Recent Tornadoes Underscore Risks of Taking Shelter in Cars

May 14, 2008

Trapped in his car on the way to a friend’s wedding, Rick Rountree and his family never stood a chance once a tornado packing winds of 170 mph hit southwest Missouri.

“It’s like taking a handful of Matchbox cars and rolling them across the kitchen floor,” said Sgt. Dan Bracker of the Missouri State Highway Patrol, surveying the damage in Newton County near the Oklahoma border, the hardest hit area. “This is devastating.”

Eight of the 23 victims of a weekend tornado that devastated parts of Oklahoma and Missouri died in cars, troubling experts who say vehicles are among the worst places to be when a twister bears down.

At least 26 people were dead in Missouri, Oklahoma, Georgia and Alabama after severe storms erupted Saturday over the southern plains and swept east. Sixteen people died in Missouri from the same storm that decimated Picher, Okla., killing seven there.

The death toll increased Monday when Tyler Casey, a 21-year-old firefighter with the Redings Mill fire district in Seneca, died at an area hospital. Officials said he got caught in the tornado while trying to warn people to seek shelter. Casey leaves behind a 2-year-old daughter and an expectant fiance.

Two people were killed in Georgia, where meteorologists said at least six tornadoes touched down. One of those twisters struck McIntosh County’s emergency management center, destroying the fire trucks and ambulances inside. Another man was killed in northern Alabama when his truck was struck by a falling tree limb as he was surveying storm damage.

Wind speeds for the twister that struck Newton County varied, but at one point it became an EF4 tornado reaching 170 miles per hour or higher, moving at a pace of 50 mph to 60 mph, said Andy Foster, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Springfield, Mo.

One car was found half a mile away from the tornado track.

According to data from the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center, 49 of the 705 deaths, or about 7 percent, attributed to tornadoes from 1997 to 2007 were people who were in vehicles when the storm struck.

“They can cover more ground than you can in your car, so unless you know you are moving away from the tornado the best thing you can do is find a strong structure,” Foster said.

Rountree, his wife Kathy, their 13-year-old son Clayton and Ruby Bilke, Kathy Rountree’s 76-year-old mother, were driving to a friend’s wedding Saturday night when the tornado hit the family’s passenger van on a rural highway about eight miles north of Seneca, said Larry Bilke, Ruby’s son.

With little warning, Ruby Bilke died barely 100 yards from the barn where she was born, her son said. The Rountree family left their home in Joplin, 15 miles away, and picked up Bilke at her home in the county in an effort to arrive early for a 7 p.m. wedding, where Rick Rountree was scheduled to sing.

“They were on the road when the warnings came,” said Larry Bilke, whose own home just one mile from the crash site was unscathed.

Authorities continued Monday to match the bodies recovered from the deadly tornado with the circumstances surrounding the victims’ deaths. But Bracker of the Missouri State Highway Patrol preliminarily identified another driver _ Christine Petree of Morrisville _ who died when her vehicle was thrown from the same road, state Highway 43, as the Rountree family.

Police, meanwhile, corrected the status of a woman believed to have died after she sought shelter in a car that was later blown on top of a destroyed rental home. The woman, who was not identified, is in critical condition at a hospital, officials said.

The car in which the woman sought shelter was owned by Susan Roberts, who fled her rental home with her 13-year-old grandson soon before the storm arrived.

“That is what is tearing me up,” Roberts said, adding she had warned the woman, who had stopped to change a tire, about the nearby tornado.

In Newton County alone, 200 people were treated for injuries at local hospitals, 200 hundred homes or buildings were destroyed, and another 200 structures suffered major damage, said Gary Roark, the county emergency management director.

In Picher, Okla., 32 miles away, a man and a woman died when their car was blown into a lagoon. The body of another man from the car wound up in a nearby tree, said Oklahoma Emergency Management spokeswoman Michelann Ooten. A 13-year-old girl who was riding in the car survived the crash, and was released after her injuries were treated at a hospital.

Fire Chief Jeff Reeves said they were not trying to outrun the twister.

“I think they were actually trying to get to a family member’s house on the south side of town to help them and they just didn’t make it over,” Reeves said.

The multiple deaths of Missourians in cars when the tornado hit prompted Gov. Matt Blunt to issue a stern reminder to state residents: stay out of vehicles when a tornado is nearby.

Among the tips: motorists and their passengers should find a sturdy shelter or even lie flat in a ditch or other low spot, covering their heads with arms, coats or blankets if the tornado is moving in their direction.

Overpasses and bridges should also be avoided _ the overpass can create a wind tunnel effect, and bridges could collapse.

After touring the damage Monday by helicopter and on foot, Blunt called the weather-related destruction “some of the worst I’ve seen.”

The National Weather Service said about 100 people have died in U.S. twisters so far this year. If trends hold, this could stack up as one of the deadliest tornado years in recent history. The weather service’s Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., said 130 people died in U.S. tornadoes in 1998, the eighth deadliest year since 1950. The highest number of tornado-related deaths came in 1953, when 519 people died.

Through mid-May of this year, 910 tornadoes have been reported, though not all have been confirmed by the National Weather Service. That’s compared to 1,093 confirmed twisters for all of last year. In the last three years, there has been an average of 1,159 tornadoes confirmed.

Heavy rains hit the mid-Atlantic region Monday, knocking out power to thousands, flooding roads and prompting evacuations in low-lying coastal areas. Part of Washington’s subway system was delayed during morning rush hour because flooding forced the use of a single track.

AP Writers Murray Evans in Picher, Okla., Dorie Turner and Debbie Newby in Atlanta, Russ Bynum in Kite, Ga., Brian Westley in Washington, Todd Hallidy in Baltimore and Wayne Perry in Atlantic City, N.J., contributed to this report.

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