We’ve come to expect a certain iconography at our airports: restrooms, baggage claims, handicapped access, information centers, baby-changing stations, cabs. Less common: subways, light rail, prayer rooms, and, in this day and age, a smoker refuge. Perhaps I’m revealing my East Coast bias—or at least my tendency to orient myself in terms of where I live on the East Coast (since I’m definitely not a coastal native)—but I was particularly taken by the yellow sign during a recent layover:
Given the location, it probably makes sense: O’Hare International (ORD), the larger of the two major airports serving Chicago, sits on former expanse of prairie that undoubtedly sees its fair share of twisters. While not exactly Tornado Alley, Illinois and the majority of the Midwest must remain well-attuned to these ruthlessly unpredictable weather patterns. It is a foreign concept to people in New Jersey, for example, that schoolchildren in most of Illinois must participate in at least one tornado drill per semester, which typically involves getting in a primary school corridor, facing the wall, then kneeling as low as possible to the ground with hands covering the head. Since hallways usually lack windows, they’re the safest place for large numbers of students, plus they typically have few desks or other objects that can become dangerous projectiles when windborne.
Most Illinoisans know that the safest place from a tornado in their homes is the basement or crawlspace. If they lack these, homeowners’ next best option is the bathroom, again because it lacks a window or furnishings that aren’t bolted to the ground or walls. Apparently the same goes for tornado shelters in airports; these signs refer to the public restrooms in this particular terminal at ORD.
Truth be told, among cities in the Midwest, Chicago is among the least threatened by twisters—particularly the central Loop (which hasn’t experienced a twister in almost 150 years) or other neighborhoods closer to the lake. The comparable security of the Chicago lakefront may have more to do with its small geographic area than any broader meteorological phenomena: many people have speculated that the urban heat island effect or the cooling breezes of a large lake might mitigate tornado formation, but insufficient evidence exists in either case.
Regardless of the credibility of these postulates, they seem to cushion the City of Chicago. But does O’Hare really belong to the city? It stretches a good twelve miles west of the lakefront, far enough that it feels much more a part of Chicagoland and the northwest suburbs, though, technically, it does still fall within the municipal limits. The expansive prairies of the Chicago suburbs must deal with tornado warnings annually during the peak of the season—usually from late March until July, and including some quite recently. And ORD clearly belongs to the prairie.
Bearing this in mind, it’s perfectly natural to find shelter signage at O’Hare. In fact, it may be among the more vulnerable major airports to major weather threats. Among the disasters of recent memory, airports have tended to fare well: neither Louis Armstrong New Orleans International (MSY) or Gulfport-Biloxi International (GPT) experienced great damage after Hurricane Katrina, and airports can evacuate and close in anticipation of hurricanes. Meanwhile, low-slung airports have rarely evinced themselves as major structural hazards in the most earthquake-prone parts of the country. But every Midwesterner knows how sudden and unpredictable tornadoes can be, and an airport is unlikely to provide greater protection against Enhanced Fajita (EF) 4 or 5 winds than other large buildings…unless, of course, it has built-in shields. Like bathrooms, apparently. The presence of trained experts in an airport may proffer an added layer of supervisory protection that people don’t get when bunkering down in their own homes; then again, the biggest of airport (places like O’Hare) may still pale in comparison to the safety of a good old-fashioned house basement.