American Tornado Preparedness Has History Of 'Bad Advice'

In light of the recent tornadoes that devastated Oklahoma, guest host Wade Goodwyn talks to author Lee Sandlin about the myths and practices of tornado preparedness over the decades. Sandlin is the author of Storm Kinds: The Untold History of America's First Tornado Chasers.

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Coming up, the strange history of tornado preparedness. Why exactly did they tell us to hide in the southwest corner of the basement? This is NPR News.

We just heard the latest about the tornadoes that ripped through Oklahoma City yesterday and how people tried to escape. To know more about all the different ways we've tried to prepare for tornadoes over the years, I spoke with author Lee Sandlin. He wrote "Storm Kings: The Untold History of America's First Tornado Chasers." Sandlin says Americans first witnessed tornadoes in the 1600s but didn't really understand what they were seeing until much later.

LEE SANDLIN: The history of tornadoes is essentially several hundred years of bad advice about what to do about tornadoes. So there was very little practical wisdom built up even over the period of several hundred years. So in the 19th century, they believed that the best thing that you could do if a tornado was approaching was open the windows of your house to equalize the air pressure, because they thought that there was a vacuum at the core of the funnel that made houses explode, and also to hide in the southwest corner of the basement because it was the most secure place. Those ideas are both entirely wrong. They're complete nonsense, but they had persisted for more than a century.

GOODWYN: I don't get the hide in a corner - southwest corner. What was that about?

SANDLIN: Well, their theory was that since tornadoes mostly were observed moving from southwest to northeast, that if you took refuge in the southwest corner, that if the tornado hit your house full on, that would offer more of a chance of shelter. There's no reason on earth to believe that's true. It was just kind of a nice idea. But it persisted for a long while.

GOODWYN: What kinds of bad advice did we pass along besides windows and corners of basements?

SANDLIN: Well, there's some things you still hear that go back to the Native Americans. Among them that the best place to build shelter is at the junction of rivers because the Native Americans told the white settlers tornadoes don't cross rivers, which is entirely false. Junction of rivers did not matter in St. Louis, for instance. They had major tornadoes in the 19th century. But you still hear that.

There's a dangerous one now that if you're in the open country, the best place to take shelter is in - under a freeway overpass, which is actually the worst possible place to take shelter in the open country because the overpass can act like a wind tunnel. You're much better off trying to find a ditch or a depression in the ground in lying flat and trying to ride out the storm that way.

GOODWYN: What is your best advice?

SANDLIN: If you were in a house, the best place to look for is a windowless interior room. Bathrooms are also extremely good personally because the windows tend to be small, and also because the piping that surrounds a bathroom gives you that much more protection. Get into a tub and pull like a mattress over you. You have a much stronger sense of survival.

One of the things I've discovered in the last few years is that almost all the deaths caused by tornadoes, the specific cause is flying debris. So you want to find some place where you are as much as possible out of the direct path of the wind. Basements are good, but a lot of that depends on basement design.

As we saw in Moore that a really strong tornado can just tear an entire house apart. And even if you're in the basement, you can suddenly find yourself with the rest of the house gone and you're just exposed to the elements there.

GOODWYN: We've been talking with Lee Sandlin, author of "Storm Kings: The Untold Story of America's First Storm Chasers." Mr. Sandlin, thank you so much.

SANDLIN: Oh, it's been my pleasure.

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