Outdoor Refuge Information

Buildings Are The Best Refuge
Substantial buildings are the best protection. Avoid placing yourself in this extremely dangerous situation by avoiding travel in or near areas with active warnings in effect. If you find yourself outdoors when a tornado is approaching:
  • If you can reach a nearby substantial building, that is the safest choice. Never try to "outrun" a tornado, but if there is time to reach nearby protection - do it.
  • In the open or in an automobile with no refuge in reach, now you have the following options as a last resort:
    • Stay in your vehicle with the seat belt on. Put your head down below the windows, covering with your hands and a blanket if possible.
    • If you can safely get noticeably lower than the level of the roadway, exit your car, and lie in that area, covering your head with your hands.
    • Your choice should be driven by your specific circumstances.
  • Be alert for the possibility of flash flooding, especially in low-lying areas.
Bridges & Overpasses
Emergency managers are concerned over a growing public perception that highway overpasses offer acceptable refuge locations from tornadoes. This may have been contributed to by popular videos, including footage taken on a Kansas interstate, that showed individuals taking refuge under bridges who survived, implying that it is the proper thing to do.

In reality, there are a number of factors affecting the outcome in these instances, including luck. The tornado's strength, its proximity to the overpass, and the type of bridge construction are just a few.
Tornado near Dimmitt, Texas, on June 2, 1995 - Photographer: Harald Richter
Variations in Bridge Construction
Similar to the bridge in the Kansas interstate video, some have relatively large girders and supports that a person might actually fit behind or be able to hang on to. Many, if not the majority of others have girders that are too small and others have none at all, leaving people with nothing to crouch behind and nothing to hang on to. That leaves people completely exposed to wind debris, and/or likely to be blown out.

Tornadic Wind Characteristics
Even for those with larger girders, while they may offer limited protection from winds coming from 1 direction, tornado winds rotate, completely changing directions in a matter of seconds. Evidence has shown that winds may have been deflected for a time, but as the vortex passed, the rotating wind shifted, blowing through underpasses (blowing people out) and blasting directly into the spaces beneath the bridge, driving debris with such force that metal was embedded into the concrete.

Trapped by Traffic Jams
It has also been documented that motorists stopping to shelter under bridges have blocked all traffic lanes, preventing others from reaching shelter. According to witness reports during an Oklahoma tornado, many motorists abandoned their vehicles in order to shelter under bridges 15 minutes before the tornado arrived. The traffic approaching 1 bridge was described as "a ¼ mile long parking lot."
Deadly Refuge Choice
There have been increasing amounts of documentation following tornadoes passing close by or directly hitting bridges, that indicate the outcome is likely to be tragic. Those taking refuge under overpasses are often blown from their locations and/or battered by the debris driven directly into the spaces beneath the overpasses. Consistently the results have been either fatalities or life-threatening, gruesome injuries, that left survivors with permanent disabilities.

It cannot be stressed enough that a refuge needs to provide barriers from wind and debris in all directions. Bridges cannot do the job. View a detailed report on bridges and tornadoes following the Oklahoma City supercell.
Overpasses and bridges are not adequate protection from a tornado.