Three days before the Fourth of July, Nelson Muller drove with his wife and four children — ages 3 to 11 — from Columbia, Missouri, to Kansas City.
They were going to his mother’s home in Gladstone, Missouri, for the holiday.
“When we left Columbia, we hadn’t gotten any indication that the weather was supposed to be any worse than some thunderstorms,” Muller says.
But by the time they got to Independence on Interstate 70, they were in the midst of a downpour. Then, a tornado warning came across the car radio. Muller did what a lot of Midwest motorists do this time of year during bad weather.
“We pulled over at the next exit, and we stopped at a QuikTrip,” he said.
With the wind howling and the rain continuing to pour, Muller said he wanted to get his family inside the store as quickly as possible.
“But when we walked up to the door, there was this handmade sign that said, ‘Sorry, closed for tornado," he said.
The doors were locked. Muller said he was “desperate”. He could see employees inside through the glass windows.
“They mouthed something to us, and we took it to mean that it was their policy that they couldn’t open the door.”
It turns out, that is QuikTrip’s policy. The company, one of the biggest convenience store chains in the Midwest with more than 700 locations, has a long-standing set of procedures for employees to follow in case of a tornado.
Company officials say that if there is a tornado warning near a QuikTrip store, employees are supposed to tell all customers they see, including anyone “on the lot” outside, to take cover in the store away from the windows. They are then supposed to lock the store’s doors and take cover themselves.
“If a tornado was to hit a store, it would be a tragedy,” QuikTrip spokesperson Mike Thornbrugh said. “That’s why we have such clear policies.”
Thornbrugh said QuikTrip monitors all its stores at its headquarters in Tulsa. Company officials will call stores to tell them to take cover and then will call them again to give them an all-clear.
“We take it very seriously,” Thornbrugh said. “We’re a company based mostly in Tornado Alley.”
But the fact that Muller and his family got locked out — in essence, because they were too late — frustrates the father of four.
“I just have to wonder if company policies have to change,” he said. “I mean, if you’re an employee that has to take shelter, fine. But leave the door unlocked so others can get in.”
In some ways, weather experts would agree with Muller’s reasoning.
Andy Bailey, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Pleasant Hill, urges motorists to get out of their vehicles if a tornado is nearby and find a structure, such as a house, with a basement to take cover in. He says big-box stores and highway overpasses should be avoided. But gas stations, with their walk-in freezers and interior bathrooms, can provide adequate shelter.
“If you can get down on the lowest level of a structure in an interior room with no windows, even in the most severe of tornadoes, you have a good chance at surviving,” he said.
That’s exactly what Muller said he was thinking when he pulled over to that QuikTrip. In the back of his mind, he said, was a much-watched YouTube video shot by a man who took shelter in a gas station during the deadly tornado that leveled Joplin in 2011.
“You can see that they’re in the [gas station’s] freezer,” Muller said. “And then it gets dark and you can hear the wind, and people praying and crying.”
That storm killed 161 people. It was one of the deadliest tornadoes in American history. Yet, everyone in that gas station survived.
But many public safety officials say people should not even put themselves in the position of having to choose where to seek shelter. They urge motorists to be extra cautious this time of year, when tornadoes and severe weather occur frequently.
“By the time you’re in that situation [seeking shelter], it’s too late,” said Mike O’Connell of the Missouri Department of Public Safety.
Missouri’s Storm Aware website gives tips on tornado safety, tries to dispel common tornado myths (“Tornadoes do not hit big cities. False!”), and urges people to sign up for severe weather alerts on their phones.
“You need to plan your days around severe weather this time of year,” O’Connell said. “Modern technology allows you to always be aware of changing weather patterns, sometimes days in advance. You should not be driving when tornadoes are possible.”
But that may be easier said than done.
Joe Wertz, a radio reporter based in Norman, Oklahoma, was caught out on a highway south of Oklahoma City one afternoon in May 2013.
“I left work early, and I really thought the tornado was away from me,” he said.
He even had a police scanner in his car, “but it veered towards me suddenly, and I had to seek shelter," he said.
Luckily, he found a Shell gas station in the town of Moore that let him in before the storm passed close to where he had pulled off the highway.
“It was intense and very harrowing. I mean, I was with this group of strangers and all of us had gone to this gas station for shelter," he said.
Wertz said he does not remember anyone being turned away or locked out at that Shell station. Though he also says the gas station employees did lock the doors to keep them from blowing off.
The Moore tornado ended up killing 24 people and received an F5 rating from the National Weather Service, same as the Joplin tornado.
Even though long stretches of Midwestern highways have nothing but gas stations, there seems to be no clear industry standard for how the stores should handle a tornado warning.
KCUR contacted multiple stores near where Muller and his family pulled over in Independence and got a range of responses. Some stores responded in a similar fashion to the QuikTrip. Others said they kept their doors unlocked and allowed customers in throughout the storm.
Muller took his family to the closest store he could find. And with more than 80 locations around the Kansas City metro, QuikTrip may be more likely than other stores to be a place at which motorists seek shelter in severe weather. But company officials guard against extending their liability.
“You try to be everything to everyone and sometimes it just doesn’t work out,” Thornbrugh, the QuikTrip spokesperson, said. “We have to protect as many people as we can but then you have to draw a line, in order to be as safe as possible for the people you do have in your store."
A good policy for those at a QuikTrip when a tornado warning goes off but little consolation to those like Muller, who were seeking shelter and got turned away.
“I don’t blame QuikTrip and I don’t blame those employees, they were just doing their job,” he said. “But I worry about putting corporate liability over people’s lives. Take a chance and let us in next time.”
Fortunately, the tornadoes in Kansas City that day were nothing like the F5 tornadoes in Joplin and Moore, Oklahoma. But it may give motorists a chance to once again consider what they'll do and where they'll go when severe weathers strikes next.