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Overpasses prove inadequate storm shelters

By Rochelle Hines, AP Writer (May 14, 1999)

They became some of the familiar scenes after last week's tornadoes— people bloodied and mud-splattered emerging from the crawl spaces under interstate overpasses near Oklahoma City.

But the "under the girder" shelter isn't the haven many might suspect. Scientists at the National Weather Service believe they are among the worst places people can go when a tornado is bearing down. "One of the problems with 'under the girder' kind of shelter is that it can become a wind- tunnel effect," Jim Purpura, warning coordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Norman, said Thursday. "Winds are stronger and more focused underneath it. It's like the intersection between two buildings. That can be a catcher for debris such as automobiles."

Terry Porter, her husband, Kevin, and their son, Benjamin, learned that the hard way when they fled their Oklahoma City home toward Interstate 35 on May 3. They made it to an overpass on the east side of the highway and ran up the incline to the ledge beneath the overpass. The wind began sucking their son out, but her husband was able to shield him, Terry Porter, 47, said Thursday.

"The next thing I remember is stuff hitting me in the back of the head. My husband said he thought we were caught up in the tornado, like we were whirling around in there."

Their 2-year-old son suffered cuts and bruises; Terry Porter suffered a concussion, and Kevin Porter, 43, suffered a broken foot, deep lacerations to his arms and other injuries requiring surgery, she said. The house was unscathed.

In the case of some of the storm victims, Purpura thinks those who were killed while on the highway didn't know about the danger until it was too late.

"There were many services available that would have given those people enough information to make an informed decision," he said. "Some people just drove right up into the storm."

One of those victims was Tram Thu Bui, 26, who was identified Thursday as the 44th victim of the tornado. Her body was found Wednesday a short distance from the overpass where she and her family had sought shelter May 3.

Bui's husband, Thuanh, grabbed the couple's two children, and they all tried to huddle under the bridge. But by the time he turned around, Bui was gone, said her father-in-law, Bernie Beres. Another highway victim was Anadarko resident Kathleen Walton, who sought refuge from the tornado under an overpass on I-35 with her son, Levi. Levi, 11, was injured. He said his mother told him she loved him and then let go of him as the violent winds passed. Another victim was killed when she was sucked from her sports car on Interstate 44 and thrown into a field near the highway. Purpura said many people may perceive that getting under an overpass is safe. He said that may stem from 1991, when a television crew returning from the deadly storms in Andover, Kan., sought shelter under an overpass and videotaped the twister as it passed. "It was a strong storm, but it did not have the violent storm winds that we saw on May 3," Purpura said.

Purpura said the best way to be safe is to avoid the storm altogether. If that's not possible and the storm is some distance away, drivers should get off the road and into a building.

"Once you get into an area where there is debris flying, there are only a few alternatives, and none of them are that good," he said.