SURVIVE THE STORM: Is it smart to drive to a storm shelter?

Published: Mar. 31, 2020 at 10:47 AM CDT
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Roughly 90% of all tornadoes are classified as weak—EF0 to EF1—with winds up to 110 mph.

Maps from show how relatively rare the strong or violent tornadoes are. But it is the rare ones that usually move slower, last longer, cause extreme destruction, and kill more people. Rightly, it’s those twisters that inspire the most fear—and make us think about a really safe place to be.

For decades, FEMA has offered federal money to cities, towns and schools to help build community storm shelters. And current standards are for these buildings to withstand winds of 250 mph—or the top end of EF5 strength.

But what about getting to one when a tornado is on the way?

“Well, FEMA’s standard is, if you can’t get to," said Greene County Emergency Manager Larry Woods. "if you have to leave your structure, your dwelling, and go to a shelter. if you can’t get there within five minutes then it’s best to just stay where you’re at and shelter-in-place.”

That’s about a one-mile distance. So, I decided to test it. I started about 7 tenths of a mile from a shelter about 5 p.m. on a weekday. I got stopped at a couple of lights, had moderate traffic, and had to weave through a couple neighborhoods to get to where I was going.

It took me just over five minutes to get to the parking lot. Then I had to find out if the door was open. It didn’t account for heavy traffic. What about storminess? If It’s already raining, hailing, the wind is blowing, I don’t want to be caught in it.

So, the bottom line is, it’s typically safer to stay where you are and seek shelter than it is to venture outside in a storm and try to get to a designated shelter.