Help me get through Kansas in one piece.
April 30, 2010 3:45 AM   Subscribe

I will be driving through Kansas for the first time soon, at the peak of tornado season, and tornadoes really frighten me. What should I know, bring or do to be prepared for them?

I am an East Coast, city person, and am completely ignorant about tornado safety when on the highway.

I have read a lot of conflicting information about whether you should try to drive away at a right angle to the tornado if you can, or whether it's best to just get out of your car right then and lie down in a ditch if you are not near shelter. Which is best?

Does lying down in a ditch really do anything to keep you safe? I'd think it would be easier for you to be picked up and thrown around by wind that way, or get hit by something, than staying in the car. I also do not think I have the mental fortitude to calmly lie there completely exposed and watch the tornado bear down on me. Plus, I would have to get my dog to lie there too, which would be difficult.

Are there public shelters along the road? Are there signs for them, or should I find out in advance where they are? Do they allow dogs? If I were out in the country and the only thing nearby was someone's home, would it be normal to stop and ask if I could shelter there, or is this not done?

How comprehensive is coverage by the radio weather news and by warning sirens? Again, concerned about how well in advance I'd be notified if I were out in the middle of nowhere.

Is there any reliable way for judging how fast away a tornado is and how quickly it is moving?

One big concerns is that I would be traveling with my large, heavy, arthritic, and stubborn dog, and it is difficult and takes time for me to move him in and out of a car, and I would have to get him into wherever I was waiting out the storm.

Please give me all your tips.
posted by Ashley801 to Science & Nature (34 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
From the National Weather Service.
posted by availablelight at 4:10 AM on April 30, 2010

(The most interesting link from that page? Don't try to shelter under overpasses.)
posted by availablelight at 4:12 AM on April 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

One thing you should know is that even in the peak of tornado season in the most tornado-prone parts of the country, they're still relatively rare (compared to, say, thunderstorms, or car accidents). There's an excellent chance you won't be anywhere near one.

This is not to say, of course, that you shouldn't be prepared, but I hope it will ease your mind a little.
posted by box at 4:17 AM on April 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

The chances of actually you encountering a tornado are probably pretty slim! But as another paranoid former East Coast city person, who was once trapped for hours in a highway rest stop in Paducah, KY, because of tornadoes in the area, I'll say this. If you want to hear the warnings, keep your radio on in the car. If it emits a terrifying bleeping sound, that's the warning. It will be followed by instructions (just like those "tests" on the radio say they will be.) They will tell you where the tornado is or might be heading, and to get inside. (The scariest thing, to me, was when it said "Get inside a building. If there is no building, take shelter in a ditch." Not scary because of the tornado, but scary because how can there be a place with no buildings?!) Also, get a map with counties marked on it. If there's a tornado watch/warning, it will say something like "The tornado is moving Northeast through Jefferson County, and should reach Madison County in 10 minutes." Not fun when you have no freaking clue what county you're in.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 4:38 AM on April 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

You should make sure to listen to the radio if the weather looks poor or odd. That way if you are outside of a city then you will know that a tornado is happening.

Tornadoes don't just spring up out of nowhere, typically the weather station will already have let you know that it is tornado weather (cold fronts and hot fronts colliding, i think) and you can stop in a town for the evening if you wish.

You should also know what county you are in. The weather service will tell you if there is a tornado watch or warning in your county. A tornado watch is when the conditions are right for a tornado. They just mean that you should stay alert. People in Kansas will usually just go about their daily business in this case. A tornado warning means that a tornado has been spotted. This is when it is time to seek shelter.

As for seeking shelter along the road, I would look for stores first. If you are inside a store when the tornado sirens go off you will be asked to take shelter in a room that has no windows or a basement if they have one. Many towns have public shelters, but you would probably have to ask someone local where it was, I would personally just go to a store.

If you were in the middle of the country, well, I wouldn't knock on someone's door unless I thought a tornado was baring down on me. If I did I would probably knock and ask where the closest tornado shelter was and let them offer to let me use their basement. I don't know that I would lie down in a ditch either and I don't know anyone that has done that, for all the NWS talks.
posted by aetg at 4:44 AM on April 30, 2010

Yeah, it's extremely unlikely that someone just driving through will actually encounter a tornado - like, certainly less likely than a bear going through your camp in a national park.

That said, western Kansas? First time I drove through there, I had to keep the steering wheel cocked about five degrees off center to counter the crosswind. I thought it remarkable and said so to the next gas station attendant. His response? "Actually, today's pretty calm." So don't be scared of straighline crosswinds. Unless you're like, driving a box truck or a bike with disk wheels.
posted by notsnot at 4:46 AM on April 30, 2010

Let me be another voice of reassurance. I've lived in Tornado Alley my entire life--three decades--and have never seen a tornado with my own eyes. I've hidden in the basement several times and heard the sirens, but actually being hit by one is kind of like getting stung to death by bees.

It's very important to keep on top of the weather report and to know what to do during a warning, but nothing to get overly anxious about.
posted by TrialByMedia at 5:36 AM on April 30, 2010 [5 favorites]

As for the Kansas winds:
If you crack the driver's side window a little, you can hear when the wind gets stronger and turn into it before your car starts drifting.
If you pass a truck that blocks the wind and don't correct for the wind's absence, it will seem that the truck is sucking you toward itself.
posted by hexatron at 5:45 AM on April 30, 2010

Does lying down in a ditch really do anything to keep you safe?

From people shooting at you? Sure. From a tornado? Fuck no.

The things that can kill you in a tornado are, in rough order of most-likely to least-likely, are:
  1. Not paying attention to the road and getting into an accident
  2. Other cars not paying attention to the road and getting you into an accident
  3. A structure collapsing on you
  4. Getting electrocuted by a downed power line
  5. Flying debris
  6. Getting picked up like a rag doll and tossed a thousand feet into the air.
The things most people are worried about are generally least-likely to happen. People get themselves killed in tornadoes more often than tornadoes kill people.

Also, they almost never form over major population centers. Yes, it happens, yes, there's plenty of dramatic YouTube footage if you want contrarian proof, but 9 times out of 10, it'll be over the middle of a farm somewhere in East Bumfuck (population twelve). There are experienced meteorologists ("storm chasers") that have active radar access in their reinforced SUVs that try and pinpoint the precise place they need to be to videotape a funnel, and they still go home empty a lot of the time.

Anyway, the general rule of thumb is to stay southwest of the storm (tornadoes usually move from SW to NE) with as much reinforced concrete around you as possible. That generally means a basement or a school or some other large municipal building. Saving that, stay in your car and head south or west, pulling over if weather conditions rapidly deteriorate. Overpasses get a bad rap because they don't provide nearly as much protection from flying debris as you'd like to hope. I'd still rather take my chances under an overpass than in an open field. Just don't leave your car in the middle of the road (see points #1 and #2).

Are there public shelters along the road? Are there signs for them, or should I find out in advance where they are?

No, not really. Head for the center of town, whatever town is closest. In most of the places where you have any real likelihood of seeing a tornado, the town will probably consist of 50 structures. Schools are always a good bet, and usually easy to find on a map.

Do they allow dogs?

If they didn't there'd be shootin'.

If I were out in the country and the only thing nearby was someone's home, would it be normal to stop and ask if I could shelter there, or is this not done?

Again, considering where you're talking about, I'd say most likely you could. People in the midwest are some of the most neighborly, friendly people on the planet. The problem is they'll probably be in their storm shelter at that point and won't hear your knocks at the door.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:52 AM on April 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've seen two tornadoes with my eyes and it gets funky green gray outside before they happen.
posted by ishotjr at 6:10 AM on April 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yeah, chances of you encountering a tornado: practically zilch.

I'm told that the reason for the lying down in the ditch advice is that the tornado actually pushes down on things that are lying flat. The depression that the ditch forms helps to ensure that there isn't much wind coming from the side that could pick you up and toss you. If you have to do this, make sure to move away from your car first, or it could end up on top of you. As for your dog, the best you can do is trap him underneath you if you can to make sure he can't get away. Otherwise, I would leave him in the car so that HE doesn't get tossed around, nor can he get hit by flying debris. Then just pray that the tornado isn't strong enough to really toss the car around.

If you see storm clouds, tune your radio to the proper channel. You can find out this channel by stopping at the first rest area once you cross the state line. If the signal fades (with distance), stop at another rest area to see if they have new info. But if you get out of a particular radio station's range, you're probably out of danger of a tornado in the vicinity.

Unless you are actually in a town or city during a tornado, you will not hear any sirens. However, please note that Midwestern cities test their tornado siren systems on the first Saturday of the month at 10 a.m. (usually. they do in my area.) So if you hear one when the weather is perfectly normal and it only lasts a few minutes, it's probably just a test. Don't freak.

If I was out in the boonies and the only shelter I could see was someone's house, I'd head straight for it. If they didn't answer, I'd try the door. Seriously, get inside somewhere if you can, even if you have to break in. But this is ONLY IF YOU CAN ACTUALLY SEE A TORNADO. If you can't see one, then you've got plenty of time to find other shelter. If the house doesn't have a basement, try to find a bathroom (hopefully without windows) and get in the tub.

Anyplace you stop is very likely to let you bring your dog in. No one wants to be a dog killer.

I grew up in the Midwest, so I'm familiar with tornado season. I have actually seen a couple of tornadoes, off in the distance. I love huge thunderstorms and tornado weather! It's great if you have a screened porch, you can go out and watch the sky change so fast. It's really cool. With tornadoes, a lot of times the sky gets kind of yellow before the worst of the storm hits. Then, of course, it's time to head to shelter :)

If you don't see storm clouds, enjoy yourself! Really, there's very little reason to be scared, because you probably will not encounter one.
posted by wwartorff at 6:32 AM on April 30, 2010

I grew up in Kansas, and have driven across the state many times. I think I've seen a tornado with my own eyes once, from very far away. I wish I could bet money against the possibility that you will ever have to worry about this situation, even if you do nothing but drive back and forth across the country for the next five years.

That being said, here is my Kansish approach, based partly on what I would do, and partly on what they taught us as young Kansans back in the 70s:

People who get killed by tornadoes, much like people who get killed by hurricanes, tend to be those who either don't have the resources to get out of the area, or don't tune in to the basic channels like radio and TV often enough to know that they're in danger, or know, but don't believe in meteorology. Tornadoes don't just suddenly appear out of nowhere. The days of Dorothy-esque "oh my goodness, it's a tornado!" long gone.

If you are driving, and a tornando is coming, you should be able to see the sky getting dark and weird, if not the actual tornado, from far away. It's Kansas, after all. The skyline and the horizon aren't that far apart, at least throughout most of the state. Driving at a right angle to it might not be an option without driving through a wheat field. But just take the highway going away from the tornado. Go over 60 mph. You'll be fine.

If you're strolling the streets of Salina, taking the Bob Dole walking tour, and you don't know that the disaster is going to strike until it's too late, get into a building... and get in the basement. Find the biggest, most modern, most official-looking building you can find, because it's likely to have a basement, just for this purpose, if for no other. If the tornado has pushed you through a hole in space-time and there are no such buildings, then there will be a cellar, but seriously, there will be basements. Go sit in the basement with all the bored-looking Kansans who will think you're a freak. Actually, no offense, but I kind of hope you end up in that situation. It might cure you of this fear of midwestern weather.

If you are not a real person, but a character in a movie, and everything is black and white, and there are no solidly constructed buildings with basements or cellars around anywhere, get thee to a bathtub, and pull a mattress over thineself, and pray to gawd.

If some accident befalls you, unrelated to the tornado, that leaves you wandering the Kansas countryside, far from any town and without a car or shelter, and you fail to get a ride hour after hour as the sky grows darker and you're passed by slow-moving vehicles driven by good-hearted country people, and the tornado is at last upon you, then yes, get into a ditch. Obviously, if the tornado hits you directly, you will still probably die. However, tornadoes do not seek out people. They bop around, destroying this or that random thing, and then they move on. Lying in a ditch will, within reason, protect you from the wind if the tornado isn't right on top of you.

I hope you have a chance to spend an evening in Lawrence, the college town where I went to school. Plenty of good bars, restaurants, live music, and people who won't bother to laugh at you if you tell them that you asked this question, nay, won't even bother to roll their eyes, but will sort of wince and look at the floor, like someone tolerating a mild racist joke from a foreigner who doesn't know any better.
posted by bingo at 6:32 AM on April 30, 2010 [6 favorites]

does your route take you through kansas early in the day or late in the day? The majority of tornadoes are in the late afternoon or early evening hours. What route are you taking that you would be out in the country and needing to knock on doors? The interstate will have truck stops with TVs you can stop at and check out the weather. Smaller state highways have towns on them pretty frequently that will have quick stops with TV to check out the weather. If the weather looks iffy, stop at one of these locations and check it out. Buzz words to know. Tornado Watch means the area has favorable conditions for tornadic acitivty. This happens very frequently and is nothing to be concerned about. Tornado Warning means either a tornado or rotation has been spotted. This is serious. The same vernacular applies to thunderstorms.. If you are really worried, buy a small portable weather radio and program it to alert on the areas you are travelling through. Chances are you will go insane from all the chatter noises on it before you see a tornado. Regular radio is less reliable. Kansasans are used to thunderstorms and unless a tornado is imminent the radio will probably go about business as usual. They would in oklahoma anyway. Generally bad weather moves west to east, give or take a northern or southern angle. Driving west, you should be able to see storms coming. If you see a bunch of weird looking vehicles and vehicles from TV stations, they are expecting bad weather. Tornadoes are rare and giagantor ones that rip everything in their path to pieces are even more rare. Kansas is flat enough you should be able to see a storm coming. The 3 tornadoes that i have seen were easily visible from 20 miles away.

Do not lay in a ditch unless you absolutely have no choice but ditch or car. Find a police station if there really is a tornado coming. They can tell you where to go.
posted by domino at 6:50 AM on April 30, 2010

I have been in a tornado, during which I had shelter in the basement of a building that was located in the path of the disturbance (it then neatly hopped over my neighbourhood to devastate something else). My yard was full of pink insulation and electricity.

The main things I would worry about if it was about to happen again would be getting hit by something flying through the air, driving into something that previously had been flying through the air, being unable to see due to sheeting rain, or electrocuting myself on something.

If you have high winds, dark clouds, variable pressure, AND a radio warning for the county you're in, sure, prepare for the wicked witch music. Get off the road, but remain in the car, especially if you think you will be distracted by worrying about your dog. Don't park near trees or power poles. But really? You will find there are lots of people in Kansas who live full lives, completely unimpaired by tornadoes.
posted by Sallyfur at 6:53 AM on April 30, 2010

I live on a farm just off of the interstate (not in Kansas, but certainly in tornado country). If you showed up at my door holding your dog and were obviously scared, I would definitely let you in if I weren't already in the basement. We take severe weather seriously around here, but echoing what others have said - I've lived here almost three decades and have never seen a tornado in person. I've seen destruction and aftermath, but never a tornado. Large scale destruction is pretty rare.

And I know this is terrible advice, but when I do get scared, I drive like hell to get out of the way of the storm. You might get caught in rain or hail, but in wide-open spaces you can put distance between yourself and the epicenter of a storm fairly quickly. I think having a map with counties is a great idea - having access to a radar would be even better. My smartphone is my best friend when it comes to staying safe with severe weather. Just remember that storms generally track west to east with some going northeast or southeast.

If you want a glimpse into what tornadoes on the ground look like in the midwest, check out an episode of Storm Chasers. It might give you an idea of what the roads and terrain will be like and what kind of weather to watch out for. Some of the chasers on there sometimes do risky things in storms, but they make it fairly clear that they are doing something counter to general safety and will often talk about what the safe thing to do would be.
posted by bristolcat at 7:13 AM on April 30, 2010

Civil_Disobedient makes a lot of armchair assumptions up there . . . and I'm not the one to critique them.

However, his claim that highway overpasses "get a bad rap because they don't provide nearly as much protection from flying debris as you'd like. . ." is dangerously misleading. In a tornado, an overpass works like a wind tunnnel. Hiding under one can get you killed.

Lying in a ditch or depression is still the best option if you're out in the open.

posted by General Tonic at 7:14 AM on April 30, 2010

Since nobody else has done this yet, here's a list of Kansas radio stations. Print it out. Also, pick up a map -- they're available for free at interstate rest stops. As you're driving through, tune in to one of the stations nearby (preferably News or Public Radio) because if there's severe weather in that broadcast area, they'll be relaying information.
posted by cog_nate at 7:31 AM on April 30, 2010 [1 favorite]

As a nervous mountain person married to a blase Kansan, I reiterate: have the radio on, have a map to keep track of what county you are in, and what county you will be in next. Keep track of where the storms are going, and if a storm is dropping funnel clouds, stop in the county before that and wait for the storm to pass. Stopping makes Kansan bonkers, because odds are never good that we will actually see funnel clouds, but it does make me feel better.
posted by pickypicky at 7:43 AM on April 30, 2010

A couple of brief thoughts:

1. Tornadoes almost always happen in the late afternoon/early evening. The heating of the atmosphere creates giant cumulonimbus cloud-based thunderstorms, and this is what most tornadoes are generated by.

2. I would disagree, gently, with the posters that advise to look for a tornado to let that be your guide as to when to react. Most tornadoes are going to be enshrouded by rain or hail from at least one direction, so waiting to see one could be a big mistake.

3. On the road, though, you will probably be able to see the thunderstorm (especially if it's a supercell thunderstorm, the type most likely to create a tornado) many many miles away. This should give you some time to check the radio and the map and see if it's really a danger. Moreover, most supercells that create tornadoes develop a particular type of cloud formation called a wall cloud prior to a tornado forming. If you can see a thunderstorm, and you see a wall cloud, then you know that you should really be paying attention.

4. Try not to get surprised by a storm. Tornadoes are pretty rare, but hail is not. I've had lots of friends wind up with the pock-marked car from a hail storm, but none have ever been hit by a tornado. A hail storm while driving is really scary and a big hassle dealing with insurance. Why do that? If you see a big storm, stop at a gas station and put the car under the awning, and go inside and hang out. If a tornado comes, you can all hide in the beer cooler.

5. Thunderstorms are WICKED AWESOME. So remember it's not all fear and loathing, it's an opportunity to see something really cool in nature. I always look forward to car trips in the Great Plains so that I CAN see a big fat anvil cloud. You'll have a great time.
posted by norm at 7:50 AM on April 30, 2010

box writes "One thing you should know is that even in the peak of tornado season in the most tornado-prone parts of the country, they're still relatively rare (compared to, say, thunderstorms, or car accidents). There's an excellent chance you won't be anywhere near one."

Seconding this. I've spent months actually seeking out tornados in both Canada and the US including trips to tornado alley specifically timed for max tornado activity and I've seen two (though I missed the Bridge Creek-Moore F5 by one day). Much more dangerous is the extremely heavy rain and hail that comes out of large cells if you should come upon them while driving. Basically avoid approaching such systems even if it means staying in a hotel for a night and you'll be fine; car accidents are probably an order of magnitude more dangerous.

And for heaven sakes don't shelter under over passes. They are more dangerous than the open prairie in a tornado and they greatly increase your chances of getting hit by passing traffic
posted by Mitheral at 8:51 AM on April 30, 2010

North Texas resident and regular visitor to OK and KS here.

"Is there any reliable way for judging how fast away a tornado is and how quickly it is moving?"

If you can see it, it can see you, essentially, and that's the time to find shelter immediately. Also remember that if the tornado doesn't appear to be moving to the right or left as you view it, that could be because it's headed straight toward you.

But a tornado won't just instantly swoop down out of the sky on you. You'll have warnings from the radio/news, and from the sky.

I want to emphasize what has been said about the green clouds and the hail. If you are on the highway and either of these come upon you, it is time to look for your best shelter option. They are coming ahead of Something Wicked. I have seen a couple of actual tornadoes, and been outside during tornado warning conditions multiple times, and the greenish-yellow sky has been a correct indicator 100% of the time. It's not an emerald, bright green, but more of a baby-puke-green.

If you don't want to listen to the radio for the whole drive, at least keep the windows cracked so you can listen for sirens. (If you've never heard a weather siren, know that it doesn't sound at all like a vehicle siren, and it does sound exactly like what you imagine those Cold War nuclear warning sirens would sound like.) This is what the emergency radio alert will sound like.

Another reason not to stop under an overpass for shelter, in addition to the good ones named above, is that on a long stretch of highway, a clot of cars blocking the thoroughfare so they can get shelter are effectively screwing all the cars coming up behind them who now cannot pass through to safety. Please, do not stop under an overpass if you think there is weather coming. I was trapped on a state road with my family in this exact circumstance, because five or six cars ahead refused to drive through the overpass. Bad form.

Any highway rest area, government building or big building will have a dedicated storm shelter space, probably underground, with a sign like this. If you can't find a basement shelter, look for a first-floor, windowless, interior room. (I disagree with whoever said take refuge in a gas station during a summer hail storm. Any building that is mostly plate glass windows is not an ideal place to be, though a gas station bathroom is good.) The more cinder blocks, the better.

The most important thing you can do is get some information, stay alert... and not worry yourself sick. Odds are better for dying in a plane crash than dying in a tornado, and you and your pup are likely to not see any weather activity at all on your drive. Just enjoy the wide open spaces and (hopefully) blue sky!
posted by pineapple at 9:04 AM on April 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

In a tornado, an overpass works like a wind tunnnel. Hiding under one can get you killed. Lying in a ditch or depression is still the best option if you're out in the open.

That is some dangerously misleading advice. There's no shortage of advice to avoid seeking shelter under overpasses, for two big reasons: first, because people have this (wrong) impression that they're safe. They are safer, but they're not safe. Second, is because people that leave their cars parked on the road seeking shelter can potentially cause accidents or block access to rescue vehicles.

That said, there is plenty of video evidence of people surviving underneath an overpass as tornadoes pass directly overhead. I have never seen footage of someone surviving direct, open exposure in a ditch. If you have a video that shows that, by all means link to it, as I'd love to be proven wrong.

If your options are house or overpass, obviously pick the house.

Another reason not to stop under an overpass for shelter, in addition to the good ones named above, is that on a long stretch of highway, a clot of cars blocking the thoroughfare so they can get shelter are effectively screwing all the cars coming up behind them who now cannot pass through to safety.

This is the #1 reason: to keep the roads cleared for emergency vehicles that are (presumably) off saving lives. But it has nothing to do with your safety.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 11:23 AM on April 30, 2010

My aunt, uncle, and cousins sheltered in a ditch during a tornado years ago, in Illinois, and survived. My aunt lost her glasses, and they were all utterly coated in mud when it was over -- like, mud up their noses, in their ears, everywhere -- but they were unhurt. Overpasses really are a bad place to try to take shelter.

Civil_Disobedient, I'm not sure why you're so dead-set on this, but having grown up in the Midwest, I learned from pre-school all the way through high school (when I moved to Vermont) the basics of tornado safety. Overpasses -- really dangerous. Lying down in a ditch or a depression -- much much safer. Seriously.

Oh, and Ashley801, I can also confirm how unlikely you are to encounter a tornado. In all the time I lived in the Midwest (Illinois and Wisconsin), I only ever encountered a tornado once, and that was in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. There were bad storms, sure, and tornado warnings, but actual tornadoes were rare. (The one in Michigan was scary, but also really, really cool to watch. The sky really does turn pea-soup green!)
posted by sarcasticah at 12:24 PM on April 30, 2010

2. I would disagree, gently, with the posters that advise to look for a tornado to let that be your guide as to when to react.

Just to clarify my earlier point wherein I reference waiting until you see a tornado... that was in reference to breaking in to someone's house for shelter. I am all for trying to find shelter before you ever see a tornado or even a funnel cloud! I'm just not for getting arrested for burglary unnecessarily :)
posted by wwartorff at 12:28 PM on April 30, 2010

From Mitheral's link above:
Three of the deaths reported in the tornado were from people who took shelter underneath overpasses in the area of the path of the Moore-Bridge Creek F5 tornado. The deaths occurred at the 16th Street overpass over Interstate 44 in Newcastle (just east of Bridge Creek), at the Shields Boulevard overpass over Interstate 35 in Moore, and the overpass at mile marker 176.5 on Interstate 35 in rural northwestern Payne County, west of Stillwater.
posted by norm at 12:51 PM on April 30, 2010

I've lived in Kansas most of my life and have never lived out of Tornado Alley. And I've never seen a tornado. As others have said, your odds are pretty slim.

In addition to using the radio frequencies cog_nate provided, you could get a NOAA Weather Radio. There are some nice handheld models available for less than $30. The instructions will tell you how to program the radio to automatically keep tuned to the nearest NOAA station and to make a hideous noise if the weather service issues any sort of warning. Take along some extra batteries and you'll be set. You wouldn't even need to turn it on if the skies were clear. If there was a severe thunderstorm warning or tornado warning, towns in my state aren't so far and few between that you won't be able to get off the highway and find shelter. Look for an official building, like a courthouse or city hall, or maybe find an eatery.

As for your dog, in any kind of emergency -- weather or otherwise -- no one in Kansas would do anything but help you both. Have a pleasant trip.
posted by bryon at 2:58 PM on April 30, 2010

Tip about driving through the plains and the Rockies: get new windshield wiper blades before you go, or at least check that yours are in good shape. Crazy rainstorms.
posted by LobsterMitten at 3:39 PM on April 30, 2010

Lifelong Kansan, nth-ing green sky and hail as being your best visible warnings, wanting to know which county you're in, the afternoon-evening danger zone, and the vast unlikeliness that you will need any of this advice.

Are you doing the straight shot through the state on I-70? There are mefites along that route who would likely be willing to accept phone calls and tell you "it's nothing, don't worry" or "actually, this isn't great weather to be out". Memail me if having someone to call would help reassure you. There are also long stretches on I-70 with no apparent towns of any size, so if you're out and worried, bail at the first town you encounter, as there may not be another one for quite some time.
posted by donnagirl at 5:15 PM on April 30, 2010

Right. Tornadoes, as nasty weather goes, are very, very small. There could be one a few miles away and you wouldn't know it. (Has happened to me.) Besides being small, they are generally rare.

Tornado weather: hot, still, muggy day. Storm clouds appear on the horizon like a line. If you see that, be on alert, but don't worry yet. Turn on the weather radio or something.

A tornado watch means that the weather conditions make tornado formation possible. Continue as normal. This does not mean the weather is any worse- it just means there are hot and cold fronts that might meet in the next X hours or so.

A tornado WARNING means someone, somewhere (usually listed by county), saw one. Or there is really, really good radar data showing one. The NWS is usually really good about saying "there is a tornado warning for Jasper county, 10 miles south east of Muckville. The tornado is headed northeast and is expected to be in Grainston at 5:07, Yarbury at 5:15 and Depot Township at 5:20. If you are near any of these areas, seek shelter." If you aren't, and the skies look fine, there's nothing to worry about.

Danger time is when you look at the clouds and they are rotating. Above you, or in your path. A forward or backward roll isn't so bad, but a side to side spin is. Also if the main "system" appears to drop in altitude. If crazy stuff is happening over your head like that, and it's still warm and still where you are, that's also time to be on alert.

(Do not mistake sheets of rain in an approaching storm as tornadoes.)

Go to youtube and look for tornado videos. They aren't as scary as they are made out to be, unless you are directly in the path of one. What you should look for are videos of what the sky looks like and and the "feel" of the weather. You will also see how slowly (or quickly) they move. If you are out in the cornfields, there's almost no chance you will be surprised by one.

Shelter: If you feel the need to seek shelter, find a building that does not have a "span roof". These are office buildings, gymnasiums, warehouses, etc. You want (as others have said) as much concrete around you as possible. And as little glass. In school, we went into the hallways and faced the lockers so that flying debris wouldn't damage our pretty faces. You want to be where nothing can crash into you, and if the roof collapses, won't crush you. So, for example, if a warehouse is the only place, find the office or bathroom in the corner that is made of cinder blocks. If there is no shelter, a ditch is just fine. But again, that's the last resort, "oh Jesus, here it comes, brace for impact" time. A ditch puts a nice berm of soil between you and flying debris. Face down, hands over face and around the dog. Maybe hang onto something if that makes you feel better. Enjoy.
posted by gjc at 5:29 PM on April 30, 2010 [2 favorites]

A bit late to the party, and most people have given good advice.

Probably your best bet is just to be aware of what is going on around you. Know what counties you are driving through, and try and remember the town names to orient yourself. If you see towering, ominous clouds, don't go blindly driving underneath them. Turn off your iPod, turn on the radio. A word about rural Kansas radio stations: some of them are pretty good about interrupting with severe warnings, but some are not. Some will put them on the air, but are not very good about keeping up with updates. High Plains Public Radio is pretty good about keeping up with live break-ins. NOAA Weather Radio is good, but be aware that when traveling you may have to switch frequencies, or there may be only weak signals at your location.

Be very careful when driving at night. Not to scare you, but the tornado/vehicle fatalities I know about recently have all been when people couldn't see what was coming. If you see a lot of lightning ahead at night and you know tornado warnings have been going out, it's probably best to pull over in the next town and wait until everything passes before heading down the road.

A building of some sort is the best shelter. Ditches are for the very much last resort, if there is one coming towards you and no buildings nearby or way to get away. This is unlikely. Overpasses are flat-out not safe.

As everyone has said, tornadoes are very rare, and even many of the impressive thunderstorms you see will not produce one. And the cynical side of me thinks that since Vortex2 is out looking for them this year, it will probably mean an even smaller chance of running across one. But I probably put too much stock in Murphy's Law.
posted by weathergal at 8:26 PM on April 30, 2010

ok so im late lol

i dont know if any of these people are from kansas but i am.

heres the deal like everyone has said you seeing an actual tornado is rare and if you are in that situation the storm will be very severe. large hail, heavy rain, im pretty sure you will have pulled over at a rest stop before the tornado actually hits. the storm is intense

if you are caught in a tornado A DITCH IS THE SAFEST PLACE..i dont know who said it wasnt someone above me said it wasnt BUT IT IS. Today marks the 11 anniversary of may 3rd people died from taking shelter underneath overpasses. The winds underneath them are stronger and will suck you out!!!

i dont know where you are coming from but from the west major towns like hays,russell and salina are good places to stop. coming from 1-70 you have manhattan, lawerence and salina again. so you should be ok and traveling on the turnpike coming from kansas city you shouldnt worry all there are plenty of towns to stop at in the event of severe weather.

listen to this station 101.3 KFDI. <>
1. the "green" sky really has nothing to do with them, it is not scientifically linked. but if i were to see that i would kinda get scared and pull over. Also just because theres hail dosent mean theres a tornado. some tornadoes can form with out it but thats rare
2. people in kansas are nice so your dog will be welcomed anywhere during an event of an emergency.

3. use common sense that is all i can say, dont go under overpasses and dont stay in your car. that is the worst advise anyone can give you and i hope those people saying that arnt from kansas.

anyway just sit back and enjoy the ride
posted by kole08 at 10:08 PM on May 3, 2010

forgot to mention 101.3 KFDI can be heard going towards or away from wichita. so coming from the north you can get it once you hit salina from the south once you hit blackwell oklahoma, from the northeast once you hit south of emporia. if the sky looks ugly and they are playing music it is not a severe storm but you might want to tune in just in case.

this station will not play any music during severe weather. (T-storm warning, Tornado).

even though this is a country station they have the best severe weather coverage. I use this all the time when im driving around town an a pop up thunderstorm happens.
posted by kole08 at 10:14 PM on May 3, 2010

Response by poster: Thank you so much, everyone!!! Your answers have been amazingly helpful and reassuring. I've been watching the weather forecast for Kansas since I read this thread (I had no idea that tornadoes didn't just come out of a clear sky, before), and for a couple days there it was looking like the only day this week with thunderstorms was going to be the day I'm driving through, of course. But now it looks like the thunderstorms are going to be the next day, instead.

Thank you again, all, I feel a LOT more prepared.
posted by Ashley801 at 1:04 PM on May 6, 2010

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