Severe thunderstorm with large hail forming in Manitoba in 2005. Note the farmer combining right up until the storm hit hoping to get as much of his harvest up as possible. (Photo by Dick Gordon)
Of all the potential nasty things that mother nature can throw at the full timer, the severe thunderstorm is simultaneously the most common, the most widespread, and the most likely to be deadly. Severe thunderstorms occur in virtually every location you can take your rig. Severe thunderstorms can and do spawn tornadoes. In addition to tornados severe storms can have other horrific winds capable of throwing your rig around, creating flash floods that can wash it away, hail that can pound it to a pulp, and lightning that can set it on fire. Your rig, no matter what kind it is, will lose in any encounter with a tornado. RVs are rather fragile and a direct hit by even a F1 will likely pulverize it. We have seen a trailer flattened down to a metre in the middle by a tree trunk. Being in a travel trailer is generally less safe than being outside in the open lying down in a ditch nearby because it is far easier for a tornado to push winds into the space under the camper and pick it up and throw it, than it is to do so with a person lying down. When you are in a travel trailer, motorhome, fifth wheel or other camper and a severe storm approaches, you must, almost without exception, simply must abandon it and find better shelter elsewhere. And almost anything is better! You must know when the storm is coming with enough time so that you can abandon your trailer and get to a safe storm shelter.
We all know the signs of a severe storm as it gets close. Still and quiet air, heavy humidity, thunderheads, lightning and distant rumblings are all clues you might be in for it. My experience suggests that you can’t count on these for enough warning. One reason you can’t use such clues is that by the time the storm can be seen, it is usually too late to prepare and take shelter. This is especially true in mountainous or rolling hills where the storm can be hidden from view until it comes over the hill. The second reason is that such clues only tell you about well behaved storms that are following a given path with you in that predictable path and paying attention. Most of the time, when you read accounts of people who have survived severe storms they say things like: “The storm came out of nowhere!”, “It happened so fast, we had no warning.” The area with all the fury doesn’t always follow the nice neat southwest to northeast path that the larger system producing the storm usually takes. Individual storms within a moving system have a bad habit of veering all over the place in looping patterns, or turning right, as the system moves generally southwest to northeast. (I am referring to storms in North America here. On other continents the prevailing pattern may vary.)
Tornados spawned from storms often do the same looping and veering under the looping and veering storm cloud that made them. The result is you have areas of intense damage, medium damage and no damage that when viewed from ground level appear to be random. The damage paths are not really random. Viewed from above on the scale of several miles, the loops within loops or veering patterns becomes apparent. Looping patterns for a tornado can also occur up and down, in addition to side to side, when the funnel cloud touches down, lifts up and touches down again or the same storm drops more than one twister. Tornados can also come in pairs and rarely in clusters. There is a terrifying youtube video of a group of people in Joplin hiding in a refrigerator in a convenience store. They are subjected to two separate rounds of screaming winds. The path from the air suggests there were twin vortexes within the main tornados dancing around each other with these lucky people were in between.
This is why one house can be totally destroyed in a storm, while the house next door is almost untouched. This is also why severe storms so often seem to arrive without the warning from the distance. You think the storm is off to the west and it missed you at one moment and the next you are in the middle of it. Visual and auditory clues by themselves may not give you enough warning.Severe weather we encountered near Lexington Kentucky 2011.
This swirling funnel near the Kentucky State Horse Park did not touch down. The same storm system produced the infamous Joplin F5. Photo by Dick Gordon.
In spite of the seasonality of tornados, they can happen almost any time of year. Canada’s official tornado season is June and July. There have been confirmed tornados as early as March and as late as November in Canada. While tornados in Canada tend to be confined to the prairies and southern Ontario, all provinces have reported them. While Canadian tornados tend to be smaller, we have had a confirmed F5. I like to tell people that Winnipeg is at the top end of the infamous midwest Tornado Alley and Canada’s one F5 occurred in Elie, Manitoba, a mere 30km west of my home town.
In spite of this, the chance of being killed by a tornado is vanishingly small. You are far more likely to die from a traffic accident so fear of severe storms should not keep you off the road. You just need to be prepared and aware. Traveling from the southern USA to home in Manitoba, Canada in the spring means traveling in the middle of tornado season. We have had enough close encounters of the severe thunderstorm kind that we have become a little bit paranoid.
In many campgrounds, especially in the state run parks of tornado alley, washrooms are designed to double as tornado shelters. We spent a few warning sessions in a tornado shelter/washroom at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington Kentucky during the same storm system that produced the infamous May 2011 F5 Joplin tornado that killed 158 people and caused 2.8 billion in damage. While the Joplin destruction got the most press that day, that weather system produced severe storms with tornados quite literally in a line from the Gulf Coast to Canada. The Lexington area had three separate tornado warnings that day. Fortunately for Lexington, these warnings turned out to be for tornados that were F0 hitting only farm fields or else they never actually touched down.
Severe thunderstorms and the tornados that they produce occur and can be tracked at three levels. First is the system level. Severe weather is not produced at random. It occurs on the boundary between hot and cold airmasses and requires a few other factors built in, including high humidity, on at least one side of the boundary. These weather systems are huge and can even stretch across the entire continent as it did in May 2011. I check the weather at least twice a day, morning and night. I also check the system maps. It is easy to pull up the map of warnings for all of the USA on the NOAA website and for all of Canada on the Environment Canada website. In addition to checking the local forecast, I always check the weather to the south and west. It is a rare system that produces severe weather that hasn’t been moving in a line from west to east dropping storms the previous day in the state/province south or west of you. Rarely a system will move from the south. Extremely rarely, it can come from the north. I have only seen severe weather moving locally east to west on the very rare occasion there is a large post tropical storm tracking inland in a huge spiral and the severe weather happened on the backside of the spiral. If there have been severe storms the day before and the system that produced them is moving your way, you will likely see some. A continent wide system map holds important clues of when and where you need to be worrying.
The Canadian system of forecasting tornados is so primitive that professional storm trackers from the USA consider finding and tracking a tornado in Canada to be the ultimate test of their ability because they get so little help. I have often found the only reason I know that we can expect severe weather in Manitoba is because I have watched Saskatchewan get thoroughly pounded the day before. In the USA, NOAA also provides detailed analysis of your probability of having a severe storm by tracking moving systems and mapping out their probability. NOAA will alert you if there is even a remote possibility (<5%) that severe weather might occur. This system monitoring gives you a 24 to 48 hour alert that you need to be thinking of the possibilities of severe storms.
The best thing to do is try to avoid them the day before. More than once, we have stayed on for an extra night or even two to just let the storms go by ahead of us. We have also found lovely campsites we had planned on staying at for an extra day or two but suddenly found ourselves in a forecast bull’s eye. We have left the campsite early even if it means losing a night’s camping fee. If we don’t have a safe stopping spot and the storm system is narrow, we will also alter our planned travel so we cross the storm line early in the morning instead of late afternoon since the worst storms typically occur from early in the afternoon to late evening.
One caveat on this “dash over the storm line to safety” is that the further south and east you are on the continent the less this “storm time zone” rule holds. We have heard of tornado warning just before dawn in both Georgia and Texas for example. Sometimes the system is just too big to avoid. This is typical in spring when a huge swath of severe weather stretches over the entire continent and across two or three prairie states. In that situation, we try to find the safest place possible to stop and ride it out.
Whenever we stop in any campground under threat we automatically do a quick area sweep for hazards and shelter. We check nearby bodies of water for potential flooding. If we might be seeing severe weather we also check the washrooms to see how sturdy they are and if they can double as shelter. We check for overhanging trees that look unstable. We check for orientation of the campsites and we pick a campsite where the front end of the trailer facing west or southwest where possible. If the campsite has levels, as in steps down to a lakeshore, we try to pick one with a ridge of land between us and the approaching storm system. If the campsite is exposed and potentially dangerous without having decent shelter, we will keep moving until we find a safer location. In general, state and provincial parks have sturdy washrooms that make good shelters but private campgrounds usually have lighter flimsy buildings. There are exceptions to both so physically check the washroom well in advance.
A sturdy washroom will have several keep components. The roof will be very reinforced where the roof line meets the walls. In hurricane country you can often see big metal clips reinforcing the roof line. Without reinforcement, the roof will be ripped off in a severe wind and then the internal walls will collapse. There should be an inner room without windows with a strong door that can be latched or closed. More walls between you and the outside is better. Shelter within the room is good. The space under the counter with the sinks and inside the shower stalls are generally safer. In May 2011, the forecast was for a huge swath of danger and there was no way to avoid it going north or south. The danger zone was far too wide to try racing through in the morning and even if it had been thin, there had been storms reported all day and overnight before hand. The campground we were in had an excellent storm shelter. It was a properly certified tornado shelter set low in the ground with thick heavy beam roofs, big metal roof clips, and built of solid cinderblock and cement. There were double heavy doors with strong automatic latching systems. There were no windows, and the shower stalls were reinforced even more. Our trailer was beside a shelter belt of trees that would reduce wind but where no individual tree was big enough to fall on it and destroy it. There was a hill between us and the direction of the system. Although we were in a NOAA red zone (high risk), there were terrifying white zones of the highest possible risk both north and south of us. We decided we would be safest by sitting tight where we were and waiting it out.
Our final step of preparation was to make sure we had everything we needed right near the door for a fast dash to the washroom and that we knew the name of the county we were in. Storm warnings go up naming the county. If you don’t know your county, you won’t know if the warning applies to you. The second level of severe storms is the thunderstorms themselves. Thunderstorms are actually huge compared to the size of you and your rig. One storm can cover an entire county but they are usually smaller than that and individual storms from a system can be tracked as individual moving units.
Here is where watching radar becomes invaluable. Keeping in mind that storms can veer off the straight line, nonetheless they usually move in a predictable pattern. If you check the radar and use the time sequence feature, you can see the pattern. You may be sitting in region with a high severe storm probability, but a quick glance at the radar will show the storm itself is moving in a path north or south of your position by several miles. Keep watching though. In a moving cluster of storms one will go severe and then lose strength and another one will pick up in fury in its place.
When do you start doing radar tracking? I start if a watch is issued. A “watch” to me means start watching by checking the radar every thirty minutes. I also check the radar if I see anything on the horizon that looks suspicious to me. Severe storms have a specific structure including a high flattened anvil cloud above. The single most important visual clue is a long thin edge of the anvil shape overhead stretching toward us with a bubbling blowout through the top. If the anvil is overhead, the storm is approaching. Other signs of instability like mammatus clouds are signals to be checking radar too. Thunder can be heard as far away as fifteen miles from the lightning source. Sound can warn. If you are in the city or near an interstate or behind a mountain, you can’t count on noise. When in doubt, I check the radar. The radar tells you if you need to worry or if the storm is going to miss you entirely. Most of the time, I check the radar and find I can stop worrying.
Official warnings go up when a tornado is confirmed to be on the ground or when the radar image shows a storm has formed the classic “hook” image indicating a tornado is possible. You don’t need to be a weatherman to learn what that hook looks like. If you are watching on radar you can see often see the hook and head for shelter while the weatherman is activating the warning system. In the USA, such warnings are typically accompanied by warning sirens and professional storm spotters who report to both local authorities, the press, and NOAA. The NOAA warnings and the observations of professional storm spotters and reports from the public get transmitted live on air over television and radio. The precision can be remarkable. I have heard tornado and severe thunderstorm warnings in the USA where the exact street and businesses affected are named by storm spotters. I have even heard warnings as specific as this: “The tornado is moving down 52nd street and the mall may be hit so if you are in the mall, take shelter now.”
Severe storm which produced a tornado passing over Lake Winnipeg close to Winnipeg Beach. I tracked this storm on radar and telephoned Environment Canada to report it. It had developed the classic radar hook. Because I was tracking it on radar I knew it would miss us and that we could safely try to view it. I was one of several callers who were tracking the storm and a tornado warning and small craft advisory was issued shortly after I took this photo.
In Canada, warnings hardly ever go up ahead of the tornados. The normal advance warning is that the conditions are right for a severe thunderstorm and a reminder in the fine print that severe thunderstorms can produce tornados. In Canada a warning is usually issued because someone on the ground saw a tornado or encountered large hail and phoned Environment Canada. The storm has often already moved past by the time the official warning is issued. In many provinces, including my own of Manitoba, there is no coordination between Environment Canada and the press and media. On weekends, TV and radio programs are typically recorded in advance and there is no way to break into local programming and pass along warnings because there is no one to pick up the telephone at the station. There are almost no sirens to set off either.
To see an example of just how bad our warning system is up here in the great white north, try watching the video by amateur storm chaser Justin Hobson (Canada does not have paid storm spotters) where you can hear his side of the entire conversation between him and Environment Canada as he calls the first report in. (Plus you will get a great sample of the local accent I am frequently accused of displaying.) No warnings were issued before this tornado touched down. They only went out after reports like the one Justin Hobson made began reaching Environment Canada. There wasn’t even a watch in effect! Environment Canada had predicted that morning that conditions would be right for the development of severe storms. Since they say that many summer days and nothing happens, it wasn’t information to make people sit up and be on alert. There were a total of eight confirmed tornados including an F3 in addition to the F5 over that two day outbreak.
On another video of the same Elie F5 event called “Going to Alberta”, the radio announcer can be heard giving his version of a warning between commercials. While an F5 is pulverizing Elie, the only warning he gives is that things are getting exciting in the weather. Both locations he gives are wrong for the F5 though right for other severe storms in the same system. He does not let the weather warnings get in the way of his Power 97 paid commercials. And Power 97 gave better information than anyone else in the press at the time! It was Friday night and the stations were on automatic and everyone also had left to hit the beach or patio that weekend. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xCI1u05KD_s)
As unbelievable as it may sound to Americans, warnings from Environment Canada cannot be issued unless they can be issued in both official languages simultaneously. Therefore warnings are delayed for up to twenty minutes while translation happens. If translation is not available because there is only one person on duty and that person isn’t bilingual, the warning won’t go out at all. Even if they do send out a warning, there is no way to get the message out if you aren’t checking the Environment Canada website yourself.
And those wonderful weather radios Americans count on are pretty much useless in Canada. Warnings go out on those on a province by province basis so a wind warning for Hudson Bay in the far north will set off the radio in Winnipeg. The result is the radio is going off all the time for weather systems that are hundreds of miles away.
Local Rural Municipality offices have a direct radio system warning but most RM offices shut down at 4:30 pm and don’t open at all on weekends. Also since there are no sirens, there is no way for them to get warnings to you. Locals count on family and friends calling them to warn a storm is coming. As a tourist, you aren’t in their network. If you are camping in Canada, you have to rely on your own weather skills because my experience suggested there is less than a 50:50 chance that the government here is going to warn you a tornado is coming.
One exception is Alberta. After an F3 tornado ripped up Alberta’s Pine Lake campground in July 2000, killing 12 people and injuring many more in addition to tossing campers into the lake and sweeping fish from the lake onto nearby farms, the weather warning system was changed so that Environment Canada can take over the airwaves and issue warnings by radio and television even on weekends. Pine Lake was under a watch at the time and a warning went out once the funnel touched down, mostly because there just happened to be a vacationing Environment Canada weatherman in the area who saw the storm and phoned it in. That is unfortunately only in Alberta.
Pine Lake Tornado (image from the Central Alberta Amateur Radio Club Archive of the Pine lake Tornado July 24 2000.)
The next level of storm awareness is within the storm itself. Storms, especially storms that are large and can produce particularly dangerous weather, will have areas of high intensity and areas of lesser intensity. The radar shows this. When we were sitting in that Lexington storm shelter under a tornado warning, a woman from Australia became almost hysterical with fear. She had no experience with severe thunderstorms beyond seeing movies like twister. She was terrified that she was about to die. I pulled up the radar image and showed her that although the warning was for our county, we were not in the part of the storm that could produce the tornado. I would never leave shelter on the basis of that kind of information, but it is comforting to know that even through we were sitting in a tornado warning area, we were not likely to be hit. The poor tourist from Australia certainly agreed.
My final tip is when in doubt, watch the locals. People in tornado country develop their own awareness of the weather. I have had two experiences where I asked local people for an opinion and their answer might have saved my life. The first was when we were following the Mississippi north to Canada and we stopped in a casino campground in Memphis. We had been up late the night before, there had been warnings about the potential for severe storms before we went to sleep. I went outside to check the sky. I was looking at the sky when I noticed my neighbour in the camper next door was also out doing the same thing. I asked him his opinion of the clouds off to the north. He replied in a broad Texas drawl that he would not recommend “y’all” driving north anytime soon and he wasn’t moving southwest towards home that day either because that sky meant twisters later for sure. I went down to the campground office and paid for another night.
A couple of hours later a monster half mile wide F4 crossed the interstate we would have been on if we had left. Later that afternoon we got to see another group of tornados in the same system make the news to the southwest of us in Texas by tossing semi trucks and railcars about like my grandsons do with their toys. We probably would have stayed put anyway but having a local say so, definitely convinced me.
The second close call happened in Lexington Kentucky again. We came up from the basement section of a combination pizzeria/sports bar and were about to exit to go to our truck when a tremendous flash of lightning lit up the parking lot. I stopped just inside the doorway and looked up at black sky. I saw another man near the doorway looking out and I asked him if he was from the area. He said he was. I then asked him if he thought it was safe for us to drive. He replied he was a local NOAA weather spotter and he had just phoned in what he thought was a wall cloud and they had issued a tornado warning for the city. He suggested it would be safer if we went back to the basement and had another beer. Just as we turned to go back, there was another flash of cloud to ground lightning that hit a post halfway between that door and our truck. I don’t like to think about what could have happened if we had been walking to our truck.
We have only seen severe storms in the distance while driving on two occasions. During a drive from Telluride Colorado to Winnipeg we decided we would go diagonally across Wyoming and visit Devil’s Tower. We were traveling in a zig zag pattern going from southwest to northeast. As it happened a storm system was doing the same thing. We were traveling with young children and we were not experienced with assessing weather while traveling. My husband was driving. I looked ahead at this absolutely black storm low on the horizon and from my experiences on the farm in Saskatchewan, I became concerned.
“I think we need to turn on the radio. I don’t like the look of that storm ahead.”
“It’s just a thundershower.”
“I don’t think so.”
I turned on the radio. We got that ominous heart stopping warning sound. It was followed by a warning. “ALERT: A tornado warning for southern Campbell county Wyoming has been issued. Doppler radar indicates a thunderstorm capable of producing a tornado, moving southwest to northeast at 35 mph near highway 387 and the intersection of highway 59. If you are in this area take cover now.”
The radio changed to the controlled frenzy of the local broadcaster speaking live to the storm chaser on the ground.
“I can see the storm, I do not see a funnel but it looks bad, very dark and there’s a lots of golf ball size hail.”
“Where are we?” my husband asked.
“Hang on, let me get the get the map.” I replied
“I think we’re on 387,” he said.
“It’s moving across the highway now.”
“What county are we in?”
“I have no idea who keeps track of county names?”
“Can you see if there is any damage?”
“They said Campbell county,” my husband said. “Check if we are in Campbell county!”
“Oh my God!” I said as a fumbled with the map. “That’s what we’re looking at! We’re in Campbell country and we are driving right into it! I told you it looked bad!”
“I see hail, lots of it but we’re not near buildings right now.”
“Mommy! I’m scared!” my seven year old daughter said.
“Have we passed highway 50 yet?” I asked after looking at the map.
“I don’t think so.”
“Mommy what’s happening?” My son Alan, then nine, was also getting worried.
“I am following it north. It is moving north northeast”
“If you see 50 take that north, it’s outside of the storm path.” I told my husband. “It’s okay kids that black cloud up ahead is a bad thunderstorm and we’re going to make sure we miss it.”
“Maybe we should stop and take shelter,” my husband said.
“Well, it’s moving away from us now, I can see that and that fits the radio report. We’re in the middle of the bald prairie with nothing for miles around! Just where are supposed to take shelter?”
“Look! That’s 50 coming up!” my husband said.
“Go north! Go north!” And so we did.
We made it safely into Gillette Wyoming and, after consulting the weather forecast and discovering there might be more of the same overnight, we decided to stay in a hotel in Gillette instead of going on to camp in the Devil’s Tower National Park. It turned out to be a wise decision. The campground was hit with a severe thunderstorm overnight and, while no one was killed or seriously injured, a lot of equipment was damaged. Local radio reports credited a quick thinking park ranger who alerted people in the campground and moved them into washrooms just before the storm hit.
When we continued our Wyoming trip, with a stop to see Devil’s Tower, we went east and north through North Dakota. Another severe storm on the east side of interstate following the Missouri sent us north along a small highway through a reservation instead of crossing the river. To get north of the system we had to get to Canada. (I didn’t realize back then that lack of high risk warnings might have just meant there was no reporting going on over the line.) More severe storms dumped so much rainwater that the campground we were going to stay in near the Peace Gardens was closed due to being underwater. We had a second night in a motel where we got a huge discount because the carpeting on the hotel floor was soaked after storm water blew in under the door the night before. My daughter was very amused about using her pink rain boots for bedroom slippers.
It was after the experience of dodging severe storms through Wyoming and North Dakota that I vowed I would never again get caught unaware and I started my regular twice daily forecast checks before traveling. Our second severe storm was in 2011 when we were staying in a campground not far from Elie Manitoba. A careful inspection of the grounds gave us little in the way of comfort for shelter. I was watching the radar and I decided things looked like they would get nasty and the nasty was coming right at us. We knew of a large shopping mall with an underground parkade twenty kilometers away. We decided it was a fine time to go shopping. We got to see the severe storm that produced an F0 tornado across the highway from our campground behind us as we drove east. We later heard stories about people in the campground cowering in the coffee shop watching the small tornado go by across the highway through the big picture window. If you can actually see a tornado through a picture window, you’re way too close and you’re not safe but it’s likely too late to fix that problem.
So what do you do if you are on the road and you find you can actually see a tornado? If you can tell which direction the storm is moving then you are likely all right and just keep moving perpendicular to the storm and let it miss you. If the storm looks like it is not moving at all that actually means it is either moving towards you, or moving away from you. Stop and get into a safe location or, only if you have no shelter, leave immediately if the road can be safely traversed.
Never stop at an underpass and climb up. Tornadic winds blowing through an underpass actually get concentrated and worsen as they speed through an overpass right near the top. Being above ground against a bare cement wall where already strong winds are concentrated is a very very bad idea. You are far safer in your vehicle. A bridge where the highway remains level but the river bank is below ground level will give some shelter, especially if there are beams that allow you to crawl in deep with protection on all sides but one. Of course you have to think about what shelter you will have if the tornado hits the bridge broadside and rips the top off. We picked such a spot as our shelter at a wonderful northern campground with flimsy washroom structure. The support structure had enough cement girdling that even if the wood part of the bridge got ripped off, the space below with the cement girdling would likely have stayed intact because we had cement overhead. I am not a big fan of spider webs so I am glad we never used it. Further south, I would have been more worried about finding myself taking shelter with a rattlesnake. That would have been quite the choice.
Culverts can provide shelter unless it rains so hard the culvert fills and you drown, which is common because of the way severe storms tend to also dump lots of rain. The other problem with culverts is that those tornadic winds can whip right through culverts and suck you out into the funnel. I would consider a culvert to be a near to last resort and certainly not a first choice. If it comes down to you in the open in your vehicle and no way to get to shelter, you have two choices. If there is a ditch nearby that is lower than the road your vehicle is on you are better off abandoning your vehicle and lying down in the ditch. Otherwise, make sure your seatbelt is fastened and start praying. Honestly, it is far better to plan your trip the day ahead so you miss being where the ugly stuff forms. Leave storm chasing to the professionals.
Since our 1993 Wyoming adventure in inadvertent storm chasing, it has been getting easier and easier to track storm producing weather systems. Wifi and cell phone service has expanded to cover almost every corner to the USA and is ever widening in Canada. In addition to checking the websites, there are delightful phone aps that can pull up either US or Canadian radar on your cell phone with a single click. With a little attention to detail, there is no reason to find yourself trying to ride out a tornado in the worst possible place to do so, your rig.
F0 tornado producing storm near the KOA West Campground 2010 just outside of Winnipeg. We are on our way into the city to an underground parking garage. The folks who stayed in the campground and took shelter in the coffee shop saw the tornado across the highway.