On Sunday afternoon, Cathy Russell left her home in Canal Fulton to go grocery shopping at the Giant Eagle in Montrose.

If you were in town that day, you no doubt remember that the placid weather of midday grew increasingly nasty and, by late afternoon, tornado warnings blanketed Northeast Ohio.

Although the worst storms hit outside of Greater Akron — the hardest-hit area was Shelby, north of Mansfield and about 70 miles west of here — all of the Cleveland TV stations went to full-time weather coverage and tornado sirens blared throughout the region.

A tornado warning was in effect when Russell got out of her car and hurried to Giant Eagle's main entrance. When she arrived, the door was locked.

She saw an employee standing at the half-open exit door and scampered over there. “You can't come in,” the employee said. “We're in lockdown for a tornado warning.”

Nobody was getting in and nobody was getting out.

Russell was incredulous.

“I said, 'You're locking us out of the store when there's a tornado coming?' And she said, 'It's policy.'

“If you're outside and there's a tornado coming and they won't let you in, somebody could die.”

Russell hurried next door to the Dollar Tree and was able to walk right in. She stayed there until the danger had passed.

You're certainly a lot safer inside a store than sitting in your car or driving it. Refusing to allow a customer to gain shelter during a weather emergency is unconscionable.

On the flip side, there's no guarantee that you'll be perfectly safe inside a big store, either. Flat roofs and extreme winds don't mix well.

In the words of the Tornado Project, which has been collecting information and offering tips since 1970, “Avoid the open areas of buildings with wide-span roofs such as grocery stores, gyms, auditoriums and theaters.

“Deaths have occurred in large, single-story department stores, like the Joplin, Missouri, Walmart in May 2011.”

If you were inside Giant Eagle on Sunday and wanted to take your chances outside, and they wouldn't let you, isn't that akin to kidnapping?

Russell says she returned to the store after the warning ended and complained at the public service desk. Again she was told the decision was "store policy."

If so, it's an absurd policy. Unless you're endangering someone else, you should be able to make your own decision about whether to enter or leave.

Well, the company agrees. In a written statement, Giant Eagle spokesman Dan Donovan issued this mea culpa:

“During weather emergencies such as tornado warnings, Giant Eagle store teams are trained to welcome all those seeking immediate shelter into a designated safe location within our stores.

“We learned that for a very short time during [Sunday's] warning one of our Montrose Giant Eagle Team Members was unaware of our policy and, with the best of intentions for those in the building at the time, mistakenly locked the store’s entrance.

“We sincerely apologize for those who were unable to find shelter in our store, and [we] are using this unfortunate situation to reinforce our policy with all retail Team Members.”

Good for Giant Eagle for owning it.

And thanks to Lady Luck for sparing Montrose.

If you've looked at the damage in Shelby, where a half-mile-wide EF-2 tornado flattened big chunks of the little town, you know how fortunate we were.

 

Bob Dyer can be reached at 330-996-3580 or bdyer@thebeaconjournal.com. He also is on Facebook at www.facebook.com/bob.dyer.31