Thursday, April 28, 2011

Beyond Belief

Photographer Dusty Compton of the Tuscaloosa News captured this image of the killer storm as it plowed through the city (News photo via the AP and National Geographic).

I've spent most of my life in "Dixie Alley," the southern adjunct of "Tornado Alley." Living in that area, you develop a healthy respect for the raw, destructive power that forms when atmospheric conditions are right.

It's a respect that has been reinforced by covering the aftermath of a deadly twister (during my days as a journalist), and having a close encounter of my own while living in Mississippi. But nothing in my experience could prepare me for what I've seen over the last 24 hours, during one of the deadliest tornado outbreaks in U.S. history.

The numbers alone are staggering. Close to 300 fatalities across six states--despite advanced warning. Media outlets in Birmingham began covering the deadliest storm when it was still in Mississippi. Residents along its estimated, 200-mile path had an average of 20 minutes warning time and could watch the storm live on local TV.

But at least 32 people died in the city of Tuscaloosa; another 15 in the surrounding county, and 26 in metro Birmingham. Across Alabama, at least 204 people were killed, according to Governor Robert Bentley. More than 30 deaths were also recorded in Mississippi and Tennessee; there were 14 confirmed fatalities in Georgia, and other deaths were reported in Virginia and Kentucky. Experts could only speculate what the death toll might have been without advanced warning (emphasis mine).

The number of tornadoes is equally stunning. We won't have a final tally for several weeks, but some meteorologists believe yesterday's total will surpass the 1974 Super Outbreak, which generated 148 tornadoes in a 24-hour period. More than 300 people died in that catastrophic event, which stretched from Alabama to southern Canada.

Some experts believed the Super Outbreak was a one-in-a-century occurrence, but that theory was blown away (to some degree) by Wednesday's storms. The human toll from yesterday's outbreak also demolished another misconception--that advances in forecasting technology, including the widespread use of Doppler radar--would prevent deaths on the scale of 1974, or the Great Tri-State Tornado of 1925, which killed more than 600 people in Missouri, Illinois and Indiana.

We're waiting for some politician to demand more money for the National Weather Service, to prevent this sort of disaster in the future. While I'm squarely against the major budget cuts proposed by the NWS, investments in "new" technology should be made carefully.

The reason is simple. More advanced radars may not produce a significant reduction in tornado deaths. As Dr. Charles Doswell (one of the legends at the Storm Prediction Center) noted eight years ago, existing radar technology does a good job in detecting powerful tornadoes, like the ones that wreaked havoc yesterday.

Newer radars would be more effective at detecting weaker storms, but they cause only a fraction of the damage and deaths inflicted by major tornadoes. At the time, Dr. Doswell opined that additional funding might be devoted to other projects--such as how people use warning information. Other worthy projects include better building techniques and finding better ways to protect those living in mobile homes. During the recent outbreak in North Carolina, most of the victims lived in trailers.

But even a well-built home is no guarantee of safety--or survival. Look at aerial photos of damage from Birmingham and Tuscaloosa; hundreds of "conventional" houses were demolished by that massive tornado, along its trail of death and destruction.

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