April 10, 1979 Wichita Falls TX Tornado and Highway Safety

One of the most memorable tornado events during the time I was growing up in Roanoke came on 4/10/79 as a 1.5 mile wide tornado tore through Wichita Falls Texas.  I remember seeing pictures and film of this tornado through the years, and it has always remained one that fascinates me to this day.  It was the subject of an early documentary on tornadoes and tornado safety, and that documentary was perhaps the first video to plant the seed that highway overpasses are safe shelter during a tornado.  While not included as a safety rule, a man interviewed in the film took shelter under an overpass (which was not hit by the tornado) and survived, while his abandoned car was eventually found totally destroyed over 1/4 of a mile away in a muddy field.  Further seeds were sown after the Andover KS tornado day in 1991 which showed a TV film crew seeking shelter under an overpass on the Kansas Turnpike north of Wichita as a tornado raced by (again, the overpass did not endure a direct hit, and this tornado was not of the same caliber as the Wichita Falls storm).  This video was shown repeatedly over the years, and it seemed to instill the thought that highway overpasses were indeed safe havens from tornadic winds on the open road.  We know that is NOT the case, and May 3, 1999 proved it, as people sought shelter under overpasses near Oklahoma City.  Many were horribly maimed and others killed as more than one overpass took a direct hit.

 

 

 

 

Photo: as we race by toward a storm, cars crowd under an overpass near Lubbock TX ten years ago on a VT storm chase.

History teaches us many things, and if we heed the lessons we learn we will be far wiser for it.  Highway overpasses are not acceptable options for safety, and those that continue with this practice may indeed endanger others as abandoned cars form bottlenecks and prevent escape from an approaching storm.  Twenty-five people died in their cars attempting to flee the Wichita Falls tornado, emphasizing the vulnerable situation when facing a tornado in a vehicle.  For the storm chase crew each year, we stress safety above everything else…our time in the plains is a round-trip ticket, and we must realize that by default we are in a vulnerable position on the road and we must make wise decisions in the near-storm environment.  Being close to the action is great, as long as a viable escape route is readily available (and accessible!).  With that in mind, we will keep our eyes on the road (as our greatest danger on the road comes from other vehicles, etc. and not the tornadoes!) as you keep an eye on  the sky.

Just over a month to departure.

-Dave

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