Tornadoes: Fact or Myth

April 1, 2016

Tornadoes: Fact or Myth

            As a follow-up to last week’s report about severe weather awareness week, I thought it might be good to review some facts and myths considering our most violent form of severe weather in this part of the country, the tornado. No place in the U.S. is completely safe from tornadoes. Every state has experienced tornadoes, and many states, like Nebraska, will be hit multiple times each year by twisters.

            A tornado may occur at any time of day, and on any day of the year. However, the most common time for a tornado is late afternoon of warmer months. Knowing what to do in case of a tornado warning can save your life and the lives of your family. Here are some common statements about tornadoes:

"When confronted by a tornado warning, you should open all the windows in your house to equalize the pressure."

            This is a myth and just wastes valuable time. Don't worry about equalizing the pressure, the roof ripping off or debris smashing through windows or walls will equalize the pressure for you.

"Tornadoes have picked people and items up, carried them some distance and then set them down without injury or damage."

            As strange as it might seem, this is a fact. People and animals have been transported up to a quarter mile or more without serious injury. Fragile items, such as sets of china have been blown from houses and recovered, miles away, without any damage. However, given the amount of airborne debris, these are the exception, not the norm.

"I can outrun a tornado, especially in a vehicle."

            Most people will recognize this as a myth. Tornadoes can move at up to 70 mph or more and may shift directions erratically and without warning. It is unwise to try to outrace a tornado. It is better to abandon your vehicle and seek shelter immediately.

"Tornadoes are more likely to hit a mobile home park."

            This is not true, it just seems that way for two reasons. First, mobile home parks are common. There are thousands of mobile homes in tornado alley, so there is a good chance that at least one of them will be in a tornado’s path of. Unfortunately, the second factor is that mobile homes offer little to no protection against even the weakest tornadoes, so when a tornado does strike a mobile home park, the damage is more likely to be significant. Winds that would only lift some shingles on a frame house can easily flip a mobile home.

"Strong, sturdy brick buildings will protect me from a tornado."

            This is partially true. While such buildings will provide more protection in a tornado than a mobile home or timber frame structure, the winds of a tornado can easily launch a 2x4 through a brick wall, and can cause even the sturdiest of buildings to experience roof or wall failure.

"To keep from being sucked into the tornado, you can tie yourself to a well pipe, just like they did in the movie "Twister"."

            This is good for movie special effects, but simply is not true. While it is unlikely that a tornado will dislodge a deeply buried pipe, the rope you tie around yourself is more likely to act as a combination tetherball and cheese slicer. Lighter winds will likely cause you to be whipped around at the end of the rope, banging against anything within the radius of the rope. Stronger winds inside the tornado are just as likely to pull your body from the rope and possibly not in one piece.

"A tornado can drive a straw through a telephone pole."

            This is a fact. The forces inside a tornado are incredible, and still poorly understood. But they are certainly strong enough to turn otherwise harmless items into deadly missiles.

            For more information on tornadoes, visit the National Weather Service website at www.weather.gov or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, website at www.noaa.gov.