Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Question of the Day

Posted on this blog early Monday morning. I predicted more than 100 tornadoes would occur.
I'm changing planes at O'Hare at the moment and just saw that the death toll is up to 250 per The Wall Street Journal and 272 per CNN. It is difficult to write this due to the shock that so many were killed when the forecasts and warnings were so good. That dichotomy is the question of the day.

I have already given two interviews to reporters wanting me to comment on why so many people were killed. I wish I didn't have to answer the question, it seems premature when people are still digging out of the wreckage. We'll know the answer in a few months after meteorologists and social scientists do their post-storm assessments. That said, people want answers and understandably so. Tornado season is only halfway done and we don't want to lose any more precious lives if we can avoid it.

Both reporters were already familiar that the forecasts and warnings of yesterday's storms were quite good. So, "what happened/what went wrong?", they asked. Here is some of what I believe is true, pending formal investigation.

  • This was a historic event. It appears (not sure yet) to be the worst tornado outbreak, in terms of number of F-4 and F-5 tornadoes (the upper 2% in damage potential) since April 3, 1974. It also appears similar to the "Enigma Outbreak" (same geographic area) of February, 1884. The latter is estimated to have killed as many as 1,200. 
  • When dealing with F-4 and F-5 tornadoes, there is no assurance of survival. For example, in Greensburg, KS in 2007, eight of the 9 people killed (out of the 1,500 in the tornado's path) were in shelter, including basements. The South has relatively few basements and many tens of thousands were in the path of these tornadoes. The bathtub offers reasonable protection for the far more common F-1 to F-3 tornadoes. It offers little protection during F-4 and F-5 tornadoes where everything is swept away. 
  • Earlier tornadoes knocked out the communications infrastructure. This is a problem I have not previously encountered. It was first reported by a Birmingham TV station today. There are reports that because of the multiplicity of tornadoes, the power had been lost in the first wave of storms and so TV, internet, etc., were not available when the second wave occurred. These people likely did not get the warning. We do not yet know how widespread this problem was.
  • Mobile homes. We talked about this less than two weeks ago. I was in Charlotte a week ago today and was told by insurance industry people that the tie-down laws are not enforced (no requirement for inspection upon occupancy). I have seen video of mobile homes that were not tied down and were without wind skirting. They also told me few mobile home parks had shelters. If true, this is a deadly combination. In the April 15-16, 2011 tornadoes from Misssissippi to North Carolina, 86% of the deaths were in mobile homes. 
While I believe all of the above is correct, it is impossible to know at this point exactly why so many lost their lives. I'm hopeful that weather science will come up with the answers and we will be able to build upon the already excellent warning system.  

For now, please contribute to the charities helping the victims of these storms and keep them in your prayers. 

11 comments:

  1. Presumably the power outages didn't affect NOAA Weather Radio (yet another reason to have them) until today - when many transmitters in Alabama have now lost power: http://www.weather.gov/view/prodsByState.php?state=AL&prodtype=public Thank goodness there was not another round today!

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  2. I'm sure it didn't help any that around noon yesterday NOAA canceled all watches for southern VA and all of NC, only later to put the watches back up an hour or so later.
    The other issue is that NOAA cannot figure out a reliable way, other than weather radio's, to push out this information. Folks that have signed up for email alerts and/or have smart phones with apps such as Weatherbug, do not get these warnings or alerts in a timely manner using these third party networks.
    NOAA should work with the FCC to be able to send these warnings to all phones (via text?) connected to cellular towers within the warned area.
    The other issue is that some NOAA offices just issue blanket tornado warnings for hours without details, so, there is a lack of consistency amongst the various offices in regards to public notification and even website design.

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  3. May I suggest a standard color scheme for a severe t-storm/tornado watches and warnings. Where I live the TV stations use different colors schemes of their own to represent what is occurring.

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  4. I live in the Atlanta metro area and many of the houses (especially those built in the past 20 years during the boom) are not examples of quality construction to start with. Then add the slab foundation and it's a recipe for disaster. Many times yesterday the local weather authorities were telling people to get underground, but that isn't possible for a lot of the residents in the metro area. However, I have the feeling many factors contributed to this tragic loss of life and no one thing can be at blame. I sincerely hope this event has impressed on people the importance of taking tornado watches and warnings seriously, and making sure they have a NOAA weather radio as a back-up to other warning outlets. I feel lucky to have been missed by the fiercest storms and my heart goes out to the many who have lost loved ones and livelihoods.

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  5. I think your comment about F4 and F5 tornadoes is spot on, especially unlucky ones that carve through city centers.

    Also, I know this is bittersweet comfort, but the casualties relative to population were lower than in the 1974 outbreak. I believe the warnings were very good and did save an enormous number of lives.

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  6. Todd, even the radar that has placefiles for watches and warnings, use different colors. For instance a thunderstorm watch is shaded in yellow, a torado wacth is shaded red. A thunderstorm waring is red and a tornado warning is outlined pink. This is for GR2A. It does make it confusing because the TV stations use different color schemes, but people need to be aware somehow someway.

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  7. What is remarkable about this event is given the huge impact on population (several long-track and unusually violent tornadoes traversing densely settled areas), thousands-upon-thousands of people DID survive relatively unscathed. That more than confirms warnings work IF heeded. This outbreak has proven that for the vast majority of people, tornadoes can be survived with situation awareness and a shelter plan.

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  8. As a resident of Tuscaloosa and having watched this, I will say that the estimates of where, when, how fast and how strong these particular storms were was FANTASTIC!!! I was watching James Spann on ABC 33/40 and the information that he was sharing was spot on, for timing, intensity and location.

    To speak to the casualties, the areas in Tuscaloosa that this went through are, by and large, without basements. One of the main places hit was a government housing project, just brick one story apartments with no real shelter other than the central hall or bathroom: scant shelter in a tornado of this magnitude. The other thing is the volume of debris that was shoved around.

    One other consideration is,IMHO and for a lack of better term, the "hand of God". By that I mean that I know people survived in buildings that one can only marvel at. While others were "safe", but didn't make it.

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  9. I don't know how the warnings could have been any better. I'm not sure how long the SPC has been using the "Particularly Dangerous Situation" tag but over the last few years anyone who pays a little attention to the weather has had a two or three day lead time. The TORCON index on the Weather Channel has also been spot on here in the south. Wednesday was a 40 year event-1930's 1974,2011. Those huge, long-track tornadoes were tapped right into the jet stream and I think most of them were as strong as physical laws allow (EF5) I personally saw a foundation today that had been stripped of tile-grass had been pulled up and cars tossed hundreds of feet in maybe a 50 yard wide path. Trees were debarked and gone from maybe a 200 yard path and trees were destroyed and power poles snapped in a path almost a mile wide. I've heard-haven't seen anything official- that this storm was EF3. I think most of these storms had EF5 damage right at the core. The only way to be safe in that spot is to be underground.

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  10. Per above, the first use of the PDS tornado watch was twenty years ago this month for the Wichita-Andover tornado outbreak. There are years where not a single PDS watch is issued. They represent less than 10% of tornado watches.

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