Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

June 1, 2013

Unthinking habit is among our top threats

Filed under: Preparedness and Response,Risk Assessment — by Philip J. Palin on June 1, 2013

On Friday evening another series of tornadoes touched down near Oklahoma City.  They descended on the metropolitan area during the rush hour in the midst of heavy rains that complicated tornado identification and caused significant flooding.

The worst threat emerged between about 6:30 and 7:00PM Central Time.  According to CNN:

The Oklahoma Highway Patrol says a mother and child were killed as tornadoes moved through Oklahoma City. Highway Patrol Trooper Betsy Randolph says troopers found the bodies near a vehicle along Interstate 40 west of the city.
 
Parts of Interstates 35 and 40, which cut through Oklahoma City and Moore, were “a parking lot,” the weather service said, warning that those caught in the heavy rush hour traffic “are in danger.”

“We’ve got a nightmare situation going on right now,” Betsy Randolph, a state Highway Patrol spokeswoman, told CNN.

“They are essentially sitting ducks on the interstate.”

Overturned big rigs and cars littered portions of the roadway, and thousands more were believed to be stuck in the traffic.

“My biggest concern right now is the traffic that is out on the highway right now,” Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin said.

She said she has called out the National Guard, the Oklahoma Highway Patrol and the state Office of Emergency Management to “try to get the traffic moving” and get people to shelter.

As of Saturday morning I am mostly reading and hearing echoes of this Friday evening report.  More details are needed.  But there is a strong suggestion that even among the storm-sophisticated citizens of central Oklahoma there was a readiness to risk a “regular commute” in the midst of a tornado watch/warning and observable heavy rain.

The decision to stay or go is at the core of an effective emergency response.  For the vast majority of threats the better decision is to stay.  But a wide range of habits — from fire drills, to hurricane evacuations, to the daily commute — push us to go… sometimes directly into harms way.

LATE BREAKING: Please access the comments and many thanks to Mr. Rob Dale for very helpful additional information.

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17 Comments »

Comment by Rob Dale

June 1, 2013 @ 7:46 am

Several media outlets specifically told people without an underground shelter that they wouldn’t survive and should drive south to safety. All scientifically proven wrong, but those claims make for good tv! And they probably prompted many to take flight.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

June 1, 2013 @ 7:59 am

Mr. Dale: Thanks very much. Can you provide some links to the media “instructions”? This could be a very helpful case study to mitigate/prevent future harm.

Comment by Rob Dale

June 1, 2013 @ 9:21 am

This blog actually came about from a related issue with the Moore tornado which addresses some of it. http://www.livingontherealworld.org/?p=899

You can do a Twitter search on Mike Morgan as KFOR was the primary culprit and it’s quite apparent the topic is controversial, but The Weather Channel also chimed in. I expect recordings will be on YouTube soon if not already.

Comment by Rob Dale

June 1, 2013 @ 9:24 am

And it’s up! Right around the 3 minute mark. Moore was safe at that time, but a new tornado warning was issued that included them shortly after people took his advice. http://youtu.be/dX7uzdfktB4

Comment by Philip J. Palin

June 1, 2013 @ 9:46 am

Mr. Dale: Thanks and… Wow. Tornadoes are not my expertise, but I have never heard — and find it hard to conceive — of an evacuation instruction making sense in a dense urban area after the tornado has been sighted. I look forward to those with more experience and considered judgment helping us learn from this event… and the messaging related to it.

Readers, please check out the blog link that Mr. Dale provided in his second comment. A serious discussion is well-underway there.

Comment by Rob Dale

June 1, 2013 @ 10:47 am

The issue comes from those in an absolutely unsafe place without any sort of shelter — I.e. a mobile home. Peer reviewed research shows there is value in getting them to drive away. However the problem comes in communicating that while stressing to the 99% of the rest of the population to stay In their homes. A special session is going to be held at the AMS Broadcast conference later this month to discuss.

Comment by William R. Cumming

June 1, 2013 @ 12:44 pm

I am confused! msm BIT Public Officals ordered an evacuation of those on the highway after tornado sighted?

Comment by William R. Cumming

June 1, 2013 @ 12:45 pm

Correction: MSM not Public officials ordered the evacuation from major highways after sighting of the tornado?

Comment by Philip J. Palin

June 1, 2013 @ 1:02 pm

Bill: Many — too many — Oklahoma City residents were on major highways, including I-40, during a period when especially serious watches/warnings had been announced. They were, in the words of one “sitting ducks”. It has been suggested that at least some of those on I-40 were there at the urging of local media… as exemplified in the YouTube link. There are serious suggestions by some that evacuation is now an option for those in the direct path of a tornado who do not have access to reasonable protective shelter.

All sorts of issues at play here, and I will admit deep skepticism regarding the evacuation strategy.

Comment by Rob Dale

June 1, 2013 @ 2:22 pm

A variety of studies show there is value if 1) you absolutely have no safe place, 2) there is ample warning, and 3) the roadways support evacuating.

http://www.bama.ua.edu/~jcsenkbeil/gy4570/schmidlin%20et%20el.%202009.pdf

However in this case, 1) most of the evacuees probably had safe shelter (read Brooks’ blog for links to studies regarding the OKC F5 deaths in 1999), 2) there was ample warning to start the evacuation but 3) in a large city, at rush hour on Friday, the roadways did not support evacuation.

Comment by William R. Cumming

June 1, 2013 @ 2:34 pm

Thanks Phil and Rob!

Comment by Philip J. Palin

June 1, 2013 @ 4:44 pm

This issue is the lead story on NPR’s All Things Considered Saturday. Here’s the podcast: No universal best practice to save yourself from tornadoes

Rob Dale’s last comment is a good summary of the NPR report’s general angle. It was suggested many successfully evacuated Moore reducing injuries and deaths, and promoting the strategy. All nine who died in Friday’s storms were in vehicles at the time the tornado hit.

Population density is a key factor in most risks. Flexibility is key to many effective response strategies. Using a controlled-access highway to evacuate an urban area during a Friday evening rush hour in the midst of flooding rains is a risk-multiplier. It also strikes me as a response strategy where a more thoughtful preparedness strategy is what’s really needed. A non-linear threat needs a less linear solution.

Comment by William R. Cumming

June 1, 2013 @ 11:35 pm

Dday by daythe population density makes evacuation more and more limited for a Protective Action that already leaves out the transportation dependent. Time factors will always limit its application in fast breaking events such as tornados.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

June 2, 2013 @ 3:05 am

A CBS News report on our topic (the NPR report was more balanced, but I can’t just cut-and-paste from a transcript):

Many Oklahomans… opted to flee Friday night when a violent tornado developed and headed toward the state’s capital city.

It was a dangerous decision to make.

Interstates and roadways already packed with rush-hour traffic quickly became parking lots as people tried to escape the oncoming storm. Motorists were trapped in their vehicles — a place emergency officials say is one of the worst to be in a tornado.

“It was chaos. People were going southbound in the northbound lanes. Everybody was running for their lives,” said Terri Black, 51, a teacher’s assistant in Moore.

After seeing last month’s tornado also turn homes into piles of splintered rubble, Black said she decided to try and outrun the tornado when she learned her southwest Oklahoma City home was in harm’s way. She quickly regretted it.

When she realized she was a sitting duck in bumper-to-bumper traffic, Black turned around and found herself directly in the path of the most violent part of the storm.

“My car was actually lifted off the road and then set back down,” Black said. “The trees were leaning literally to the ground. The rain was coming down horizontally in front of my car. Big blue trash cans were being tossed around like a piece of paper in the wind.

“I’ll never do it again.”

Oklahoma Highway Patrol Trooper Betsy Randolph said the roadways were quickly congested with the convergence of rush-hour traffic and fleeing residents.

“They had no place to go, and that’s always a bad thing. They were essentially targets just waiting for a tornado to touch down,” Randolph said. “I’m not sure why people do that sort of stuff, but it is very dangerous. It not only puts them in harm’s way, but it adds to the congestion. It really is a bad idea for folks to do.”

At least nine people were killed in Friday’s storms, including a mother and her baby sucked out of their car as a deadly twister tore its way along a packed Interstate 40 near the town of El Reno, about 30 miles from Oklahoma City.

Comment by Christopher Tingus

June 3, 2013 @ 7:18 am

Anyone in the Oklahoma area who does not have access to storm shelter or safe room is out of touch with reality….how absurd to watch the weather channel and see traffic tied up so and a tornado on the ground as all know the perils of riding a tornado out sitting in a car….No media outlet or announcer other than weather and governing officials should be advising folks. Again, the heightened percentages of having a tornado in the area were significant and it is time that low interest loans are now made available through FEMA and whomever else capable to enable folks to have a safe room or shelter attached or underground.

While any one loss of Life is far too many, given the traffic jam and the inability other than radar to show exactly where these tornadoes were on the ground should have prompted folks to find shelter as soon as a tornado was sighted on the ground and the death and injury toll could of been far much more horrific if one of these tornados came roaring up the highway which was bumper to bumper –

To the Governor and other administrative officials of Oklahoma, a more specific awareness must be conveyed as to emergency preparedness for no one should be in their vehicle, but rather getting out of the car and laying in a low spot far away from their car….all must stay alert and be attentive to officials.

Comment by William R. Cumming

June 3, 2013 @ 7:58 am

IMO if in an auto and tornado approaching with no ability to drive away from path the best step is to get out of the auto and lie flat in nearest deep ditch.

Am I wrong?

Comment by William R. Cumming

June 4, 2013 @ 8:58 am

MSM now reporting 18 dead in this tragedy!

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