In the past year, two high-profile television meteorologists have told people to evacuate from the relative safety of their homes to get out of the way of an oncoming tornado. That is the worst thing you could do, and this dangerous advice will get people killed one day.
The first of the two cases got the most attention for its boneheadedness. Last year during the infamous El Reno, Oklahoma tornado, KFOR-TV meteorologist Mike Morgan caught hell from both viewers and fellow meteorologists alike for urging people to flee the Oklahoma City metro area ahead of the storm. The tornado was the largest ever recorded — 2.6 miles at its widest — and a mobile Doppler radar measured winds of around 300 MPH (well above EF-5 strength and just shy of the strongest ever recorded).
Watching this record-breaking tornado scour the landscape towards Oklahoma City was unsettling for anyone keeping track of the situation, but especially so for the folks who actually live there.
When a major disaster is unfolding, one of the worst things one can do is panic. Television meteorologists in particular are expected to keep their composure and provide pointed but level-headed information to the public to keep them safe. But as the storm ripped through El Reno, Morgan started to...well, panic.
In the middle of his tornado coverage, Morgan started to tell people to leave and drive south to get away from the tornado.
It is still on the ground on the south side of I-40 right now. Go south. Get on down here towards west Moore somewhere down here, this is safe down here. Get down way down here, down by Newcastle. Take I-44. Get to Newcastle. If you get down here you're gonna be safe. It's on the interstate right now.
There were two huge problems with this:
- Thousands upon thousands of people decided to evacuate — though it's unknown how many left at the behest of Morgan — and head south out of the OKC metro. This caused traffic jams on every major artery out of the metro that were dozens of miles long.
- As it moved through El Reno towards OKC, the tornado was moving east. The tornado's movement was erratic to begin with, and the storm ultimately changed course and started moving southeast directly towards the people who were trying to get away from it.
Thankfully the worst tornado lifted before moving into densely populated areas, but the storm continued to produce extreme winds (up to 90 MPH) and two weaker tornadoes in Oklahoma City proper. If the storm had produced a tornado that moved over the gridlocked highways, the death toll could have reached the hundreds.
The second case received less press, and the only mentions of the incident were by hardcore weather enthusiasts who happened to watch TWC at that moment. Last week on June 17, a powerful supercell produced four violent EF-4 tornadoes across northeastern Nebraska, two of which were the "twin tornadoes" that hit the small town of Pilger. After hitting Pilger, the supercell continued to rotate as it headed straight for Sioux City, Iowa.
During The Weather Channel's live coverage of the event, meteorologist Paul Goodloe suggested that people get in their cars and drive away from the storm in an attempt to avoid the tornado threat.
You have another half hour to make your evacuation plans. If you can, evacuate. Go north or go south or go...uh, but whatever you do, do not go west or southwest. That is deeper into the rain and the hailcore of this storm as well and eventually the possible tornado. And again, this cell has produced at least three tornadoes.
A tornado was indeed reported just southwest of Sioux City, and numerous reports of 60-70 MPH winds and hail up to the size of ping pong balls occurred on/near I-29, which is the main north-south artery through the city.
To be fair to Paul Goodloe, however, he's built a reputation as a trusted meteorologist at The Weather Channel for decades, and this was likely an isolated case of foot-in-mouth disease rather than a pattern of reckless advice.
Regardless, television meteorologists need to be careful what they tell the public. Attempting to flee a tornado by vehicle is a death sentence if you drive into the storm or it changes direction and hits you.
Evacuations are synonymous with some of the worst disasters nature can throw at us. Coastal residents are told to get out when hurricanes loom offshore. No fewer than three or four towns per year have to evacuate because of an out-of-control wildfire. Flooding along the Mississippi is lethal for folks on the flood plain unless they leave in a hurry.
For all of these disasters for which people have to leave their homes, there is one where you are almost always safer at home than trying to flee: tornadoes. There are several problems with trying to flee ahead of a tornado. The first is that tornadoes happen with relatively little notice. Barring a surprise change in track, we can see a hurricane coming up to 5 days in advance. Most floods happen slow enough to safely get up and leave before it threatens. However, the most notice residents have of an impending tornado is usually about 45 minutes, often much less — the average tornado warning lead time (the time between the tornado warning's issuance and the time the tornado hits) is 13 minutes.
13 minutes is not much, especially when that's the average lead time. When a storm is moving at 55 MPH and you get a warning 10 minutes in advance, you are not going to be able to hop in your car and outrun it. I can visualize the comments now ("yeah your stupid i can outrun it easy"), but it's one of those situations where you drastically overestimate your abilities and only find out when it's too late.
The second reason is the most important, and it's that tornadoes mangle the hell out of cars. The photo at the top of this post was a vehicle destroyed by the May 3, 1999 F5 tornado that tore through the Oklahoma City area; the storm was for decades (until Joplin) the standard by which all destructive tornadoes were measured.
Even weak tornadoes are lethal to the occupants of a vehicle. The image to the left of this paragraph is from an EF-1 tornado that hit Fort Benning, Georgia back on April 16, 2011. If people were in the car when the tornado hit, they likely would have been seriously injured or even killed by the impact and/or flying debris. Almost all of the deaths that occurred during the tornado in El Reno occurred in vehicles. One of the most well-respected and experienced tornado chasers in the country, Tim Samaras, was killed by that storm when it suddenly changed course and struck the vehicle in which they were riding.
The Weather Channel's tornado chase team, led by on-camera meteorologist Mike Bettes, was thrown hundreds of feet off the road by that same tornado and it smashed their SUV like a pancake in the process. The team sustained injuries but everyone was able to walk away from the vehicle. It could have (and should have, given the intensity of the tornado and damage to the vehicle) been much worse.
If you ever find yourself in a situation where you have to take shelter from a tornado, staying inside is almost always your best bet. Stay on the lowest level of the building (basement is best, but first floor works) and get low in an interior room such as a closet or bathroom. Put as many walls between you and the outside as possible.
The only time that it is okay and recommended to leave a building to evacuate to the nearest sturdy building is if you live in a mobile or manufactured home. They are often not tied down properly and can sustain damage in even modest windstorms.
If you find yourself in a vehicle and a tornado is bearing down on your location, and you cannot get to a sturdy building, drive perpendicular to the tornado's motion. If the tornado is heading north, try to drive east. Never under any circumstances seek shelter under a bridge, as they offer absolutely no protection from a tornado's winds.
If you are a television meteorologist, please be careful of what you say on the air. You have a lot of influence over your viewers, especially during emergencies. Your job is to provide them with information they can use effectively to stay safe. If you can't resist giving viewers bad and potentially life-threatening advice during a disaster, it's time to find a new profession.