Can Helmets Cut Tornado Deaths? CDC Isn't So Sure One year ago this week, powerful tornadoes killed more than 300 people in the Southeast. Experts now say that some tornado deaths could be prevented if people add one more step when taking cover: wear a helmet. But official guidelines from the CDC call for people to use their hands to protect their heads.
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Can Helmets Cut Tornado Deaths? CDC Isn't So Sure

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Can Helmets Cut Tornado Deaths? CDC Isn't So Sure

Can Helmets Cut Tornado Deaths? CDC Isn't So Sure

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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On a Friday, it's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. Renee Montagne is traveling soon to Afghanistan, and we'll hear her reports in the days ahead.

The 2012 tornado season is off to a deadly start. Already this year, twisters are blamed for the deaths of more than 60 people in the Midwest and the South. And the peak of the tornado season doesn't really begin until June. People in tornado zones know the routine. You hear the warning or the siren, and you head for cover. And now, experts are suggesting one more step that they say could prevent some deaths: wear a helmet. You see the effects and the experience of people who went through tornadoes one year ago this week.

Here's NPR's Russell Lewis.

RUSSELL LEWIS, BYLINE: Jonathan Stewart remembers very well the evening of April 27th, 2011.

JONATHAN STEWART: How far back do you go that day? It seemed like a normal day.

LEWIS: A normal day it was not. He'd rushed home just minutes before a half-mile-wide tornado swallowed up his neighborhood in Pleasant Grove, Alabama. Jonathan, his wife, adult daughter and eight-year-old son crowded into a tiny shower stall. It didn't take long for him to feel the house shift and become weightless, and then an explosion.

STEWART: I remember being sucked out of the house, and it was not being blown about. It was not walls blowing around. It was like a vacuum, and it sucked us out.

LEWIS: His family was gone. Lisa, his wife, peered up into the swirling sea of debris and saw her son Noah floating above the power lines. Here's how Noah remembers it.

NOAH STEWART: The wind just immediately stopped, and I was going down, head first, and then I think my helmet just cracked.

LEWIS: Noah had on a baseball helmet, the kind used in little league, with a strap and faceguard. He was the only member of his family wearing protective headgear, and you can tell in pictures taken that night. Noah's face was fine - just a few scratches. His parents looked beaten up. Noah had other injuries and went to Children's Hospital in Birmingham. Dr. Mark Baker was working in the emergency room that night. He says most of the 60 children treated for storm-related injuries suffered some sort of head trauma.

DR. MARK BAKER: Children's heads are relatively large compared to the rest of their body. So during a tornado, where they're thrown by the wind or an object is thrown into them or a building collapses, it is most frequently the head that is injured.

LEWIS: Baker says Noah's injuries weren't more severe because of that helmet. The hospital has even begun an outreach campaign.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Children's of Alabama and CBS 42 want to encourage you to make sure your child wears a helmet anytime a tornado threatens. With your help, we can reduce the chance of head injury because our most valuable loved ones are our kids.

LEWIS: And parents aren't just learning about helmet safety from television.

MELISSA FULTON: All right, is it on there good and tight?

LEWIS: At a recent minor league baseball game in Birmingham, safety advocates handed out free bicycle helmets to be used during severe weather. Alan and Melissa Fulton picked up three for their kids.

ALAN FULTON: And we didn't even think anything about it last year, and then we started hearing about how much safer things were once it happened and that you should wear them. And it's, like, we had it. It's, like, why didn't we do it? I don't know.

FULTON: It's a great idea, we just - it just never occurred to us.

LEWIS: One reason it might not have occurred to them is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is silent about that. The CDC website tells motorcyclists to wear helmets because they save lives. Ditto for bicyclists. But if a tornado approaches, the CDC recommends people use their hands to protect their heads.

For three months, we've tried to interview someone from the CDC, but the agency would only email a statement. It said: The scientific evidence from helmet use during tornadoes is inadequate to make a recommendation.

RUSS FINE: I think their silence is deafening, and I'm embarrassed for them - terribly embarrassed for them.

LEWIS: That's Russ Fine. His team at the Injury Control Research Center at the University of Alabama at Birmingham completed one of those scientific reports. It found many tornado deaths around the region last year could have been prevented if people had worn helmets. He doesn't understand why the CDC hasn't embraced the research.

FINE: Will it 100 percent absolutely, positively save your life? Probably not. But it's a whole lot better than having no helmet on, and that's a no-brainer.

LEWIS: Fine and other advocates say it may be like wearing seatbelts or quitting smoking, that sometimes it takes the government a while to tell people what's best to save their lives.

Russell Lewis, NPR News, Birmingham.

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