Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A dangerous illusion of safety

Yesterday marked the 20th anniversary of an infamous tornado outbreak. I'm not going to discuss the event itself here, but want to focus on the continuing problem that the news coverage of the storm produced. In that video two reporters from Wichita TV station KSNW (cameraman Ted Lewis and reporter Gregg Jarrett) are shown, first attempting to run from the tornado and then taking shelter under an overpass on the Kansas Turnpike (Interstate-35) near El Dorado, KS, and helping passerby Butch Gilbert and his children up between the overpass girders. They all emerge unscathed after the tornado passes, but clearly are frightened by their experience.

There are many issues with this video that can be debated, but the main point I want to make here is that 20 years later, we're still dealing with the problem the video created: people seeking shelter from severe weather under highway overpasses. An extended presentation about why using overpasses for tornado shelters is a bad idea has been developed in an effort to counteract the impression that highway overpasses are viable shelter options.

Some friends of mine and I made the prediction soon after we saw this video that people would die taking shelter under overpasses. That prediction, sadly, came to pass on 3 May 1999, when three people were killed (and many others sustained major injuries) while seeking shelter under overpasses in Oklahoma. It's my opinion that the airing of that video is clearly and directly responsible for those fatalities. Those fatalities (and others, likely to come) are the unintended consequences of journalists doing their jobs.

What concerns me most here is the enduring impression created by the many, many airings of that dramatic video. The very evident message of this video, whatever reasons may have motivated its creation and presentation, is the erroneous notion that taking shelter under an overpass provides safety from tornadoes. My NWS colleagues tell me they've learned that some people are leaving their homes to take shelter under overpasses! It seems that no matter how many times people say this is absolutely not the correct thing to do, the impact of that video overwhelms those spoken (or written) words -- it's the old saying about a picture is worth a thousand words. In this case, a video is apparently worth tens of thousands of words. The video lives on via YouTube, of course.

Of course, someone might say, "Well, those folks sheltering under the overpass survived! What's the problem?" It's likely the reporter and his cameraman were ignorant of the fact that they could easily have outrun the tornado and then driven off an exit, at right angles to its path to escape the tornado. There was no need for them to stop and wait for the tornado to roll nearly over them. It's likely the reporters were ignorant of the inappropriateness of using overpasses as shelter. They simply did what they thought was right -- and took advantage of an opportunity to create dramatic video that no doubt profited them and the KSNW-TV station. Note that the tornado didn't pass directly over the location of the survivors under the overpass. And the tornado wasn't particularly violent at the time (although no tornado, even an EF-0, should be taken lightly). The violent tornado winds of 3 May 1999 blew people out from under the overpasses where they were hiding. The survivors in that video are lucky to have escaped unharmed. Their choice put them in considerable danger. What was clear to us when we saw the video was that if many others emulated this behavior, eventually someone would die as a result. It took several years, but the anticipated resulting fatalities eventually happened. If dangerous behavior is repeated enough times, someone will pay the price with their lives. When individuals survive unharmed after doing something life-threatening, that doesn't mean that the behavior is not dangerous!

Whatever their intentions, the damage from airing this video has been done and it apparently will take decades to repair that damage. Perhaps we need to air equally compelling, dramatic video of mangled overpass tornado victims? If on-air meteorologists and media journalists want to reinforce the message of not using overpasses in this way, they absolutely should never air that video! Never again! We must work to get that video out of people's sight, and perpetuating it on YouTube is only adding to the problem. Words alone have been ineffective in stemming the tide of people using overpasses as tornado shelters. If you show that video and say "Don't do this!" your words are wasted -- the evidence they see with their eyes overrides your words.


Anonymous said...

I wouldn't worry about it. In this day and age, people will be too busy shooting tornado video with their iPhone for youtube. They won't have the time to seek shelter since ireporting is more important.

asarsalari said...

I would agree that leaving a home to take shelter under an overpass is a bad idea. But do you agree that there are some situations where it may be the best option given the circumstances? I would argue that the man in this video would probably be dead if he didn't seek shelter under the overpass:


Chuck Doswell said...

Asarsalari ... My thoughts are as follows: First of all, this guy was southbound, so he was "corepunching" the storm. Next, he couldn't figure if the tornado was headed towards him so he decided to hide under an overpass, apparently thereby driving into the path of the tornado. For reasons I don't understand, many people seem to find it difficult to determine which way a tornado is moving or whether they're in the path. His choice to seek an overpass for shelter was not a good choice because he drove into the path! A better choice would have been to not be in the path at all - it's in people's best interest (in tornado-prone areas) to figure out how to determine if they're in the path or not. When you're driving and apparently oblivious to the situation around you, as this guy seemed to be, there are no good options - only various poor options. It's at least possible that sometimes the least poor option could be to seek shelter under an overpass, but this is not such a situation, in my opinion. If people wish to survive an encounter with a tornado, they have to accept some responsibility to learn what to do.