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Kansas Turnpike Tornado Shelters: A Lesser-Known Haven for Motorists During Severe Weather

By By Mark Leberfinger, Staff Writer
May 18, 2015, 3:02:33 AM EDT

Motorists traveling on the Kansas Turnpike have a way to protect themselves during severe weather by using the turnpike's storm shelters.

But trying to outrun a tornado to find one of those 30 shelters along the 236-mile route is not a good idea, AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions Meteorologist Brandon Sullivan said.

"Tornadoes are unpredictable. Trying to outrun them is very dangerous and can endanger both yourself and others around you," Sullivan said. "Often, in addition to the tornado, other hazards exist like very strong winds, torrential rainfall and large hail. None of these are conducive to trying to drive away quickly. Lastly, if traffic is backed up, when a tornado hits, being stuck in traffic is a horrible scenario."


Sullivan, who is also a storm chaser, had a harrowing experience with a tornado on May 31, 2013, near El Reno, Oklahoma. Debris hammered his Jeep Patriot as the twister pummeled houses and outbuildings.

"I was able to drive south of the tornado, but I could have stopped and taken shelter in a ditch and would have avoided the flying debris that destroyed my car," he explained. "Luckily none of it came through the windshield. The tornado rapidly shifted directions and came right for us, so we had to move quickly."

The turnpike has a variety of shelters available that will fit up to 100 people, depending on the location.

There are basement rooms under toll offices or service areas, safe rooms in service plazas and in-ground shelters at smaller interchanges, Kansas Turnpike Authority Communications Manager Jeri Biehler said.

"Thankfully, these shelters aren't widely used because the threat hasn't been imminent in some of these locations in recent years," Biehler said. "We might have employees and travelers use only one or two of the shelters along the entire roadway in any given storm season. But, no matter how little they get used, they are still an important service for our employees and travelers."

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These shelters, however, shouldn't be used as community shelters, Biehler said.

"We don't encourage anyone to leave their homes to take shelter here because we can't predetermine how many travelers might be in need of shelter at any given time," she said.

If caught on the turnpike away from a storm shelter, trying to drive to a highway overpass is a "horrible" option, Sullivan said.

"The winds near these overpasses often channel debris and send it flying up into the overpass," he said. "Anyone trying to take shelter under there would be at risk of substantial injury, or death, from flying debris."

If you are driving and a tornado is imminent, the best thing you can do is find a low-lying area such as ditch, Sullivan said.

"Get out of your car, and lie face down in the ditch. This is the best way you can protect yourself from debris and other flying objects," he said.

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