It started out as a relatively simple idea: Let’s put together a list of the locations of shelters along the highways and interstates so our readers will know where to go if they find themselves caught in the path of a twister in “Tornado Alley.” It is storm season, after all.
But my colleague Tyson Fisher and I quickly found out the project wasn’t going to be nearly as simple as that. Sure, Texas and Kansas – the two states that recorded the most tornadoes in 2015 – have shelters available, but none of the other states we talked to had any sort of hardened storm shelter for travelers who might need refuge.
The common refrain we heard when interviewing state DOT officials or emergency management workers was “That’s a good question.” And the lack of safe spaces raises a pertinent follow-up. What can we do about it?
Consider this: There are more than 3,200 miles of interstate in Texas alone, or roughly 170 miles of interstate for every shelter. That doesn’t include U.S. or state highways either. Kansas has 30 shelters along the 236-mile Kansas Turnpike, an average of one shelter about every 8 miles. But the Kansas Highway System totals more than 10,299 miles (not including the Turnpike), and the total number of storm shelters for motorists on those roads is a big, fat zero.
Now it’s true that the likelihood of having a monster tornado cross directly in front of your path may be relatively small. But it certainly makes sense to have shelters available, particularly as in Kansas where state employees at toll plazas may need a safe space to go to when severe weather strikes. It seems reasonable to think that states could add some shelters to scale houses or other places where employees would surely want to have them. Keeping them open for motorists would be an added bonus.