Grateful for lives saved, worried for motorists

Damage from a tornado in Garland is visible from I30 on Sunday.
Damage from a tornado in Garland is visible from I30 on Sunday. Star-Telegram

We see twisters every year, but nature’s largest and most devastating vortex tornadoes strike the Dallas-Fort Worth area only about once every generation.

We remember their names: Oak Cliff, Lancaster — and now Garland.

They will inevitably grow more common, as residential growth overtakes rural lands where tornadoes once would have struck only farmhouses or windmills.

And with every deadly tornado, we learn again how to prepare.

That work should resume soon. Relief agencies and emergency preparedness officials must take a long look at the successes and failures of Saturday’s response and take action to prepare all cities for the next F4 or F5 tornado that is only inevitable.

The success story from Saturday’s storm is in the hundreds of lives saved in its path, thanks to a more elaborate and intensive warning system that combines sirens and television warnings with new smartphone alerts. A Rowlett survivor interviewed by WFAA/Channel 8, the Star-Telegram’s media partner, could not have said it better when she said her family heard the TV warning “and so we headed to the closet.”

But the lesson to be learned is that motorists remain highly vulnerable. Drivers in the interchange at Interstate 30 and the Bush Tollway were traveling from one part of the region to another and may not have received the local alert or heard a broadcast warning.

We bombard motorists and tollway patrons with electronic messages about construction and about children or senior citizens who are missing and feared in danger, but highway message boards should also warn of severe weather threats and how to take cover in a tornado.

We’ve all seen the message “Turn Around — Don’t Drown.” But we also need the message “Tornado — Take Shelter Now.” Keep your seatbelt on and lie as low as possible away from the windows, or get away from the road into a lower ditch or culvert.

In a 2000 study after the devastating May 3, 1999, Oklahoma tornadoes, motorists were shown to be among the most likely victims of a North Texas tornado. One particular scenario in that study examined the potential impact of an F5 tornado from Dallas across Garland and Rowlett, concluding that traffic congestion would strand 87,000 vehicles on affected roads.

After that study, both the American Red Cross and the North Central Texas Council of Governments stepped up efforts to prepare for a tornado outbreak.

That hard work produced sound results on Saturday. Warnings worked, and the emergency response was orderly and commendable. Although most of the fatalities involved motorists, thousands of residents in danger’s path survived, many in demolished homes.

There is much to be grateful for, and still much to do.