There are many widely held beliefs about the activity of tornadoes and ways to stay safe, but many of those beliefs are misconceptions.
Play along in our Tornadoes: Myth or Fact? quiz below to see how much you know, and so you can be better prepared when a severe storm hits. (All information courtesy NOAA.gov)
1. Myth or Fact? Tornadoes don't hit big cities.
2. Myth or Fact? My city doesn't get tornadoes because it is protected by a river.
3. Myth or Fact? Tornadoes don't happen in the mountains.
4. Myth or Fact? Tornadoes have picked people and items up, carried them some distance and then set them down without injury or damage.
Next page: Answers 1-4
1. MYTH: Tornadoes have hit several large cities, including Dallas, Oklahoma City, Wichita Falls, St. Louis, Miami, and Salt Lake City. In fact, an urban tornado will have a lot more debris to toss around than a rural twister.
A tornado approaches Dallas, Texas in April 1957 (Courtesy NOAA.gov)
2. MYTH: Many tornadoes have crossed rivers and even gone on to cause widespread damage to riverside cities. For example, the Nachez, Mississippi tornado of 1840 tracked directly down the Mississippi River, killing hundreds, mostly on the water. Others have crossed large rivers without losing speed (they momentarily became water spouts) and devastated cities that folklore had thought immune to tornadoes. An example was the Waco, Texas tornado of 1953 that crossed the Brazos River, or the Great St. Louis Cyclone of 1896 that jumped the Mississippi River.
3. MYTH: Tornadoes do occur in the mountains. Damage from an F3 tornado was documented above 10,000 feet, and a hiker in the mountains of Utah photographed a weak tornado in the mountains.
4. FACT: People and animals have been transported up to a quarter mile or more without serious injury. Fragile items, such as sets of fine china, or glass-ware have been blown from houses and recovered miles away without any damage. However, given the quantity of airborne debris, these occurrences are the exception, rather than the norm.
Next page: Questions 5-8
5. Myth or Fact? Hiding under a freeway overpass will protect me from a tornado.
6. Myth or Fact? I can outrun a tornado, especially in a vehicle.
7. Myth or Fact? Tornadoes are more likely to hit a mobile home park.
8. Myth or Fact? Strong, sturdy brick or stone buildings will protect me from a tornado.
Next page: Answers 5-8
5. MYTH: While the concrete and re-bar in the bridge may offer some protection against flying debris, the overpass also acts as a wind tunnel and may actually serve to collect debris. When you abandon your vehicle at the overpass and climb up the sides, you are doing two things that are hazardous. First, you are blocking the roadway with your vehicle. When the tornado turns all the parked vehicles into a mangled, twisted ball and wedges them under the overpass, how will emergency vehicles get through? Second, the winds in a tornado tend to be faster with height. By climbing up off the ground, you place yourself in even greater danger from the tornado and flying debris. When coupled with the accelerated winds due to the wind tunnel (Venturi Effect), these winds can easily exceed 300 mph. Unfortunately, at least three people hiding under underpasses during tornadoes have been killed in the past, and dozens have been injured by flying debris. If you realize you won't be able to outrun an approaching tornado, you are much safer to abandon your vehicle, and take shelter in a road-side ditch or other low spot. Note: If a highway overpass is your only shelter option, only consider it if the overpass has sturdy roadway supports, next to which (at ground level) you can take shelter. Avoid the smooth concrete, support-less spans at all costs.
6. MYTH: Tornadoes can move at up to 70 mph or more and shift directions erratically and without warning. It is unwise to try to out-race a tornado. It is better to abandon your vehicle and seek shelter immediately.
7. MYTH: Not so. It just seems that way for two reasons. First, mobile home parks are a ubiquitous part of our landscape. There are tens of thousands of mobile homes in Tornado Alley, so there is a pretty good likelihood that some of them will be in the path of a tornado. Unfortunately, the second factor is that mobile homes offer little to no protection against even the weakest tornadoes, so when a tornado does strike a mobile home park, the damage is more likely to be significant. Winds that would only lift some shingles on a frame house can easily flip a mobile home.
8. MYTH: While such buildings will provide more protection in a tornado than a mobile home or timber frame structure, the winds of a tornado can easily launch a 2x4 through a brick wall, and can cause even the sturdiest of buildings to experience roof or wall failure.
Next page: Questions 9-14
9. Myth or Fact? There can be higher than EF5 tornadoes.
10. Myth or Fact? To keep from being sucked into the tornado, I can tie myself to a well pipe, just like they did in the movie "Twister".
11. Myth or Fact? A tornado can drive a straw through a telephone pole.
12. Myth or Fact? When confronted by a Tornado Warning, you should open all the windows in your house to equalize the pressure.
13. Myth or Fact? Tornadoes do not occur in the middle of the night or during the winter.
14. Myth or Fact? A tornado will not come directly at me, I am safe.
Next page: Answers 9-14
9. FACT: The Fujita Tornado Damage Intensity Scale actually goes up to F12! The F12 level only begins at wind speeds exceeding Mach 1.0 (or around 738 mph at -3°C), so the probability of a tornado having winds of this speed is small. Could a tornado be an F6? Yes, however, the Fujita scale is based on wind speeds that are estimated from the damage the tornado produced (because no one has been able to stick an anemometer into a tornado to measure the actual wind speeds). Since the winds of an F5 tornado (up to 319 mph) are sufficient to completely destroy just about everything in its path, an F6 really wouldn't do much more damage than that, and therefore could not be definitively labeled as an F6. When accurate measurements of wind speed inside an extreme tornado are eventually obtained, it is not impossible that they may exceed 319 mph.
10. MYTH: While it is unlikely that a tornado will dislodge a deeply buried pipe, the rope you tie around yourself is more likely to act as a combination tetherball and cheese slicer. Lighter winds will likely cause you to be whipped around at the end of the rope, banging against anything within the radius of the rope. Stronger winds inside the tornado are just as likely to pull your body from the rope (and possibly not in one piece).
11. FACT: The forces inside a tornado are incredible, and still poorly understood. But they are certainly strong enough to turn otherwise harmless items into deadly missiles.
Anything can become a deadline projectile(Courtesy NOAA.gov)
12. MYTH: This just wastes valuable time. Don't worry about equalizing the pressure, the roof ripping off and the pickup truck smashing through the front wall will equalize the pressure for you.
13. MYTH: Although the likelihood is lower at night and during colder months, tornadoes have caused death and destruction during these times of day and year. Violent tornadoes, while very unlikely during the winter months do occur like in the Tri-State on March 2, and they do occasionally occur at night. When severe weather is forecast, ensure your NOAA weather radio is on and working properly before you go to bed.
14. MYTH: Tornadoes have been known to act erratically, often changing directions quickly. Sturdy shelter is the only safe place to be during a tornado. Although it may be tempting to follow a tornado to get a cool photo, please leave the tornado chasing to trained meteorologists.