Here We Go Again [Unfortunately]: Bridges and Tornadoes

Groan!! Here we go again: tornadoes and underpasses. This topic was brought to the public's attention because of the preview of the Twisters trailer (above) during the Super Bowl. People have been contacting me all day.

I've had to deal with this since April 26, 1991, so I hope you don't mind me being a bit grumpy that another Hollywood-type has rekindled this issue as lives are at stake. 

The background.... 
April 26, 1991, was one of the worst tornado outbreaks in the history of the United States, but these tornadoes were incredibly well forecasted and warned of -- and, had been for days. I was founder and CEO of WeatherData, Inc. Our company had a contract with Wichita's KSNW-TV to provide the on-air weathercasts and storm warnings. I handled the major tornado situations. The video is a short excerpt of our coverage of the warnings of the F-5 Wichita-Andover Tornado. We were also dealing -- simultaneously -- with the F-4 Cowley County Tornado and the F-3 Goddard Tornado. 

The Centers for Disease Control later determined our tornado warnings -- and the warnings of the other radio and television stations plus National Weather Service -- saved more than 70 lives.

Forty miles northeast from Wichita, yet another of the 55 tornadoes that day chased KSNW-TV's news crew down the Kansas Turnpike to the point photographer Ted Lewis and reporter Gregg Jarrett (who later went to Fox News) -- along with another family -- felt they were trapped by the tornado and had no choice but to take shelter under the bridge. The tornado then struck, as shown below. The film (it was film in those days) became a national sensation when a mud-covered Gregg narrated it during one of  our tornado bulletins that evening. Within months, everyone-- it seemed -- was sheltering under bridges. 
This is Ted Lewis' KSNW-TV video is what led to the "bridge scene" in the Twisters trailer. 

Now, the questions and answers!
  • Why isn't the underside of a bridge a good place to shelter from a tornado?
First, traffic, If people clog the road by stopping their cars under bridges, then a death trap traffic jam could be created if/when the tornado moves over the area.

Next, the architecture of most bridges is such that they accelerate the speed of the winds and, thus, the danger is worse than being in a nearby ditch. This isn't conjecture: in Oklahoma on May 3, 1999, people were killed taking shelter under bridges. 
  • If bridges are so dangerous, why did these people survive?
This particular bridge, by coincidence, was designed with an unusual concrete "shelf." If you sat or laid on the shelf, you were protected by steel girders that hung down around you. Watch Ted's video and you can see them climb onto the shelf. I've personally been to that bridge, along with two others nearby on the Turnpike which do not have the shelf. They got incredibly lucky as the F-2 tornado passed through. 
I'm probably far too optimistic, but I'd like to put this to bed once and for all: I don't care about your situation. You are far better in a ditch on the side of the road away from the tornado than you are under a bridge. 

Comments

  1. I remember watching coverage of May 4th 99', and they were telling people to get under the bridge overpass/underpass.
    Yikes!!

    ReplyDelete

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