originally published July 20, 2014
As the summer weeks amble past that first premature sploosh of sun, sweat and network television’s filler programming (the latest season of Fox’s 24 notwithstanding), we are reaching the time when the season becomes entrenched in whichever little cubbyhole we wish to place it. For some, it’s the season of swimming in a sun-soaked pool. For teachers and their flock, it’s the season of delectable freedom and a furlough from responsibility. For those of us who live with both a teacher and a student, it’s the season for drinking heavily to compensate for the globby paste of envy we feel at watching everyone else in the household sleep as we leave for work.
But for a number of geographically-encumbered folks, the sub-surface pillow-down of summer brings with it more grave and ungroovy consequences. Hurricanes and tropical storms are gearing up to spank the Gulf of Mexico with a debris-wreaking fist. Droughts will speckle farmland country, crapping its dusty fury upon a smattering of unlucky agriculturalists. And inevitably the funnel clouds will open up their peppery maws at the vengeful sky, bullying rural settlements and trailer parks alike on the ground.
Edmonton has seen but one tornado in our 100+ years as a city, and it left its mark on everyone who lived through it – even for those of us who saw nothing worse than the dog-spittle of rain against our windows. But in the interest of public safety – and as part of my court-ordered restitution for ‘liberating’ those pet store frogs into the IKEA ball-pit – here are some safety tips.
Remember that viral video in which a Kansas TV crew near El Dorado fled from a nearby tornado and took refuge beneath an overpass? Yeah, don’t do this. If you happen to be caught on an empty two-lane highway with a tornado sneering at the hairs on the back of your neck, you might be tempted to tuck yourself under a concrete canopy, but you’ll really only be worsening your chances of survival. That TV crew happened to pick a rather odd overpass – there was a hollow crawlspace at the top of the embankment where they could grab hold of the exposed girders to stay stable.
An overpass becomes a violent wind tunnel when a tornado sidles up to it. You’re squatting on higher terrain than most of the surrounding landscape, and opening yourself up to a shower-spray of debris and gravel. During a 1999 tornado in Oklahoma, a woman actually left her home to drive to an overpass, believing it would do a better job of sheltering her. That tornado wound up hitting three overpasses, killing someone at all three. Just get out of your car and lie flat in a ditch or a culvert – don’t get cocky, and don’t take survival advice from videos you’ve seen on the internet.
Apparently someone came up with the idea that opening your windows during a tornado will somehow keep your house from exploding. I’d never heard this one before. The thinking goes that the lower atmospheric pressure in the armpit of a tornado will cause one’s domicile to pop like a bubble, spewing its innards onto your neighbors’ lawns. The basis for this thinking comes about from buildings that have been struck on one side by a tornado, collapsing one wall inward and the others outward. This creates the illusion of a building that has exploded.
Look, if a tornado wants to flatten your house, it’s going to flatten your house. If you’re along the fringe of the danger zone (as opposed to being on the highway to the danger zone), those windows might hold off some small debris from embedding itself in your living room drywall. Besides, rather than wasting time opening all your windows, you should be seeking shelter. Don’t you remember what happened to Andy Travis on the tornado episode of WKRP In Cincinnati? Unless Loni Anderson is there with you to give you mouth-to-mouth, just stay the hell away from windows completely.
The first guy to really throw some science at studying tornadoes was a 19th century meteorologist named John Park Finley. In 1887 he wrote a book on the subject, providing a heap of tasty tidbits on tornado origins, patterns and safety tips. He also dropped a few lemons into the basket though, one of which was that the safest place to hide out in any building is the northeast corner. After all, tornadoes always travel in a northeastern path, and since debris will always be flung toward a funnel cloud’s past footprint, crouching down near the wall that the tornado will first touch is your safest bet.
John was so full of crap with this advice, his fingers probably left a poopy residue on the keys of his typewriter when he wrote it. Sometimes tornados cruise along wholly different trajectories – the F5 Jarrell Tornado, which killed 27 people in Texas in 1997, was travelling south-southwest. Also, if you’re up against the first wall that a tornado touches, you won’t be protected from the debris. You will be the debris.
Driving away from a tornado will make you look like a cinematic bad-ass (though not as much so as walking slowly away from it). But unless there’s a movie camera on the vehicle in front of you, there is no reason to do this. Yes, your car will probably move faster than the tornado. And as long as there are no obstacles in your way (abandoned cars, overturned light poles, storm-tossed bovines) you might outrun the thing. Hopefully you won’t cruise onto a flash-flooded road. And hopefully you won’t be chased by one of those freakish tornadoes that can outpace 100km/h.
If you’re in your car, get out. Funnel clouds juggle vehicles like a drunken college kid tries to juggle old fruit – badly, and with gravity inevitably claiming victory. If the funnel cloud is far away, drive at a 90-degree angle from its path and hope it doesn’t arbitrarily change course. Maybe you’ll make it home. Though if your home is a mobile home, just give up hope entirely.
It certainly appears as though the Tornado Gods have a deep hate-on for trailer parks. Between 2000 and 2008, tornadoes killed 539 people in the United States, with 282 of those (that’s over half) dying in or around mobile homes. This statistic would fuel the funk of urban legend, unless one considers the obvious: mobile homes are single-story structures that are built for cost and transportability, not for standing up to a meteorological bully. They’re flimsy. And most mobile home parks are clustered around a city’s fringes, making them first in line for incoming weather bastardry.
Not that you’ll necessarily be safe if you plunk yourself into the gullet of an urban metropolis. Several cities’ downtowns have been thwacked by tornadoes registering F4 or higher on the Fujita Scale: Topeka, St. Louis, Lubbock, and even London, England.
If there’s a tornado on the horizon, just scoot yourself to the lowest, most centerish part of your house and ride it out. To pass the time, check out some real estate listings in other cities that aren’t known for drawing funnel clouds like a tourist draws a greedy Elmo’s attention in Times Square. Like Diomede, Alaska, for example: no tornadoes, no mosquitos… not much of anything, really.