By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
In Irving, 3,884 single-family houses would be destroyed, more than 10 percent of its entire single-family housing stock, Rae's report concludes. In Dallas, where the theoretical path would enter the city near Love Field, cross the intersection of Midway and Walnut Hill roads, then cross LBJ Freeway at Hillcrest before entering Richardson, 2,859 single-family houses would be hit with winds strong enough to tear off roofs. Rae estimated that property damage along the entire path would total at least $3 billion using assessed values reported in 2000. Shaw, the Dallas emergency management coordinator, says there is a strong likelihood of fires breaking out along the damage path from ruptured gas lines, no doubt causing further destruction.
Rae's study, which he co-wrote with a researcher from the National Weather Service, did not attempt to estimate casualties in such a nightmare scenario, but Lisius says an estimate worked up informally by several of those involved with the study pegged the likely death toll at 300, with perhaps 5,000 injured. "I'm not with a government organization so I don't need to be as careful," he says. "If it's the evening rush hour and the freeways are backed up, that could make it a lot worse."
It's a given that freeway traffic at any time of day would grind to a halt as people stop under bridges and underpasses to avoid hail or seek what they mistakenly believe will be shelter, says Rae in an interview at his Arlington office. People are most vulnerable in their cars, which can be easily tossed around or pierced by wind-driven projectiles. During the Lancaster tornado, which came with a supercell thunderstorm delivering golf ball-sized hail, thousands of cars backed up on Interstate 20 as people parked under overpasses. There were numerous wrecks as the tornado tore along at a short distance south of the highway.
During the Moore twister, two people died after being blown out from under freeway bridges and 12 people who took shelter under one underpass on I-35 were all badly hurt by flying debris. They suffered injuries ranging from being impaled by a two-by-four, to compound fractures and missing fingers, noses or ears. It took rescue crews a week to find the body of a woman who was killed. She was found about 100 feet down the roadway, under a pile of storm rubble 6 to 8 feet deep.
Since then, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association has been trying to disabuse people of the notion that underpasses provide shelter. Its safety studies also warn that climbing up a covered embankment actually puts you into stronger winds higher in the tornado. The agency's recommended course of action for motorists—get out of the car, get low in a ditch and cover your head—hardly sounds like an attractive alternative.
In their house on Highland Drive in Moore, Oklahoma, Marty and Veronia Bernich had been following the twister's progress that evening in urgent TV weather broadcasts. They understood, as the lights went out across their subdivision, that they could be in its path. "I went outside and noticed how serene it was. The sky was all green and yellow," recalled Marty Bernich, a 55-year-old high school art teacher and potter. "My wife started yelling at me to get inside."
TV weather crews had been reporting the twister's extreme intensity, and people were urged to take shelter below ground. Like nearly everyone in his neighborhood, Bernich had no place like that to go. The one-story, three-bedroom red brick and frame house they had bought two years earlier was on a slab foundation with no basement or storm shelter. Most Dallas homeowners would also find themselves with no underground cover.
The couple gathered their two high-school age daughters and two cats between them, hunched down in a windowless hallway and pulled a mattress over their heads. "It sounded just like we were in the first car at the railroad crossing," Bernich says. "You could hear wood splintering. I had a lot of my pottery stored in a garden room, and you could hear it smashing. Then there was this big boom and a pressure change. It felt like the house just imploded."
Ten years later, he can still recall the sound of his daughters' screaming and the feel of things hitting the mattress that they managed to keep over their heads. "It was extremely horrific, but at a certain point I started to feel relief, like I knew we were going to make it," he says. To the smell of freshly dug soil and natural gas, they emerged unhurt and began looking around the wreckage. The entire house, Bernich says, had been twisted off its foundation. That might explain why he felt the sensation at one point of being elevated completely off the ground.
When the couple rebuilt the following year—in another subdivision about three miles away—they had an underground shelter installed, and in 2003 they had a chance to use it when a twister, an F3, hit another part of Moore.
"We were happy to be down there," says Bernich, who has since divorced, remarried and again lives in a house with no shelter.