By Tyson Fisher, Land Line staff writer
With a tornado barreling down, Melissa Laird scrambled to grab her cat and paperwork before the storm intensified. In a flash, the winds picked up. Laird couldn’t even shut the cab door.
She was frantically looking around for shelter from the tornadic activity swirling around her in the Oklahoma City area when an employee at the PetSmart just a stone’s throw away noticed her predicament. He helped Laird shut the cab door and brought her into the employee break room.
She was safe. Just moments before, it was a typical day with storms in the forecast. In minutes, the situation turned into something much more dangerous.
“I was only out there for five minutes,” Laird said. “Had I been out there any longer, God knows if I had been able to make it.”
Fortunately, Laird was in an area with sturdy structures she could run to for shelter. More often than not, truckers are out on the road, often miles away from any type of structure. This raises an important and potentially life-saving question: Where do you go if a tornado forms while you are out on the road?
At some point in their careers, most over-the-road truckers will drive through Tornado Alley, which traditionally includes Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, Alabama, Mississippi, Nebraska, South Dakota and Iowa.
Surprisingly, very few public storm shelters are available in those states.
Of the Tornado Alley states, only two confirmed they have public storm shelters along the state’s highways: Texas and Kansas. Unsurprisingly, those are the two states that average the highest number of tornadoes per year with 112 for Texas and 100 for Kansas, according to data from the National Weather Service from 2005 to 2014.
According to the NWS, 36 people were killed by tornadoes nationwide in 2015, the third-fewest since 2000, and considerably less than the 553 people who were killed in a deadly outbreak of storms in 2011.
Patrick Marsh, a meteorologist with the weather service’s Storm Prediction Center, said even though the death toll may have been comparatively few, 2015 was “pretty much average” in terms of the overall number of tornadoes that grade out as an EF1 or higher.
But the number of storms in a given year isn’t necessarily an accurate predictor of fatalities. Marsh pointed out that 2004, an above average year in terms of the number of tornadoes, had even fewer fatalities than 2015.
“Essentially what happens in years like 2004 and 2015 is that the United States is lucky that the tornadoes tend to remain over rural areas, which decreases the potential for them to cause fatalities simply from the fact there are fewer people in the path of the tornado,” he said.
According to the weather service the 10 states that had the most recorded tornadoes in 2015 were Texas (112 tornadoes), Kansas (100), Alabama (66), Oklahoma (60), Missouri and Mississippi (tied, 57 each), Illinois (51), Nebraska (45), Iowa (44) and Louisiana (42).
Land Line reached out to transportation departments and emergency management agencies in those 10 states to determine what, if any, shelters they provided for drivers along public highways, and what their recommendations for drivers are should they find themselves caught in the path of the storm.
Where are the shelters?
The Texas Department of Transportation provides 19 safety rest areas with public storm shelters. Funding comes from Federal Transportation Enhancement Funds paying for 80 percent and state matching funds of 20 percent. Ongoing maintenance is provided by state funds.
“Safety is our top priority at TxDOT,” said TxDOT spokesperson David Glessner. “TxDOT takes into account location, storm history and potential need for storm shelters. Areas of Texas that have experienced frequent tornadoes are candidates for storm shelters.”
The Kansas Turnpike Authority has storm shelters available to the public in 30 of its toll plazas. Rather than use tax funding, KTA uses tolls to fund construction and maintenance of all its facilities, including the storm shelters within the plaza.
“The storm shelters were built for our employees, but we have always encouraged travelers to take shelter with employees,” said Rachel Bell, KTA’s marketing and communications director.
Kansas has had storm shelters in place for their employees along the turnpike since at least 1989. Bell says the service areas have had some sort of storm shelter “for quite a while, but we have definitely made efforts to improve those and the awareness of them over the past 10 to 15 years.”
In states like, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri and South Dakota, officials with state transportation departments and emergency management agencies recommended that drivers avail themselves of the nearest rest area for shelter if they’re caught in a storm. The reasoning – it’s better to be inside rather than outside or in a vehicle, even if that structure isn’t a hardened storm shelter.
“The rule is pretty simple: Inside beats outside. Below ground beats above ground. First floor beats upper floors. If you can get out of your vehicle, and into a building, preferably below ground, that’s what you should do,” said Keith Stammer, the longtime emergency management director of Joplin, Mo., and no stranger to the devastation that can be wrought by a massive tornado.
If no shelter is available, every emergency official interviewed said being outside of the vehicle in a low-lying area was still safer than staying in the cab of the truck, although they cautioned to make sure that the low-lying area wasn’t an immediate risk for flash flooding.
‘Forewarned is forearmed’
Scott Littlefield barely had time to do anything other than stand on his brakes and then dive into his sleeper berth as punishing winds rocked his truck and trailer outside of Joplin on May 22, 2011. While trying to make it to a Flying J truck stop just off I-249 on the south end of town, the Joplin native said the storm got too intense, too quickly for him to do anything other than take cover in his bunk.
“I was lucky I was loaded. If I wasn’t, I’m sure I would’ve been tossed around,” he said in a recent phone interview with Land Line.
A veteran driver with more than 30 years of experience, Littlefield was an OOIDA senior member before he retired from trucking in 2014. He credits his load, a tanker full of 52,000 pounds of bulk flour, with keeping him from being tossed by the massive EF5 tornado that chewed up thousands of homes and businesses in the southwest Missouri town, and ended 161 lives.
The storm was the most expensive tornado disaster in the U.S. to date, racking up more than $2.5 billion in damages. The Missouri Insurance Commission received claims on more than 7,600 vehicles that were damaged in the Joplin tornado.
Keith Stammer says he often stands outside in Joplin and looks off to the west, the better to see an approaching storm, which almost always move either west to east or southwest to northeast. As the days get longer, the sun acts as an engine that can drive powerful thunderstorms into tornado-producing events.
“If they get here before sundown, I start getting kind of nervous,” he said. “If they get here after sundown, not so much.”
In a 23-year career in emergency management, first in Kansas and then in Missouri, Stammer’s been through seven different FEMA disaster declarations, including the Joplin tornado in 2011.
One of the things he’s learned about tornadic storms is there’s generally a prime time, both of the year and of the day.
“The vast majority of tornadic storms happen between 2 p.m. and 11 p.m.,” he said. “If you’re going to be traveling, you need to think about the timing. An hour or two before sundown could be an extremely dangerous situation. Maybe you need to think about delaying your trip for a couple hours.”
Stammer said the best defense is to know what you’re driving into. He recommended drivers purchase either portable NOAA weather radios or use apps like Weather Tap, Weather Underground or the NWS’s mobile app to stay informed of weather conditions.
“Forewarned is forearmed,” he said.
While an EF5 tornado the size of the one that hit Joplin is an extremely rare occurrence, Stammer said truckers and other vehicles with high profiles are more vulnerable than others in storms that may produce cyclonic or even straight-line winds, which can tip a large vehicle over.
“Even an EF0 tornado is going to produce 65 or 70 mph winds; that’s enough to push a trailer over,” he said. “Being in a vehicle during a high wind event is not a safe place to be. No matter how big.
“The (EF)5s get all the ink but they don’t happen very often,” he said. “Less than one-half of one percent of all tornadoes. For a truck driver, (the real danger) you’d be talking about a derecho or cyclonic storm that’s 50 or 60 miles long. You can have 60-, 70-, 80-mile-per-hour winds out there and not have a tornado and still have a major problem for a trucker.”
If you have to be in a vehicle during a storm, Stammer says there’s only one truly safe way to watch it. Far enough away from the south that you can watch the front roll by in front of your windshield.
“The best way to watch a storm is (south of the front) looking to the north,” he said. “Watch it go west to east across your windshield. That’s a nice, safe spot to be.”
‘Someone needs to take charge’
In terms of forecasting the number of tornados in a given year, the National Weather Service’s Marsh says the science “has not evolved to the point where we can make seasonal forecasts.”
“Hopefully within the next few years we will be able to produce seasonal tornado outlooks,” he said. “Although, as I like to remind people, if a tornado hits you or your house, it was a bad tornado year. Also, it only takes one tornado hitting a very highly populated place to completely change the overall perception of that year’s tornado season.”
Although Missouri does not have any public storm shelters along the highways, Mike O’Connell, communications director for Missouri’s State Emergency Management Agency, had plenty of advice for truckers during severe weather. O’Connell’s focus was on flooding, not tornadoes.
According to O’Connell, there have been no tornado deaths in three years in Missouri. More deaths come from flooding. Last year alone, 27 people were killed because of flooding, more than the previous seven years combined and the highest total since the Great Flood of 1993. Of those 27 deaths, 23 had been in motor vehicles.
Truckers with smartphones should check their settings to make sure they are receiving Wireless Emergency Alerts. WEAs are emergency messages sent by authorized government alerting authorities through your mobile carrier. Notifications about extreme weather, AMBER Alerts, Presidential Alerts during a national emergency, and other threatening emergencies in your area are sent directly to your phone free of charge. WEAs are coordinated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Federal Communications Commission, Department of Homeland Security and National Weather Service.
Apple users can go to Notifications under Settings and scroll down to Government Alerts. WEA settings for Android phones can be found by going to Settings, clicking on the More option under the Wireless & Networks section, and scrolling down to the Cell Broadcasts settings. AMBER Alerts and extreme threats can be modified, but all phones will receive Presidential Alerts, regardless of settings. It should be noted that not all mobile devices are WEA-enabled. Check with your carrier to make sure they participate in the program.
Laird recommended getting a CB radio with a weather station. She understands that many don’t like CBs, but having one can be a matter of life or death.
“That CB can save your life,” Laird said.
According to Laird, a CB with a weather station will tell a driver everything he or she needs to do in a severe weather event. Her weather station notifies users in the region in the event they drive towards that area. Laird recalled getting a blizzard alert for Wyoming … while driving in Nebraska.
O’Connell also recommends paying close attention to the weather forecast in the areas you are driving through. If severe weather is expected, reroute or delay your trip if possible. This is not always ideal since time is money, but Laird agrees with O’Connell.
“My life comes before the load,” Laird said. “The load can be replaced, and my life can’t.”
Laird’s advice to truckers: Get organized.
“I thought I was extremely organized, and I was not,” Laird said.
Littlefield said the storm approached him so suddeFnly, he only had time to hit the brakes and dive for cover in his sleeper while high winds and debris shattered the windows of his cab. He said he believes if he’d been hauling a box trailer rather than a tanker, there’s no doubt in his mind the gusting winds would’ve upended his rig.
“Someone needs to get involved. We need to protect them while they’re out there. Someone needs to take charge, don’t you think?” he said.
While he acknowledges that the practical problem of having a vast network of storm shelters along public interstates is “certainly immense,” Stammer praised the work being done by states that do offer some sort of protection for motorists as well as their own employees.
“The state of Kansas is an excellent example,” he said. “It might be extremely expensive to build or to upkeep, but by having shelters at weigh stations or (toll plazas), in addition to being safe for the employees, they could make them a little bit bigger and receive passersby.”
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