NOAA 2003-R210
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The number of tornado deaths in mobile homes increased significantly in 2002, totaling more than half of all tornado deaths in the United States, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). This week, during the American Meteorological Society’s annual meeting, NOAA officials reminded Americans to be prepared for tornadoes. NOAA is an agency of the Commerce Department.

In 2002, more than half of the tornado deaths in the United States occurred in mobile homes. A total of 55 people died in tornadoes, 37 of whom were in mobile homes, 12 in permanent homes, four in cars and two outside. In 2001, 40 fatalities were recorded, 11 of those in mobile homes, 18 in permanent homes, six in vehicles, three outside and two in buildings. In 2000, 29 of the 40 tornado deaths, or nearly 78 percent, were in mobile homes, four were in permanent homes, four in vehicles, one was outside and two were in buildings.

One reason for the growing rate of mobile home deaths is the increased population in such homes in the past 30 years, according to Harold Brooks, research meteorologist with the NOAA National Severe Storms Laboratory. The number of mobile homes per capita has grown the most in the Southeast, from Arkansas eastward, except for Florida, which has seen slower growth in mobile homes because of new higher building standards in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew.

Mobile homes are not safe during tornadoes. The NOAA National Weather Service recommends leaving a mobile home and going to the lowest floor of a sturdy nearby building or storm shelter.

“Tornadoes are extremely violent and other than underground there is no good place in a tornado,” said Dan McCarthy, warning coordination meteorologist with the NOAA Storm Prediction Center. “If you can’t get underground, the best place is in the center of a permanent structure.”

The NOAA Weather Service’s aim, he said, is to make sure no one finds themselves in the middle of nowhere with a tornado bearing down on them. However, in that situation, the NOAA Weather Service recommends abandoning vehicles when a tornado is approaching, and not take cover underneath overpasses.

“Vehicles may not be appropriate shelter. We can provide numerous documented cases of vehicles being carried aloft and dropped by tornadoes, and vehicles impaled by flying debris such as 2x4s,” McCarthy said. “We realize when lying in a ditch you are also vulnerable to flying debris, but it may be better to get out of and away from the vehicle and taking cover by placing your hands over your head.”

Then NOAA Weather Service’s safety recommendations were made following a thorough study conducted by Centers for Disease Control (CDC) epidemiologists in 1979 following the deadly Wichita Falls, Texas tornado. They found that people in vehicles trying to escape tornadoes became stuck in traffic jams and on dead end streets. Others were killed when the tornado curved back over them after they thought they had driven to a safe place. The CDC recommended at that time people in motor vehicles should seek shelter immediately upon hearing a tornado warning and should not attempt to drive from the tornado’s path.

“Ultimately, it’s up to each person to decide what to do based on their circumstances,” McCarthy said. “Each situation is different, so making an informed decision provides the best chance for survival.”

An average of 1,200 tornadoes cause more than $400 million in damage to homes and businesses, schools and churches annually. Considered nature’s most violent storms, peak tornado activity occurs during the months of March through early July. The NOAA Weather Service, Red Cross, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency recommend the following actions if a tornado warning is issued:

  • In a home or building, move to a pre-designated shelter, such as a basement or interior room or hallway on the lowest floor and away from windows.
  • In a mobile home, even if tied down, seek shelter in a sturdy building. As a last resort, and if no sturdy building is available leave the mobile home and seek shelter in a nearby ditch. Do not stay in the mobile home.
  • If caught outside or in a vehicle, and where no sturdy building is available lie flat in a nearby ditch away from overpasses and vehicles.

An additional source for accurate safety recommendations is the American Meteorological Society’s statement titled "Tornado Preparedness and Safety" published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society in 2000.

The Commerce Department’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is dedicated to enhancing economic security and national safety through the prediction and research of weather and climate-related events and providing environmental stewardship of our nation’s coastal and marine resources.

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