Storm Highway by Dan Robinson
Weather, photography and the open roadClick for an important message
Storm Highway by Dan RobinsonClick for an important message

MYTH: Highway overpasses are good tornado shelters.

By DAN ROBINSON
Editor/Photographer
Important Message 30 Years of Storm Chasing & Photography Dan's YouTube Video Channel Dan's Twitter feed Dan's RSS/XML feed

TRUTH: Highway overpasses are often one of the most dangerous places you can be in a tornado! You should never stop under an overpass to shelter from any severe weather (tornadoes, hail or high wind).

  • In tornadoes, it is flying debris that poses the greatest risk to the human body, so above-ground locations are the worst possible places to ride out a tornado. Any impact from airborne debris can inflict serious and fatal trauma. At tornadic wind speeds, the air is filled with tiny particles like dirt and gravel that can literally sandblast off clothing and skin. Most overpasses provide little to no shelter from these hazards, and even one with girders may not allow you to get your entire body out of that debris-filled airflow.
  • Tornadic winds can be faster under an overpass. Wind speeds increase the higher above the ground you go. Climbing up bridge abutments can place you in faster airflow than you would experience near the ground.
  • Stopping on high-speed roadways creates an accident risk that can be more dangerous then the tornado itself. It's common for highways to be shut down completely by people stopping to take shelter from severe storms, helplessly trapping everyone else on the road and blocking emergency responders.

This overpass on I-135 near Salina, Kansas is like most in that there is no protection from debris-filled tornadic winds.

Sheltering under overpasses was popularized by a famous tornado video shot on the Kansas Turnpike (Interstate 35) on April 26, 1991 northeast of Wichita. In that video, the cameraman and his driver believe that the tornado is catching up to them, so they choose to stop under an overpass on the highway along with several other motorists. They survived the encounter, but only because the tornado did not strike the overpass directly - it passed close by to their south. Since that video aired, multiple people have been injured and killed sheltering underneath highway overpasses. The most notorious example of this was on May 3, 1999 in Newcastle, Oklahoma when an F5 tornado swept over an overpass where people had taken shelter [1].

READ: More Weather Myths | Weather Library Home

Storm chaser and photographer Dan Robinson
About the Author: Dan Robinson has been a storm chaser, photographer and cameraman for 30 years. His career has involved traveling around the country covering the most extreme weather on the planet including tornadoes, hurricanes, lightning, floods and winter storms. Dan has been extensively published in newspapers, magazines, web articles and more, and has both supplied footage for and appeared in numerous television productions and newscasts. He has also been involved in the research community, providing material for published scientific journal papers on tornadoes and lightning. Dan also holds an active Remote Pilot Certificate from the FAA (Part 107) for commercial drone operation.

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