Partly cloudy with a chance of learning
Partly cloudy with a chance of learning

Common misconceptions about tornado safety

Illustration for article titled Common misconceptions about tornado safety

It's astounding that so many misconceptions regarding tornadoes continue to be repeated as fact. Some of the myths date back to the 19th century, were disproved a century later, and yet they are still regurgitated online or even through the media. Here is a list of some of these tornado "facts" that need to be rid of once and for all.


The southwest corner is the safest spot

This particular misconception is one of those that originated over a century ago. The myth comes from a book written by tornado expert, John Park Finley. In his book Finley claimed that the safest spot in a building is on whichever side is facing an oncoming tornado. Because Finley believed that tornadoes moved from the southwest to the northeast, it was recommended that people shelter in the southwestern corner of a room.


There were two problems with this theory. One, tornadoes do not move in just one direction. The recent tornado at El Reno proved this with tragic consequence. Second, it has been proven that the corner facing the oncoming tornado is actually the least safe. This is why you're advised to seek a central room that has some sort of reinforcement. Yet, there are still some who will repeat the southwest corner mantra like its fact even today. Infuriating.

An underpass is an ideal place to ride out a tornado

This particular myth is a relatively recent one. A 1991 news broadcast in Oklahoma has been given credit for starting this myth. A news crew sought shelter under an overpass and survived. They gave credit to their hiding spot. Eight years later, the myth was conclusively shown to be false after several people were killed after taking shelter under overpasses. Like the southwest corner myth, this should have been obvious. Tornadoes are a wind event. An underpass is a short tunnel. You can probably see where I am going with this.


Unfortunately, people continue to use overpasses as a safe haven, blocking up the roads with their abandoned vehicles despite repeated warnings from the media to avoid doing so.

Open your windows or your house will explode

One of the first explanations for the destructive power of tornadoes is that at the center of the tornado the pressure is so low that it literally causes homes to explode. Obviously, to prevent this from happening you should open the windows in your home to help equalize the pressure. There are a couple of problems with that.


First off, tornadoes don't have a huge drop in pressure. In the center of a tornado the drop is a tiny amount. Your home has absolutely nothing to worry about as far as the air pressure goes. Besides, the wind and debris from the tornado will have ripped it apart long before you have to worry about a pressure difference. And even if the air pressure of the tornado was sufficient to make your house explode, opening the windows wouldn't be enough to equalize it. Forget about the windows and get under cover.

Outrunning a tornado - a myth under debate

It has been a definitive fact for decades that trying to outrun a tornado is stupid. Being in your car in a tornado is stupid. It's a much better idea to leave your car, and find a ditch or other low spot to ride out the tornado. And this is absolutely correct.


But not everyone agrees. As we saw with the recent debacle in Oklahoma, there are still many who believe that fleeing a tornado is safer than riding it out in their home or some low spot in the ground. They are also correct.

Confused? Not surprising.

The truth is that when an EF-4 or EF-5 is bearing down on you the best place to be is somewhere else entirely. If you are unable to get away it's best to be underground. Here's where clarity comes. It is perfectly logical to flee an area where a tornado is expected. It is an entirely stupid idea to flee an area where a tornado already is. If you are under a tornado watch, and the weather experts think it likely that tornadoes will spawn from an approaching storm, then that's the time to leave. Once a tornado is believe to have formed, and you're in a warning, then it's too late to leave.


Watch - leave. Warning - cover. Pretty simple. Contrary to what certain weathermen with a penchant for hyperbole claim, it is very possible to survive even an EF-5 from above ground.

There are more misconceptions about tornadoes, but they don't directly affect the safety of people so I won't go into them deeply. Just understand that tornadoes can happen anywhere in the world. Just because a tornado isn't a mile wide doesn't mean it isn't strong. Major cities can get hit by tornadoes. There's no such thing as a true tornado season. They happen year round.

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