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Can Helmets Cut Tornado Deaths? CDC Isn't So Sure

Noah Stewart shelters in the closet just 15 minutes before an April 2011 tornado demolished his house. Wearing the helmet may have saved his life, one doctor says.
Courtesy of the Stewart family
Noah Stewart shelters in the closet just 15 minutes before an April 2011 tornado demolished his house. Wearing the helmet may have saved his life, one doctor says.

Tornadoes killed more than 500 people in the U.S. last year — the highest number in decades. Already this year, 63 people have died, and the tornado season doesn't hit its peak until June.

But tornadoes don't have to be as deadly. Experts say some deaths could be prevented if people would do one more thing when taking cover: wear a helmet. It's a message safety advocates are preaching, but that message hasn't resonated with federal officials just yet.

'It Was Like A Vacuum'

On April 27, 2011, a horrific outbreak of tornadoes roared across the Southeast, killing more than 300 people. Some of the twisters were more than a mile wide and stayed on the ground for hours. Alabama was particularly hard hit.

"How far back do you go that day? It seemed like a normal day," says Jonathan Stewart.

He'd rushed home just minutes before a tornado swallowed up his neighborhood in Pleasant Grove, Ala. Stewart, his wife, adult daughter and 8-year-old son crowded into a tiny shower stall. It didn't take long for him to feel the house shift and become weightless — and then an explosion.

"I remember being sucked out of the house, and it was not being blown about, it was not walls blowing around. It was like a vacuum, and it sucked us out," Stewart says.

'I Actually Saw Him Up In The Air'

In an instant, Stewart's family was gone. Lisa, his wife, peered up into the swirling sea of debris and saw her son, Noah, floating above her — high above her, Lisa says: "I actually saw him up in the air, stuck up in it, being tossed around as high as the power lines."

Noah was twisting, churning, flying through the air, held up high by the tornado's angry winds. And then, Noah remembers, "the wind just immediately stopped, and I was going down headfirst, and then I think my helmet just cracked."

Noah had on a baseball helmet — the kind used in Little League with a strap and face guard. He was the only member of his family wearing protective headgear that night. In pictures taken that night, Noah's face appears fine, with just a few scratches; his parents, however, look beaten up.

Public Outreach

Noah had other injuries, and went to Children's Hospital in Birmingham. Dr. Mark Baker was working in the emergency room that night. He says most of the 60 children treated for storm-related injuries suffered some sort of head trauma.

"Children's heads are relatively large compared to the rest of their body. So during a tornado, where they're thrown by the wind or an object is thrown into them or a building collapses, it is most frequently the head that is injured," he says.

Baker says because of Noah's helmet, his injuries weren't more severe. Doctors at Children's Hospital realized they needed to do more. They partnered with a local television meteorologist to produce a PSA to tell parents that helmets help save lives during tornadoes.

Other outreach is happening, too.

At a recent Birmingham Barons baseball game, safety advocates handed out 125 bicycle helmets as part of a giveaway for tornado preparedness.

The Fulton family of Trussville, Ala., was standing in line with their three kids.

"We didn't even think anything about it last year, and then we started hearing how much safer things were once it happened and that you should wear them," says Alan Fulton. "And it's like ... 'Why didn't we do it?' I don't know."

His wife, Melissa, says wearing helmets during severe weather is "a great idea; it just never occurred to us."

'Their Silence Is Deafening'

One reason it might not have occurred to the Fultons is that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is silent on the topic.

The CDC website tells motorcyclists to wear helmets because they save lives; ditto for bicyclists.

But if a tornado is bearing down? The CDC recommends people use their hands to protect their heads. It makes no mention of a helmet.

For three months we tried to interview someone from the CDC, but the agency would only email a statement, which said: "The scientific evidence from helmet use during tornadoes is inadequate to make a recommendation."

This has angered safety advocates such as Russ Fine. "I think their silence is deafening," he says, "and I'm embarrassed for them — terribly embarrassed for them."

Fine's team at the Injury Control Research Center at the University of Alabama in Birmingham completed one of those scientific reports. It found many tornado deaths around the region last year could have been prevented if people had worn helmets. He doesn't understand why the CDC hasn't embraced the research.

Dr. Mark Baker and his team at Children's Hospital in Birmingham, Ala., treated 60 children the night of April 27, 2011, when an outbreak of tornadoes roared across the Southeast.
Russell Lewis / NPR
Dr. Mark Baker and his team at Children's Hospital in Birmingham, Ala., treated 60 children the night of April 27, 2011, when an outbreak of tornadoes roared across the Southeast.

"Will it 100 percent absolutely, positively save your life? Probably not. But it's a whole lot better than having no helmet on, and that's a no-brainer," he says.

The Beginning Of A Change

Advocates don't expect the federal government to change its recommendations anytime soon. They liken it to how long it took to get the message out about wearing seat belts or quitting smoking.

"It's the beginning of a change where research changes in the way people respond and they're advised to respond," says Sandra Koplon, of the Alabama Head Injury Foundation.

Others, such as tornado safety advocate Renee Crook, who organized the helmet giveaway at the Birmingham baseball game, says ultimately it's up to the people, not the government, to stay safe. "You have to have a plan. You chose to live here. You need to be safe. You need to be aware. You need to have a way of listening to the weather, and know when it's coming, and be prepared."

Still, many people go to government websites to learn about what vaccinations they should receive when traveling overseas, or how long to cook a certain kind of meat. Advocates hope it won't be long for the CDC to add a line about wearing a helmet when a tornado is bearing down on a community.

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As NPR's Southern Bureau chief, Russell Lewis covers issues and people of the Southeast for NPR — from Florida to Virginia to Texas, including West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma. His work brings context and dimension to issues ranging from immigration, transportation, and oil and gas drilling for NPR listeners across the nation and around the world.