March 13, 2018

Escape Routes

WHILE ON A STORM, PLANNING ESCAPE ROUTES AND RUNNING THROUGH ESCAPE SCENARIOS IS LITERALLY A CONSTANT ACTIVITY FOR ME. I DON'T WANT TO BE ANYWHERE NEAR A TORNADIC STORM IF I DON'T KNOW EXACTLY HOW I CAN GET AWAY FROM IT. THAT SAID, I HAVE LEARNED SOME LESSONS THE HARD WAY. MY EXPERIENCES HAVE INFORMED OR UNDERSCORED THREE BASIC PRINCIPLES ON ESCAPE:

ALWAYS HAVE an escape route.

On November 16 2015, I chose to chase without a reliable escape route, putting my driver and I in a compromising position. A tornado outbreak was ongoing in the Texas Panhandle. We caught a brief tornado near Groom as the sun set, then began chasing a second large and strong tornado that formed after dark. Pursuit meant racing north on Highway 70 in the direction of Pampa. However, there were no eastbound escape routes that I was comfortable with for 25 miles, and westbound options were limited to unfamiliar dirt roads that led into the core of another approaching storm. Nevertheless, I decided to proceed. Halfway to Pampa, reports began coming in of a large tornado on the ground from the storm behind us… and it was gaining. At the same time, we encountered the damage path of the tornado in front of us; we were slowed and narrowly avoided a downed power pole that lay snapped across the road. Thankfully we could pass around it and the other debris, and we kept pace northward, precariously positioned between the two damaging tornadoes. We made it the 25 miles to Pampa, then west to safety, but I was rattled and angry with myself for chasing without a proper escape route.

ALWAYS CHOOSE your escape route.

There might be a dozen ways to evacuate a storm, but if you don’t know which is best and which you want, you can waste time evaluating options or simply make the wrong choice. On May 16, 2016, my uncle and I were on a distant but approaching tornado near Dalhardt, Texas. I departed to early to reposition. I wanted to allow us time to pass south through town ahead of the storm. However, I took for granted that there were multiple options to get from the north side of town to the south, so I didn’t properly consider which one was best… and I chose the wrong one. With a little thoughtful analysis, I could have learned preemptively that my route was a construction-jammed nightmare while alternate ones were clear. Instead, we spent several stressful and uncertain minutes maneuvering out and away from my awful route. Luckily the tornado dissipated and the storm passed just north of town, but I still learned a valuable lesson about not just having an escape route, but thoughtfully selecting the right escape route.

ALWAYS USE your escape route.

On June 14, 2014, we were chasing the remarkable but devastating series of tornadoes that raked across northeast Nebraska. After witnessing the Stanton tornado from a distance, we approached the storm on Highway 275, positioning on the north side of Pilger. I let my driver, Mike, know that our primary escape route was to head east then southeast along the same highway from which we’d approached. We sat and watched as a new tornado formed just to our southwest, becoming a thick and violent elephant trunk that blasted into the town. My plan was to backtrack ahead of the tornado, let it cross behind us, and then follow it north on one of the many county road options. However, a scan of the storm revealed a new area of rotation ahead of the main tornado immediately to our south, and within moments another tornado was on the ground. It became apparent that we would have to race even further east to get out of the way and stay ahead of this second unexpected tornado. I told Mike to be careful, hit the speed limit, but use our escape route to get us out of the way. As we evacuated ahead of the two tornadoes, I observed a third area of rotation. Having never experienced a tornado-producing storm quite like this, I decided to continue on our escape route until we were totally ahead and out from under the storm’s mesocyclone. We watched the tornadoes pass safely to our west, caught our breath, the continued to chase them from the south.

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