Is the southwest corner of your basement really the safest place to hide during a tornado? If you’re driving down the highway and get caught in severe weather, should you take shelter under an overpass? If you live in a valley or near a river, will you be protected from twisters?
Professional storm chaser Jay Antle said the answer to all these questions is actually no, despite what you may have heard. These are just a few of the myths and legend about tornados that have worked their way into popular culture throughout the years, and even though they aren’t true, these myths often persist.
“These stories, once they become entrenched, a cultural story, are difficult to dislodge,” Antle said.
Antle, who also is an assistant professor of history at Johnson County Community College, gave a presentation on tornado facts and lore during a “Life Enrichment” session Wednesday at Bethel College. The Life Enrichment program is a series of educational lectures targeted to adults 60 and over. Antle’s presentation drew more than 200 people — a record for the program, event organizers said.
Although tornados often are associated with Kansas, thanks to films and stories like “The Wizard of Oz,” Antle said the majority of Kansans haven’t even seen a tornado. On average, the state is hit by about 60 tornados a year, but that’s not a lot considering there are 105 counties in the state, Antle said. In fact, every square acre in Kansas only has a probability of being hit by a tornado once every 2,400 years.
Antle said it’s common to find towns in Kansas with “Indian legends” claiming that particular town will never be hit by a tornado, either due to the town’s proximity to a river or near a sacred burial ground.
However, history has proven towns with legends, such as Clay Center and Topeka, aren’t really immune to nature’s wrath.
So, if these myths aren’t true, where did they come from and how did they get started?
Antle said historic Native Americans thought tornados were just another aspect of the “life force” of the natural world.
“Nature was not bereft of spirituality, it was infused with it,” he said, describing the Native Americans’ beliefs.
According to a legend, the Kiowa tribe inadvertently created the first tornados. The Kiowa people depended on horses for hunting and warfare, and they grew concerned when they began to run out of horses. They fashioned horse-like figures out of natural materials and attempted to bring them to life.
However, these “horses” kept growing and growing beyond normal size and eventually ascended into the sky, and the only thing visible was their bushy tails sweeping the ground (tornados).
Other tornado myths, such as where tornados will or will not strike, likely were started by 19th century pioneers, not necessarily Native Americans. Indian spirituality may have been added to the tales later on, Antle said.
Early pioneers often formed their beliefs about tornados based on simple observation. If one town was hit several times by severe weather and another town was not, they would try to explain why the one town apparently was protected. They thought topography, such as the location of valleys and rivers, might explain why tornados struck some places rather than others.
Some of the more “scientific” tornado research in the 1800s wasn’t always accurate, either, Antle said. According to one theory, sunspot activity created fluctuations in the earth’s magnetic fields, which is turn caused tornados.
Antle also referenced a group of researchers who hypothesized that since tornados blew feathers off of chickens, if they could also find a way to blow feathers off chickens, they could measure the wind speeds inside a tornado. They fired a chicken from a canon and somehow deduced wind speeds inside a tornado were 500 mph (Antle isn’t sure how they arrived at this number, but they actually weren’t too far off).
Even though science has come a long way since then, Antle said some myths about tornados live on.
For example, many people have heard the southwest corner of the basement is the safest place to hide during a tornado. However, Antle said this bit of popular wisdom is based on an old and not very scientific study. The safest place to be during a tornado actually is under something sturdy, such as a stairwell or work table.
Another common myth involves overpasses and tornados.
A famous video of a Wichita news crew hiding under an overpass during a tornado helped perpetuate the myth that overpasses are good places to take shelter during severe weather.
However, the reporters in this video weren’t directly hit by a tornado, and there are other stories of people who have taken shelter under an overpass and were killed by a tornado.
Antle said while some tornado legends and myths are harmless, it’s important to get the facts straight about more dangerous myths, such as the one about overpasses.
“These stories, if you believe them, may cost you your life,” he said.
For more information about the Life Enrichment program at Bethel College, contact 283-2500.