How to survive a tornado

Suzi Starheim

Storm chaser’s research changes safety guidelines

Thomas Schmidlin, a professor of geography, stands by his collection of weather-themed vanity plates in his office in Moulton Hall. He says they combine profession with hobby. Brittany Ankrom | Summer Kent Stater

Credit: DKS Editors

After more than four years of research, a Kent State professor said he may have found a way to save more lives during tornadoes.

Thomas Schmidlin, a Kent State professor for 24 years in the school of geography, said his research interests are climatology, natural hazards and severe weather. His recent work focuses on tornado hazards, especially the risk of death to people in mobile homes and vehicles.

Listen to Schmidlin discuss his tornado research.

“I have always been interested in storms my whole life,” Schmidlin said, “and I had done some reporting work on tornadoes in Ohio.”

Schmidlin used quick-response grants he received to research tornadoes and victims of the severe wind storms.

“We’ve done a lot of similar work focusing on saving lives in tornadoes and that focus has been on mobile homes,” Schmidlin said. “What we don’t know is what mobile home residents do when a warning is issued; we don’t know what shelter options they have.”

Schmidlin said the majority of fatalities during tornado storms are those who live in mobile homes.

“We began seeing that cars or pickups were often sitting upright yet with some damage, but not flipped over where people died in mobile homes which were rolled into the woods,” he said.

Because of the lack of information on mobile home residents’ options when a warning is issued, Schmidlin, along with graduate students Barbara Hammer and Yuichi Ono, and a friend, Paul King, began a door-to-door survey of mobile home residents across the country after tornado warnings had been issued.

Schmidlin and his crew surveyed 401 mobile home residents of Georgia, Mississippi, Illinois and Oklahoma. He said the results were surprising, as 69 percent of mobile home residents said they did not seek shelter during a tornado warning.

“If we are going to tell people to do something it has to be possible for them to do it, and then if they’re not doing it, why not?,” said Schmidlin.

Schmidlin, Hammer, Ono and King also studied the resistance of motor vehicles to tornado-strength winds in a wind tunnel at Wichita State University and found that motor vehicles can stand up to tornado-strength winds much better than most mobile homes.

“It seems like people in mobile homes were better off in their cars,” Schmidlin said.

The Red Cross’ new tornado policy:

• If you are caught outdoors, seek shelter in a basement, shelter, or sturdy building. If you cannot get to shelter, the American Red Cross now suggests doing the following:

• Get into a vehicle, buckle your seat belt and try to drive at right angles to the storm movement and out of the path of the tornado.

• If strong winds and flying debris occur while you are driving, pull over and park, keeping seat belts on and the engine running. Crouch down below the windows, covering your head with your hands and a blanket if possible.

• If you are unable to get to a building or vehicle, as a last resort, lie in a ditch or depression and cover your head with your hands.

Source: The American Red Cross

The tests in the wind tunnel focused on sedans and minivans and were conducted to find which direction a vehicle would flip most easily and at what wind speed it would flip.

Their study found that the Red Cross’ original policy, which was to get out of a vehicle and into a low-lying ditch during a tornado, seemed less safe than staying in a motor vehicle.

Schmidlin said while he had been recommending a policy change for some time, the Red Cross did not adopt his policy until 2007.

At the time when Schmidlin’s policy was handed to the Red Cross, the organization was reviewing all of its safety recommendations, evaluating whether they were based on science.

“What led them to change, I think, was that here was some research that made recommendations,” Schmidlin said. “They wanted to switch to something that was backed by research.”

Schmidlin said while the weather service currently wants to keep the policy the same as it has been in the past, he feels they are considering the changes made by the Red Cross.

“My impression is probably that the weather service will come around,” said Schmidlin . “They said they still want more research on this before they will change.”

Contact news correspondent Suzi Starheim at [email protected].