Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Eye of the Storm

It's that time of year in the Southeast and Mid-West, when spring explodes in dazzling hues of green yellow, pink and white. Winter's cold seems to vanish almost overnight, as warm weather signals the change of seasons--and the start of tornado season.

I grew up in the Mid-West and spent most of my media and military careers in the south and southeast, so I'm more than familiar with tornadoes. I've covered them as a reporter, survived them as an ordinary citizen and sustained a life-long fascination with tornadoes as perhaps the most unique example of nature's sudden fury. For its sheer ability to shock and amaze, few events can compare to a tornado rampaging across the landscape, shredding homes and lives in its path.

Serious efforts at tornado forecasting began in March, 1948, when Air Force Maj Gen Fred Borum ordered two meterologists at Tinker AFB in Oklahoma City, to find a way to predict the storms and issue advance warnings. The base had been heavily damaged by a sudden tornado, and General Borum wanted to avoid another surprise. Reviewing weather data, two Air Force meterologists (Maj E.W. Fawbush and Capt Robert Miller) pinpointed atmospheric conditions that seemed to presage the advent of a tornado. When they identified the same conditions a few days later, Fawbush and Miller--at the urging of General Borum--issued the first tornado warning, realizing that the odds of a twister materializing were actually quite slim. Certain that their professional reputations had been ruined, Fawbush and Miller were stunned when a second tornado slammed into the base a few hours later.

Tornado forecasting has improved steadily since the late 1940s, thanks in part to the development of weather satellites and the introduction of Doppler radar. But tornadoes still contain an element of mystery; for example, we have a good handle on the atmospheric elements necessary for producing tornadoes, but we still don't know exactly how or why they form. For example, why do some supercell thunderstorms generate tornadoes, while others don't?

There is little doubt that advance warning saved lives during Sunday's deadly outbreak in the Mississippi Valley. Those storms hit particularly close to home, because they affected an area where I was born and spent much of my early life. My father still lives in the area; his home was badly damaged by the storm. He watched weather warnings on Memphis TV stations, and took cover when it became clear that a tornado was headed toward his neighborhood. The storm tore the garage from his house and knocked down every tree in the yard, including a 70-foot oak tree that was more than 100 years old. It also demolished a community center almost a mile away, giving you some idea of the tornado's massive width.

KFVS-TV in Cape Girardeau, MO obtained this home video of the tornado that devastated Caruthersville, a small town in the Missouri Bootheel. The Caruthersville storm was part of the same system which tore a path of damage and destruction across northeast Arkansas, southeast Missouri and western Tennessee on Sunday afternoon. This particular storm was apparently an F-3, with top winds approaching 200 mph. Of course, when you're in the path of one of these monsters, wind speeds become relative, and the difference between life and death is often measured in a matter of inches, or the time required to crawl into a bathtub, or crouch in an interior closet.

My father is 90 years old, he's a combat veteran of World War II and, in his words, he's never experienced anything quite like the events of Sunday, April 2, 2006. On a day when many Mid-Southerners died, I can only thank God that he and my step-mother somehow survived.

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