Tornado survivor Jonathan Ford saves what he can from his home April 29, 2011, after it was destroyed by a powerful tornado in Pleasant Grove, Ala.
Tornado survivor Jonathan Ford saves what he can from his home April 29, 2011, after it was destroyed by a powerful tornado in Pleasant Grove, Ala. John Bazemore/AP
Months after safety advocates embraced wearing helmets during tornadoes — the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued guidelines on the practice. The CDC says there's not yet enough scientific evidence to fully endorse the idea. But the agency is warming up to people donning helmets when severe weather threatens.
Since a horrific outbreak of tornadoes killed more than 250 people last year in Alabama, safety advocates have been on a crusade.
At a recent minor league baseball game in Birmingham, advocates handed out dozens of free bicycle helmets. But they weren't for play. They're to be used during tornadoes. Experts say several adults and children who wore helmets during last year's storms were saved because of them.
Event organizer Renee Crook says when people choose to live in weather-prone areas, they need to be ready. "Preparedness is what we're preaching. Preparedness. It's all about being prepared. Our motto or our slogan is, 'Don't be scared. Be prepared. Make a helmet part of your safety plan.' "
Up until this month, the idea of making a helmet part of a tornado safety plan was not something government health officials ever talked about publicly — although many people die in tornadoes from head injuries.
"What we're concerned about is that people might spend time looking for a helmet rather than seeking appropriate shelter and finding the safest place to be during a tornado," says Linda Degutis, director of the CDC's National Center for Injury Prevention.
After a report broadcast on NPR, the CDC is now talking about helmets and advising people on how to make them part of their safety plan. Even still, there's not enough research on the issue, Degutis says.
"Since we don't have the evidence that demonstrates whether helmets are effective or if they are effective, what kind of helmet would be effective ... people may not be protecting themselves as much as they might think they are," she says.
Some of the research is happening now in Alabama. One study is about to be published in a peer-reviewed medical journal. Doctors at the hospital Children's of Alabama say of the 60 patients they treated for storm-related injuries on April 27, 2011, two-thirds had head trauma. Mark Baker co-authored the study and says it's the first step to provide evidence to other medical experts about the benefits of wearing helmets.
"We'll start to see changes in family preparedness for severe storms and tornadoes over the course of several years," Baker says. "And the events over the last year I think have gone a long way toward increasing awareness and improving public safety."
Baker applauds the CDC for clarifying its position. He says it took years for people to start wearing seat belts and it may take time for helmets to catch on.
The CDC's Degutis cautions helmets don't provide total protection. "You know, there's a number of kinds of injuries that people can suffer in tornadoes from flying debris, from being thrown around, from being hit by something or thrown into something. So there certainly are other parts of the body that can be injured besides the head."
Still, for safety advocates like Renee Crook, wearing a helmet in severe weather just makes sense. She's continuing her campaign to hand out helmets across Alabama and raise awareness in hopes people can be safer the next time tornadoes threaten the state.