built to the design specifications of the Texas Tech wind engineering groups and the FEMA standards won’t survive.
This advice is wrong and providing it is irresponsible at best, and dangerous at worst. As a factual statement, claiming that EF5 tornadoes can’t be survived above ground is wrong. After the 3 May 1999 tornado that hit Moore, Oklahoma, survey work indicated that 1% of people who were in houses that were rated F4 or F5 were killed, as reported by Hammer and Schmidlin. They don’t differentiate between the F4 and F5 in the paper, but it is exceedingly unlikely that all of the people in F5 homes died. In the 20 May 2013 tornado, the Briarwood Elementary School was rated EF5 and there were no fatalities there. 1% may seem like a very small death rate, but it is orders of magnitude larger than the ordinary probability of dying in day to day activity. Violent tornadoes are very dangerous, but they do not bring certain death.
Of greater importance is the safety message and response it brings. Even if one believes that EF5 damage guarantees death, only a small part of the damage associated with tornadoes with peak damage of EF5 actually is EF5. As a result, even the pessimist would recognize that most people need to heed advice appropriate for their situations.
Consider the person who has no underground option readily at hand. What should they do? Flee the path? This potentially puts large numbers of people into vehicles ahead of the tornado. Past experience, such as the 1979 Wichita Falls tornado, teaches us that this is potentially catastrophic. Traffic jams occurred near the path on 20 May 2013 and it is exceptionally fortunate that deaths did not occur in vehicles in that tornado.
What if fleeing isn’t an option? There is a report of a young woman who had recently moved into a rent house and was unaware of whether any neighbors had a shelter. When she heard local television meteorologists say that she wouldn’t survive if she couldn’t get underground, she decided to run out of the path of the tornado. Fortunately, she called her mother who told her that this was a foolish thing to do and go back into the house and get into the closet where she rode out the tornado as it destroyed her house. She survived.
In the aftermath of the May 1999 tornado in Moore, we discovered that no school aged children had been killed in the tornado, and only one parent of a Moore Public School student was killed at home, out of the 36 fatalities. In an effort to understand why, I enlisted the help of an assistant principal and a teacher at two of the junior high schools in the Moore Public Schools that had had approximately half of their housing stock damaged or destroyed. We did some simple surveys of the 8th graders at their schools and talked to a large numbers of the students to find out what they knew about tornado safety and what they had done that evening. The overwhelming majority understood the basic rules as stated in the first sentence of this post and had taken appropriate action. They had taken the safety lessons they had learned at school and taken them home to protect their families.
Two stories stood out, however. There were two students who were in their homes, alone. The tornado came through the area in the early evening and their parents were not home at the time of the tornado. Both students were watching coverage of the tornado and heard the local television meteorologist say that if they didn’t get below ground, they would die. They had no underground shelter at the house and both had been told by their parents that they were not to leave the house until the parents got home. In both cases, the students faced a dilemma and both came to the same conclusion. They would obey their parents, stay in the house, and decided they would die in the tornado. They watched the coverage until the power went out. In one case, major damage occurred on the same block of houses.
Because of what they were told, they did absolutely nothing to protect themselves.
The message they were told that evening led to a potentially deadly lack of action.
We should be giving people the message that they should do what they can to protect themselves. Get as low as you can and put as many walls between you and the tornado as possible. In every violent tornado, stories come up along the lines of “how did anyone survive this?” The message from this is that it is possible to survive, but your chances are much better if you follow simple safety advice.
Some people have heard the message I am bringing and have misinterpreted it to mean that people shouldn’t get underground if that option is available to them. This is a grotesque reading of my words. Get low. If people don’t understand that “below ground” is lower than “above ground”, it’s not clear that there is a message we can provide them that they will understand.
We don’t know if the misguided advice that you won’t survive a tornado if you’re not underground has actually led to someone dying, but we do know that it has led to people making horribly bad decisions. Instead, we need to emphasize proper safety information to maximize the chances of survival.
Get as low as you can and put as many walls between you and the tornado as possible.
Who has been giving the message that you can’t survive if not underground? It’s got to be someone without a degree in meteorology just posing like he knows what he’s doing. Get off the air if you are faking your way through. Call the person out and stop making real meteorologists look bad.
To those who misinterpret the message by thinking they shouldn’t get underground if the option is available, there has got to be something mentally wrong.
Call ’em out.
Great post Dr. Hooke. I was wondering if you would mind if I quoted this post in a weather blog I write. I believe that what you wrote here is important enough to spread the word to others.
Assuming I can get your approval, I will preface the post with this as well as a link back to your site:
” This guest post comes from Dr. Harold Brooks, a Senior Scientist in the Forecast Research and Development Division at NOAA’s National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Oklahoma, and an AMS Fellow. A thoughtful and useful contribution to the national discussion prompted by the most recent Moore tornado. The views expressed by Dr. Brooks are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of NSSL or NOAA or the US Government.”
Thank you in advance for your consideration.
Happy to have you quote this post. best wishes…
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Dr. Hooke I met you in the Bahama’s back in 2009. I enjoy your feedback and insight as always. I would love to post this to our website at WRBL.com, if you don’t mind.
Thanks, Bob. Please do.
Thanks. Keep up the good work.
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Hello Dr. Hooke, I write for a little North Dakota weekly newspaper and received the link to your article from Greg Gust, NWS in Grand Forks. I would like permission to use your quote and article in our paper, if you don’t mind.
Many thanks. You’re most welcome to do just that. I appreciate your help in getting this message out there.
This article is great. I own an above ground shelter company and it was very frustrating to watch multiple meteorologist on a certain weather channel say repeatedly that you could not survive an EF4 or EF5 aboveground. One particular guy said you have a zero percent chance of surviving above ground and then went on to say that if you got in a car to flee, at least you give yourself an option. Facebook.com/alashelters
I just wanted to say that I really enjoyed your article. It is so important to get tornado awareness out there. Im 24, work full time, and have two little ones, but my passion is tornado research. My hope is to go to school, and work to better warning systems, survey damage, or something related that will suffice my desire to work in the weather community. Any suggestions to get an idea of exactly what area of study would lean more to?
a question for you… any schools nearby? in addition to tornado research, there’s the growing field of emergency management…
Im in pell city, al. There are a few schools nearby! I will look into emergency management!!! I would love to help people in any way when it comes to weather awareness!
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I’m a freelance writer living in Norman, OK. Last night, May 31, I listened to the weather broadcasters state that people under ground – or else flee the path of the tornado. And so the highways were jammed with traffic, and several of the fatalities due to cars being overturned.
I hope the media be made aware of Dr. Brooks’ important and potentially life-saving message. It needs to come across loud and clear.
I would like to post the article as a family resource on my website, and also post it under “Current Events and Hot Topics” on CafeMom, the world’s largest social networking sight for women. In addition, I will post a link on OpOK Relief’s Facebook page. It’s an organization of independent volunteers providing aid to recent tornado victims. Thanks very much for posting this sound advice!
Please do! Everyone should read and take to heart Dr. Brook’s message. You called it… following his advice can save lives. Thank you/all the best.
Dr Hooke, the May 20 tornado missed my mother by a 1/4 mile. As I watched it intensify and take a path right at or very near her, I called her and urged her to “get out of the way”. She didn’t leave, as she thought she wouldnt have time. Needless to say, I was very anxious until I heard from her again! Then last night, watching the storms move through the metro, and seeing the roads logjammed, it donned on me for the first time, that fleeing your residence may be the worst possible thing you could do. Very good article, and it has got me rethinking my plan of action, should I ever see a monster barreling toward me.
Dr. Brook’s advice of staying put is just plain bad advise the vast majority of the time. Think of it being on a set of railroad tracks as a speeding freight train approaches: You can crouch down low all you want, but when that train reaches you, some serious damage is going to be done. Oklahomans live on that railroad track. If they pay attention to the very expensive prediction and early warning systems that the US taxpayers have built them through the years, there is usually plenty of time to know when the likelihood of tornados is high, and what direction those tornados will likely take.
If you live in a tornado belt and you want to live to a ripe old ago, you need to pay attention, and you need to take preventative measures every time out, instead of quoting low odds and whining about the inconvenience of reacting to every potential threat. Nearly everyone who dies in a tornado fails to take adequate protective measures. If you leave yourself enough time to get off the railroad tracks, your chances of surviving are way higher than doing battle with a tornado on the floor of a bathroom in a house built of wood.
Not a single person who paid attention and reacted in time to get out of the way, perished in either storm. An unacceptably high percentage of those who took Dr. Brook’s advise and just sat in the direct path of a tornado with no defenses available to them, didn’t fair as well.
If you don’t have access to a proper shelter, get out of the way. It’s your best chance of living to see another day.
If one were to leave before storms were in their area, leaving may be an acceptable option. The average warning lead time is 20 minutes. If you live in or near a metropolitan area, this probably is not enough time to safely evacuate. Also, you seem to suggest that Dr. Brooks is telling people to just sit on the couch and wait. That is absolutely false. It has been proven time and time again that almost any tornado is surivable…if you properly shelter in place.
thanks, Erick. Well said.
Get in your car to shelter from a tornado — great advice!
(52 years of sheltering in place, planning on 52 more)
There is a huge difference between a tornado and a train. A train has a track that it follows without deviation . A tornado’s track is never so defined. There is no comparison.
Further, the more congested the roadways are the less likely that people can get to safety. This also makes it harder for first responders to get to the people who need them.
As I see it, the people who were able to drive away from a storm have been given a dangerous positive re-enforcement. Next time might not be so lucky.
I have lived very close to where the 3 worst tornados in Moore/OKC hit and the last one came thru our neighborhood but our home was spared. If Oklahomans were to leave their homes every time there was a tornado warning, we would be on the road constantly. Also there is no way to predict which direction a tornado will go as evidenced by the last tornado. It took a right and came thru our neighborhood. For the first time we took the weatherman’s advice and left to try and avoid it before it reached us. We wound up being chased by it for 4 hours which included time being stuck in traffic or going 5 mph on the highway. My son was trying to run from the tornado too and he wound up being stock in traffic with a tornado heading towards him but thankfully the tornado swerved (as they will do) and missed him.Two of the places I have previously lived in have been hit by tornados, one damaged and one completely destroyed ( in the last tornado). I couldn’t resist checking to see if where I would have taken cover in those houses would have protected us and they would have. I will never run again.
I was not raised in Oklahoma but this is where I live. The storms have always scared me because they always look angry. There is a safe room across from my apt, which gives me some peace of mind. But I will admit after seeing the devestation in Moore, I question the ability to survive in a safe room above ground. Am I wrong to think this way?
Peace of mind comes from another source. We encouraged to have that peace in every circumstance. But there’s no question that safe rooms reduce risk and save lives.
God bless you for your comment, William Hooke. Understand you loud and clear.
Thank you, sir. I have been trying to explain this since the May 19-20, 2013, tornadoes to people outside of Oklahoma. I have also been trying to explain that tornadoes are rated by intensity and that not ALL of Oklahoma is in an EF5 zone. My argument has been that the cost of outfitting a school in an area typically prone to EF-1 or EF-2 tornadoes with shelters would far exceed the benefits if the building has a strong interior area for the students to shelter in during the event. There is an old, large storm cellar on my property. The walls and ceiling have cracks from years of ground swell, earthquakes, and age. Sometimes underground is not the safest place.
I have shared your link on Facebook. Thank you again. May I please include the link in any articles I write concerning tornado safety?
thanks for your thoughtful comment. please do.
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Thank you for this interesting blog post! Did you ever happen to do a technical report or article about your interviews with the 8th graders?
Hopefully Dr. Brooks will see this and reply.
It’s only in a footnote in the second link.
I have. “Family Safe” safe room in my garage. Neighbor’s are telling me an above ground safe room will NOT withstand an F5 tornado! The company I bought it from said it would. Can you please confirm?
My apologies, but I can’t endorse any product. Perhaps another reader can share information.
<a href="http://m.newsok.com/oklahoma-tornadoes-aboveground-shelters-stood-up-in-face-of-ef5-moore-tornado/article/3840636"Article on shelter performance on 20 May indicates they did well
Your article is invaluable and right on. Of course, no one wants to think about just sitting in wait for an F4/5 tornado barreling toward them. On the other hand, if it were impossible to survive this strong a tornado unless one is underground, the death toll on May 20th would have been in the hundreds. The absolutely worst place a person can ever be is out in the open on a flat plane–or in a vehicle. I was horrified when I heard Mike Morgan advise people (with the storm already rushing toward them) to leave and go south!!! I pray none of the lost lives were due to frightened people heeding his warning and fleeing directly into the storm’s path. If a person wants to leave and head for a shelter much earlier when the tornado warning is issued, that’s a totally different situation. However, if we wait until the storm is headed in our direction, we are endangering our lives as well as the lives of those who are from out of state or had no choice but to be driving. Just my thoughts, but the scare tactics of the alarmist meteorologist is a recipe for disaster.
I grew up in Texas, I’ve seen three tornadoes without ever doing any chasing. I was watching the coverage in California live on KFOR last Friday and could not believe what I was hearing. I hope this tragedy refutes any notion that hopping a car and trying to outrun a tornado in an urban area is a good idea.
Out here on the left Coast, we have strict building codes for new construction that add somewhat to the cost of a house but also make the construction resistant to all but the biggest quake if the codes are met. I bought a new house in 1994 in Silicon Valley, and was completely unconcerned about the chances of damage in a quake.
It would not be too difficult or costly to require similarly reinforced safe rooms in new construction in Tornado Alley: strong exterior shear walls, bolted strongly to foundation, layers of 7/8 plywood, etc. If I were to move back to Oklahoma or Texas I’d certainly upgrade my house with a safe room. There is also room for some entrepreneurship here – prefab safe rooms for existing homes, done well, should be an easy sell.
I am the Emergency Management Director for a county in Alabama and I found your article very interesting and informative. I would like your permission to use this article for public information in our local newspaper and on our website if possible.
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I was one of the people running (with my 88 year old mom) from the storm on 31 May. As I went thru the next town south of me, the tornado sirens were going off. I could see the angry storms in my rear-view mirror and was concerned if I had made the right choice. As it turned out, we would have been safe sheltering at home. You really never know with a tornado. My brother and his son have decided to have a safe room constructed. Thankfully, they live in the same town. Mom has a below ground storm shelter, but at her age, mobility issues, I am not able to get her in there without help. Next time I will push for everyone to go to her shelter, and remind them to wear rubber boots for the water in the shelter.
Below ground is the best option. I think people need to invest in below ground shelters instead of the above ground safe rooms. There is no way they are as safe. It does look like its bad advice to get in a vehicle in a populated area as you just end up in a traffic jam. People also panic and disobey traffic lights/signs. But lets not make people think that if they hide in a center closet when a F5 tornado is inbound that their survival chances are that good. Your playing on the side of luck more than anything. They are saying an F5 tornado hits with the force of an atom bomb and you think getting in a closet with a pillow over your head is better advice than telling people to avoid it or get under ground? I personally don’t think so.
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The weatherman on 103.1 at 2:30 told people to go south toward Moore/Norman that it was ok there that they wouldn’t survive this in their house we heard it got our animals and headed south and thought we would die in the traffic jam on s sabta fe!
There were 5 adults and 2 children in a safe room Friday night in west OKC for two and one half hours. We survived…Praise the Good Lord! I am all for safe rooms.
I assume you have read this study: Risk of Tornado-related Death and Injury in Oklahoma, May 3, 1999? If not maybe you should. Here the link: http://www.bama.ua.edu/~jcsenkbeil/gy4570/Daley%20et%20al.%202005.pdf
Also the statistics for the Joplin tornado: 54 percent of the people died in their residences, 32 percent died in non-residential areas and 14 percent died in vehicles or outdoors. Also, you even say that the 1% of the deaths were from houses rated F4 or F5. Surely you know that 11 of those 36 deaths were from mobile homes. Who are you addressing here? The average person or the ones that have F4 and F5, permanently anchored homes? Even the NWS says “…the lowest floor of a sturdy building…” They also have guildlines if you feel you need to escape in your vehile because you don’t have a safe place.
Dr. Hooke, Thanks so much for sharing your expertise. Must confess that I’m a bit confused with some perhaps seemingly conflicting advice. In my family’s case until we can get a shelter, we have an interior coat closet, with a pantry on the opposite side, sharing no exterior walls. Then our beloved bath tub (lovingly referred to as the family “swimming pool”) is in a full bath with an exterior, windowless, east wall. In case of storm, which might be my first choice, according to your knowledge? Thanks!
The real person we should all thank is Dr. Harold Brooks
While probably well-meaning, commentary by at least 2 weathercasters and more than one media spotter telling people to get below ground or run .or die is irresponsible! They should be disciplined.
I understand riding out the storm but my house is a rectangle and really have NO interior rooms. My laundry room is the only one without an outside wall and its right next to the garage. What should I do????
Glad to see this article. After the fact, and ~ four miles from the tornado, I was fuming mad the meteorologists were saying this. It was not necessary. Don’t they think we know it’s common sense that below ground is better, and that if it was an option we would be below ground? Those of us having to hear them say that were the ones for which below ground wasn’t an option! They just added more fear to the situation.
Anybody who tells you an above ground storm shelter isn’t safe, are unwittingly spreading ignorance as if it were the common cold. I built an above ground safe room in my home and am very confident that it will protect my family in the event of an EF5. I patterned it from specifications set forth by Texas Tech that by design, could withstand 2X4’s at 250 mph. Obviously a 2X4 couldn’t maintain a speed of 250 mph in a 300 mph wind, but I spent a little extra time and money reinforcing my unit even beyond their specifications. It didn’t cost much extra and it’s added peace of mind that my family will be safe during a tornado.
I basically demo’d my master closet, then jack hammered and removed the foundation where my walls were to be erected. I then poured a new footing at 24″ deep. I then placed 1″ all-threads 20″ deep into the footing, then used them to bolt and weld my floor joist to. I used 4″ steel channel for my floor joist, then welded 1 1/2 X 3″ steel tubing for my stud walls and ceiling and placed them on 12″ centers. Next I welded 1/4 angle iron at varying heights between all the studs and ceiling to help web the structure for additional strength. On each side of the walls and ceiling I attached 1/4″ hardened plate steel by welding and screwing it into my studs.
On the interior, I attached with screws a 5/8″, fire resistant Sheetrock. On the exterior walls I attached two 3/4″ sheets of plywood, then attached 5/8″ fire resistant Sheetrock on the outside of those. I placed two doors on opposite sides and opposite ends. They are solid steel with steel frames welded amd bolted to the stud walls, and each has a locking doorknob and 3 deep-set deadbolts at varying heights.
I used two small 6″ air ducts tied into my central heat & air system for ventilation. I also plumbed wiring for cellular and television communication. Without this, there would be zero reception of any kind and we would not know when it would be safe to vacate the shelter.
If it weren’t for the multiple locking mechanisms on the doors, no one would know this is a safe room. While I was at it, I bolted a large safe in place to protect our valuables. I occasionally have to travel and I am supremely confident that my family will be safe in the event of a tornado, but that it could also be used as a bullet-proof panic room if some whack job threatened my family while I was away.
Sorry for the long post. It just annoys me when the uninformed choose to mislead people with their own fear-based assumptions.
In my opinion there are only two groups of individuals that should travel at a 45 degree angle of an approaching tornado, persons in trailer houses and persons already in a vehicle. It is impossible to get “low” in either situation and it is not possible to put enough walls between you and the approaching tornado in either situation.
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I have a different perspective that I share here: http://meteorologicalmusings.blogspot.com/2013/06/el-reno-tornado-kfor-situation.html
When they say get below ground or you could die , I’m getting below ground or I’m driving away from the tornado . They give us time to make that decision . These safe rooms they build in the homes are only rated up to a EF5 tornado. If
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For the 1997, Jarrell Texas Tornado, the advice given by Dr. Brooks would not have worked. This EF-5 went through a neighborhood in a well publicized event, and multiple families died, even though they had gotten low (to the basement) – in this case 5 members of the family were still killed; in the other scenarios the people killed had gone into a bathroom or interior room and were still sucked out and/or hit by debris. Highlighting a 1% fatality rate in EF5 rated homes with the Moore tornado may be specific to that event, it was 100% fatality in the Jarrell event. You would have to look at an average over multiple EF5 events and associated fatalities to give it proper context in my opinion. In the case of the Jarrell 1997 event it was unsurvivable above ground- the houses were swept away to the foundations.
Thanks for this thoughtful comment and a bit of historical perspective. I th ink Harold would probably say that there’s now sure bet on any confrontation with a tornado. You can do no more than improve your chances