Home Storm Chaser Blogs Never Attempt to Outrun a Tornado
Feb 23
2009

Never Attempt to Outrun a Tornado

Posted by Brian Barnes under Learning, Opinion, tornado

I have a problem with the wording “Never try to outrun a tornado. Motorist should abandon their vehicles and seek a sturdy shelter or lay in a ditch or other low-lying area.” I understand the underlying reason for this statement is that most people are not familiar with severe storms and they may not know what they are driving into – thus, it is best just to tell them to get out of their cars and jump into a ditch or low-lying area.

But, I just don’t think this is the best safety precaution to take in most situations where motorist may come across a tornado. Given certain conditions such as having plenty of daylight and a clearly visible elephant trunk tornado within view, but several miles away – I think it may be best to just tell people to use their best judgment – but if they are unsure to then jump into the ditch.

Let me go into detail with a few examples.

One of the tornado cases that I have studied extensively is the 1942 Pryor, OK tornado. This tornado was originally sighted along Oklahoma Highway 20 between Pryor and Claremore. I was raised on a small family ranch along this same stretch of highway and this specific tornado destroyed my Grandfather’s home on the same piece of land that I grew up on some 30+ years later – so I know the topography of this area extremely well and that was useful when trying to recreate the eye-witness accounts of this tornado in my head.

The supercell that caused the tornado was moving due east, witness accounts claim to be around 30 mph. About 1 mile to the east of the Rogers and Mayes County Line there is a small hill where the highway starts to bend. It was here that one of the most famed stories of this tornado occurred when a Tulsa businessman found himself and his passenger looking west at the tornado as it headed directly towards them.

They stopped on the top of the hill and probably had a great view of the approaching storm. There were several other motorist stopped along the highway with them and within minutes the entire horizon to the west became what they recalled as being a “dark wall” and everyone’s perception was that the tornado had roped out and the darkened area beneath the storm ahead of them was nothing more than just heavy rain.

Most of the motorist made a fateful mistake – thinking the tornado threat was over, they got back into their cars and proceeded to drive west towards Claremore, only to meet their death when they literally drove into a large and violent wedge tornado that was wrapped with heavy rain in the RFD.

The hill aforementioned is immediate west and adjacent of my family’s property line. It is also an ancient Indian burial ground and I use to sit atop this hill and look over the plains to the west and try to imagine what April 27, 1942 must have been like – a nightmare for sure.

1942map

During these “hilltop thinking sessions” – I began to wonder what would have happened if those people would have instead turned around and drove east, and then either north or south on one of the many county roads to angle the storm off. Would they have gotten away with their lives and vehicles intact? I believed at that time that they would have.

Then it happened – one day when I was about 12 years old, a tornado formed just a few miles west of our property (and at the time we were living in a double-wide mobile home). While it was far from the same classification of the wedge tornado in 1942, it was still enough to completely freak out my mother and she had to make a life saving decision – “Do I get into our storm shelter with the snakes, or do we make a run for it?” She chose the latter and we piled into the family station wagon and headed east towards Pryor at a very high rate of speed.

While we did encounter some hail on the way into town, we did outrun the tornado threat! And, I didn’t have to spend an evening in the storm cellar with any potential “rattle-headed-copper-moccasins,” so I was happy.

I was also extremely convinced that a lot fewer people would have died along Highway 20 on April 27, 1942 had they done the same thing. Of course they wouldn’t have wanted to stop after reaching Pryor because on that day the town was levelled flat – but they could have intercepted Highway 69 in Pryor and drove south to get clear of the storm altogether.

Storm chasers “outrun” tornadoes quite a bit – but they each do so based on their own comfort level and experience. However, if the situation presents itself with a tornado that actually looks like what most people perceive a tornado to look like (think “Oz”), and it can be determined which direction its moving at and if you have a possible escape route that will allow you to get yourself clear and “right angle” the storm’s path – then by all means do it!

However, if you can’t validate a visual sighting of a tornado but you have reason to believe that there is one anyway – then don’t take chances – take immediate shelter. It’s best to stay put in these situations – only travel away from a tornado when you can visually see the thing! If you can’t see it then it could be “hiding” behind a thick curtain of rain (i.e.: It’s “rain-wrapped”) and you can’t run from what you can’t see, so again shelter is best in these situations. If it occurs at night then never take a chance and always shelter.

As a legal disclaimer: Always follow the advice of official government warning officials.

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