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Disaster Myths

Emergency preparedness can seem like a daunting task, but for the most part it is all based on information that you have probably known most of your life.  However, along the way a few pieces of misinformation have circulated that seem to cause the most confusion and here we are attempting to clear up some of the misunderstanding. 

This is not intended to be a complete list of all disaster myths- we don't have that much room- but more a list of the ones that we hear most often repeated.  If you have any specific questions or you have one that you feel should be included in our list, let us know.  We would love to hear from you!


Here are some of the most common disaster myths and their actual realities.

Myth: When you hear the sirens, it means that a tornado is on the ground.
Reality: Outdoor warning sirens are for all-hazards and are intended to warn people that there is a dangerous situation outside and that they should seek shelter and additional information. Outdoor warning sirens do not have "tornado sensors" and can only go off if authorized staff have received information that there is a dangerous situation that warrants activation.  This means that the sirens may be sounded for other events such as hazardous materials spills or hail storms.  It also means that with quick storms, there may not be enough lead time to activate the sirens prior to the event.

Myth: If you are out shopping or dining when you hear the sirens, you should wrap up quickly and head home as fast as possible.
Reality: If you hear the outdoor warning sirens, it means that danger is imminent and you should seek shelter immediately.  Do not get in your car or attempt to drive home!  If you are in your car, pull over and find a sturdy building to seek shelter in until the storm passes.

Myth: Highway overpasses are a safe place to shelter if you are on the road when you see a tornado coming.
Reality: From scientific lessons learned,  meteorologists insist that overpasses are insufficient shelter from tornado winds and debris, and may be the worst place to be during a violent tornado. The embankment under an overpass is higher than the surrounding terrain, and the wind speed increases with height. Additionally, the overpass design may create a "wind-tunnel" effect under the span, further increasing the wind speed. Also, people stopping underneath overpasses block the flow of traffic, putting others in danger.

Myth: Areas near rivers, lakes, and mountains are safe from tornadoes.
Reality: No place is safe from tornadoes. In the late 1980s, a tornado swept through Yellowstone National Park leaving a path of destruction up and down a 10,000-foot mountain. The safest place is always the lowest level of a sturdy building in an interior room.

The low pressure with a tornado causes buildings to “explode” as the tornado passes overhead.
Reality: While it may seem like the building is "exploding" when it is struck by the tornado, it is actually the violent winds and debris slamming into buildings that cause most structural damage.

Myth: Windows should be opened before a tornado approaches to equalize pressure & minimize damage.
Reality: Opening windows allows damaging winds to enter the structure and eliminates one layer of protection from flying debris. Do not waste time with the windows if a tornado warning is issued instead, immediately move to a safe place.

Myth: Tornadoes only occur in the Spring months.
Reality: Most do occur during the months from March to June and from 3 to 9 p.m.  However, tornadoes have been recorded in every month and at all times of the day and night.  This is why maintaining situational awareness at all times is so important.

Myth: Lightning never strikes the same place twice.
Reality: This couldn't be farther from the truth. Lightning frequently strikes the same place, sometimes many times a year. The Empire State Building is struck by lightning almost 25 times every year. Similar structures around the world are also struck repeatedly.

Myth: Lightning only occurs during a thunderstorm.
Reality:  Another pervasive myth is that you're safe from lightning if the sky is blue and there are no clouds directly above. The expression "like a bolt from the blue" is testimony to the scary truth that lightning frequently strikes over three miles from the site of the actual thunderstorm. In some rare cases, lightning can hit over 10 miles away from the thunderstorm.

Myth: You should not touch a lightning victim because they may still be "electrified".
Reality:  This myth not only spreads false information, it also may lead to someone dying because others are too scared to give them CPR. The human body doesn't store up the electricity from the lightning strike, and helping someone who's been struck by lightning is safe. Of course, if the storm is still overhead, be careful of continuing lightning strikes.

Myth: Following a disaster, people will panic and behave irrationally.  Looting and rioting can be expected.
Reality: Unlike what Hollywood would have you believe, research shows that most people rarely turn against each other, lose control or panic.  Instead of causing irrational, self-centered or criminal behavior, the tragedy at the World Trade Center on 9-11 actually brought people together and created a sense of "we-ness."

Myth: In the immediate aftermath of a disaster, any kind of assistance is needed and it is needed NOW!
Reality: A hasty response that is not based on an impartial evaluation contributes to the chaos.  Unrequested donations are sometimes called "the second disaster" because they cause already limited resources to be diverted in order to sort, store and deliver the goods. It is better to wait until genuine needs have been assessed so that you don't unwittingly add to the problem or get in the way.

Myth: Epidemics and plagues are inevitable after every disaster.
Reality: Epidemics do not spontaneously occur after a disaster and dead bodies will not lead to catastrophic outbreaks of exotic diseases. The key to preventing disease is to improve sanitary conditions and educate the public.

Sources: Nature’s Most Violent Storms, A Preparedness Guide, USDC, NOAA, NWS; Oklahoma Medical Reserve Corps; Pan-American Health Organization; the Tornado Project and the University of Arkansas Environmental Health & Safety Department