Facing a tornado in your car on the open road with no buildings – much less basements – for miles is a terrifying thought.
For travelers on the Kansas Turnpike, at least, there are underground storm shelters at most toll plazas statewide.
Kansas ushered in tornado season with its first twisters of 2018 last week, which were confirmed in multiple parts of the state.
The turnpike’s bare-bones bunkers may be Spartan, but they offer safe sheltering spots where options are otherwise few and far between.
The turnpike emphasizes that the shelters are primarily for its employees, but also open to travelers. Because space is limited, they shouldn’t be considered a viable option for local residents.
“These shelters were originally built and put in place for employees,” turnpike spokeswoman Rachel Bell told the Lawrence Journal-World . “Over the years we have just had customers take shelter with our employees. We certainly understand the dangers of Kansas weather. … If you’re on the road last minute, and there’s no other option, this is something you can do.”
Most larger toll plazas have buildings with basements that are designated as tornado shelters, according to the website.
At service areas, the convenience store buildings have designated shelters, some below and some above ground.
But at toll plazas with only booths, if they have a tornado shelter it’s going to look like a metal trap door into a concrete box mostly submerged in the ground.
At the turnpike’s Lecompton exit at mile marker 197, a little blue sign that says “tornado shelter” marks the spot, a few paces away from the K-Tag lane.
The metal door – rusty and creaky, but heavy – has swivel handles that latch it closed from both the inside or the outside.
A small metal ladder leads to the floor of the concrete box, which has a light on the wall and a plastic tub with essentials including a radio, blankets and a jug of water.
One of the few toll plazas that doesn’t have a shelter is the Tonganoxie/Eudora exit at milepost 212. A more recently constructed toll plaza, it has only automated gates with no toll workers employed there. Bell said that’s why there’s no shelter.
If you do find yourself on the road in tornado weather, the National Weather Service encourages listening to local news or an NOAA Weather Radio to stay updated about tornado watches and warnings.
Being in a vehicle during a tornado is not safe, the weather service warns. Bell added that trying to park and take shelter beneath an overpass also is not safe.
If you are in your car and can’t make it to a shelter, here’s what you should do, according to the National Weather Service: “Either get down in your car and cover your head, or abandon your car and seek shelter in a low lying area such as a ditch or ravine.”
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