Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Why 2011 was such a deadly year for tornadoes.

With the recent nocturnal killer tornadoes in Dixie Alley. I thought I would write about why I think 2011 was such a deadly year....2012 has barely gotten started and already we've had over 30 tornadoes with people losing their lives. The tornadoes that struck Dixie Alley on the 22nd were not typical for this time of year; it looked more like a springtime situation. Tornadoes developed in Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama and parts of Tennessee. Just as it was last April, Alabama saw the worse of it, with two reported deaths.  The NWS has confirmed tornadoes of EF-3 and EF-2 strength in parts of Tuscaloosa County. As I write this the NWS out of Birmingham is looking at the tornado damage in  Jefferson County. All of this raises the question... with the technology at our disposal, why are so many people still getting killed by tornadoes?  In this blog post, I will try to give an answer to this very complicated question.

2011 was the most active tornado season in recent memory. April 2011 is ranked as the most active tornado month on record with 753 tornadoes. The number of people killed by tornadoes in 2011 is around 552, making 2011 the 4th deadliest tornado year in U.S. history The severe weather events of 2011 will be remembered along with the fatalities of 1953 (519) and is just behind 1925 (794).   Also many of the tornadoes that developed were large long track EF4's and EF5's   Violent EF4's and EF5's account for less than 1% of the total number of tornadoes. However, they account for almost 70% of the damage and deaths. for example, since 1950 in the United States, only 58 tornadoes have been labeled as an F5 or EF5. that is less than 0.1% of all the tornadoes recorded during the time period. However, those F5's and EF5's accounted for more than 1300 deaths and 14,000 injuries or 21.5% and 13.6% of the deaths and injuries during that time span. However, other years have had more violent tornadoes, for example 1973, these years had lower death and injury statistics. So clearly there are other reasons in play.

This all begs the question “How can it be?” with all the incredible advances in forecasting and warning systems, that there was such a high number of fatalities?  Over the last few decades, the yearly statistics showed a downward trend in the number of fatalities. Also, adjusted for population growth it looks even more optimistic. That is until last year.

There are several reasons for this:

1)  The tornadoes of 2011 were perfect in terms of location, intensity, and track.

2)  Failures in our severe weather warning net.

3)  Local TV and radio stations handling of severe weather events.

4)  Failure of the general public to truly understand the dangers of tornadoes.

Taking the first reason. What is happening? As I said in my blog entry  The Tornado   we understand the fundamentals of tornadoes pretty well. Usually there is warm moist air mass rising from the Gulf of Mexico that moves north and meets cooler drier air out of Canada, these air masses meet over the plains or Dixie Alley. When these collide, a strong front develops which causes a large horizontal cylindrical vortex to form overhead. The warm air rises up as it meets the cold air and supercell thunderstorms develop. If there is strong shear the horizontal cylindrical spiral of air will tilt into a vertical funnel. If it continues to grow, it will develop into a tornado.  The severe set up for the killer storms last year occurred over heavily populated areas. The way 2011 went down was just nature throwing dice, last year our luck ran out. Any weather disaster is a random occurrence, these events are chaotic by their very nature, no matter how advanced our warning systems these events will always have some degree of unpredictability. However, that doesn't mean we have no input. On the contrary, when a tornado is impacting an area, there are hundreds if not thousands of people making split second decisions. The outcome of these decisions being they will live or they will die. As I've said before, you need to plan for a tornado warning; it doesn't matter if you're at home, in your car, or at the local Wal-Mart; you should have a plan that will keep you and your family safe. knowing what you will do before it happens will save precious seconds. I will go more into this in a bit.   

The second point covers the severe weather warning net. The NWS has 120 field offices across the country with highly sophisticated Doppler radar at its disposal. They are using the best equipment in the world to forecast severe weather. 
 A few decades ago the public had  a lead time of next to nothing when a tornado warning was issued. Now, though, that lead time is on average, 20 to 25 minutes. Is it perfect? the answer is far from it. But it's the best we have at this time. One of the problems is the system was built in the 50's and 60's. An era when many things we understand now were unknown. Don't get me wrong this is not a swipe at the NWS. IMO the NWS does an outstanding job, but the fact is some NWS field offices do a better job than others. I think the NWS needs to do a better job on giving local field offices better guidelines on what to do during a severe event. Base on my experience, the NWS issues too many false alarms. I know they mean well, But again IMO, the NWS should stop issuing tornado warnings on areas of spin up's along a squall line (QLCS),  these kind of tornadoes are almost impossible to predict and are extremely hard to see on radar. Even if it is a tornado they normally last only a few minutes. As we saw in the stage collapse at the Indiana state fair, the main danger in these situations is powerful straight line winds, not tornadoes. All this does is force Mets to go on air and talk about something that if it was a tornado, it has most likely dissipated by the time they go on air. I feel this leads to people  during an actual tornado warning into thinking "here we go again, I'm going to make a sandwich and put  that new DVD movie into the player".  instead of  paying attention when a real tornado emergency is in progress.
 I'm sure most of you have heard of the tornado siren. The idea of these sirens is a good idea at face value.  However, if you take a closer look, they have several shortcomings, Sirens are not efficient, reach a limited number of people, and can’t be heard indoors, schools, and businesses.  There are several reasons for this, most of the time there’s going to be TVs going in the background, people are going to be talking, how far the sound travels will depend on  wind direction...if the wind’s blowing hard at the time... it will also mask the sound. Also, the sirens don’t sound only in the warned polygon, they sound county wide. In some cases, this means you are hearing a siren when the actual tornado threat is over 40 miles away.  So the bottom line is don't count on a tornado siren as your primary warning system.  
Many local news media stations offer text alerts for severe weather, these alerts go out to computers and smart devices, I encourage each of you to sign up for them. However, the NOAA weather radio is your best line of defense when it comes to a tornado warning. We have laws that require smoke and carbon dioxide detectors in homes; why not weather radios?  they don't cost a lot, don't make a sound until they're activated for your area. However, even weather radio can be improved on. NOAA must upgrade the weather radio system to include GPS data. this would make it much more accurate inside the warning polygon. Also the current warning systems needs to go to a integrated system, the piecemeal system we have is too antiquated.  Tornado warnings need to go out to TV (this includes all cable channels), radio, smart devices, and over the internet at the same time. The warning system also need to be expanded to include the hearing impaired with the use of such things as vibrating pillows and light flashing systems .

The third point, is a big problem. It may surprise you but management at a local TV or radio station can override the staff meteorologist when it comes to issuing and how to handle a tornado warning. The FCC regulations covering this area need to be changed. When there is a genuine tornado emergency, these stations must have the backbone to blow off regular programming and go with wall to wall weather coverage. No matter what the regularly scheduled program happens to be. IMO if station management can't handle email complaints from a few angry people, they need to find another line of work. As for TV meteorologist, I've seen coverage from many areas of the county, many times the Mets will be off screen in front of the computer talking about what's going on. I've seen stations where you didn't even know who was speaking for over 10 minutes. Now while watching the developing situation is necessary, they must also be on camera looking the viewer in the eye as much as possible. This is the only way to make what's happening personal. Face to face communication is needed to convey the urgency of the moment.

The forth point, is the most Vidal. It will also be the most difficult area to incorporate change.
In the wake of last year's massive April tornado outbreaks and the 22 May Joplin tornado, The NWS conducted a study which included four “social scientists” on the assessment team to study what happened.  The social scientists looked at people’s understanding and reactions, which seemed to be a major factor in how things played out. As I've said many times you must have a tornado warning plan. it's too late to come up with one... as the roof beams are falling around you at the mall, or if you're a truck driver on the highway coming face to face with a tornado, or even watching the warning on the TV in your mobile home ( which I've said, it's better to be outside than being in a mobile home during a tornado).... When a tornado warning is issued, people often make poor decisions. These can range from  making frantic phone calls to not believing it and rolling over and going back to sleep. On chases, I've seen people come out of their house during a tornado warning,  to see what's going on. All of this waste valuable seconds. Seconds needed to get their family to safety. If people during a tornado warning choose not to take  the warning seriously, is this because of failures in the warning system? I think most of us would say the answer is no.  I find it to be extremely difficult to understand how people cannot take a tornado warning seriously!! Public education is lacking in the area of tornado safety. And much more emphasis needs to be placed on it.

Well that's my rant on the current systems and how we as people react to severe weather warnings.

Here is a link to my blog post on Severe Weather Safety  please take the time to read it...And if you've read it in the past reread it........It may save your life someday.



  1. I like your point of view.

  2. After reading this and your post on Severe Weather Safety; we're going to sit down as a family and discuss and decide on a tornado safety plan. What are your thoughts on these tornado safe rooms?

    1. I am so happy that you are doing this....As for safe rooms, they are a wonderful investment.. there are several companies that make them. IMO the best of the best is made by FamilySAFE. My Alma mater has tested them up to 250mph ground level wind speeds. You would be very safe in a personal tornado safe room.


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