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As tornadoes neared, drivers hit the road – with deadly results

Chris Machian / AP

An overturned semitrailer rests on its side on the eastbound lanes of Interstate 40, just east of El Reno, Okla., after a reported tornado touched down, Friday, May 31, 2013.


Multiple tornadoes that roared south of Oklahoma City on Friday evening, killing at least five people who were in vehicles, may have caused some people to take to their cars as dark clouds gathered, authorities said.

“We try to tell people not to drive into the storm,” Betsy Randolph of the Oklahoma Highway Patrol told NBC station KFOR of Oklahoma City. “And this may have been one of those deals where there was little or no notice or warning. It’s just so gut-wrenching and it’s so heartbreaking.”

Authorities struggled to think of some other reason people might have taken to the roads other than panic.

“I was surprised by that, it came through the metro area six thirty, seven o’clock time frame,” Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett said on MSNBC, meaning that people should not have been driving home from work.

“I’m wondering if the tornadoes from a couple of weeks ago didn’t frighten people so badly that this time they were taking no chances and trying to evade it by car,” Cornett said. “That’s a very unwise thing to do because it's the absolute worst place you can be during a tornado.”

Brandi Vanalphen, 30, was among the hundreds of drivers trapped on traffic-snarled roads as she attempted to flee the tornado system menacing the suburb of Norman.


Click to view scenes from Friday's violent storm.

"What got me scared was being stuck in traffic with sirens going off," she told Reuters. "I started seeing power flashes to the north, and I said 'screw this.' I started driving on the shoulder. People started driving over the grass." 

Twenty-four people were killed in a tornado that leveled swaths of Moore, Okla. last week. Heading into wide-open areas with little or no shelter is not the way to get to safety in a tornado, however, authorities said.

The woman and her child who authorities said died in the storm Friday evening were on Interstate 40 near El Reno, west of Oklahoma City, they said. One person was killed in the suburb of Yukon and two others died elsewhere, NBC station KFOR of Oklahoma City reported. KFOR reported that all the victims were in vehicles.

“You cannot ride out a tornado inside a vehicle,” Randolph said. A tornado’s winds can suck a person out of a car, she said. Drivers who unexpectedly find themselves in the path of a twister should get out of their vehicle and shelter in a ditch or other low-lying area to protect themselves from the whipping winds, she said.

“Your body will be less likely to be sucked up,” Randolph said.

People in south Oklahoma City left the gridlocked parking lot outside a convenience store and broke through the store’s glass doors to seek shelter, KFOR reported.

Oklahoma resident Garrett Occhipinti speaks with MSNBC via phone about a photo he took of the storm that showed massive wall clouds stretching for over a mile.

A Weather Channel vehicle carrying meteorologist Mike Bettes and his crew in the El Reno area was tossed 200 yards by the tornado. The vehicle was destroyed, but Bettes said he and his crew walked away.

More cars on the roads also meant more trouble for Highway Patrol officers responding to automobile accidents during the storm, Randolph said. The officers had to contend with hail and strong winds as they worked to help motorists.

Photographs taken of the damage along Interstate 40 in the El Reno area showed a tractor-trailer turned over on its side by the powerful gusts.

People who tried to get away in their cars faced potential dangers from flash flood waters as well as tornado-force winds.

The threat of flash floods was high during the night in Oklahoma City, the National Weather Service office in Norman, Okla., said on its Twitter account.

“Do not drive into areas where water covers the road,” the NWS office said in one tweet.

“Most people who die in flood[s] drown in their cars!” it said in another.

As the storms moved through the area, authorities said their concern was to make sure that people got home alive.

NBC's Janet Shamlian reports from Oklahoma City, Okla., where the main tornado system passed through. Now, a second rotational system is on the way, threatening Moore, Okla.

“It’s a safety concern, we just want to make sure people aren’t in the path of any additional storms that may pass through,” said Kelly Cain of the Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management. “We just really want to encourage people to get off the roads as soon as possible and get to a safe place and take shelter as needed.”

Residents of the Oklahoma City metro area were asked to remain off the roads as crews worked to clean up the damage.

“Avoid interstate travel while emergency crews respond to tornado damage,” the Oklahoma Department of Transportation said on its Twitter account on Friday night.

Reuters contributed to this report.


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