This year has had a truly terrible human toll from tornadoes. The current fatality count, approximately 500, is an order of magnitude larger than the average for an entire year. It is to be hoped that this number does not substantially rise, but we do have June, the tropical season (which is expected—and I agree—to be quite active and have a higher than average risk of U. S. hits), and the cool-season secondary severe weather peak. However, this figure is horrible enough even if these periods of higher risk produce absolutely no damaging or fatal tornadoes. Something went very wrong this year, something that has not gone this wrong in almost 60 years, and it is important to determine what it was.
Having followed the stories in a fair amount of depth and from multiple sources, I have developed some suspicions of my own about what some of the problems were. These are problems that either appeared in multiple situations or that appeared in sites where high concentrations of deaths occurred. Other people may form their own opinions, but in whatever analysis of 2011 that takes place (and you can just about guarantee that something of the kind will be done), I hope that the following issues are seriously examined.
1. Safety recommendations for urban residents.
One ugly lesson we have had forced on us this year is that, contrary to long-standing myth about cities being safer than rural areas in tornadoes (perhaps because of the idea that buildings will provide resistance?), a city may well be the worst place one can be in a violent tornado. Even in the age of high-resolution Doppler radar, real-time chaser and spotter reports, live coverage, and 20-minute lead times for warnings, we now know that an EF-5 tornado striking an urban center can result in a triple-digit death toll, as happened in Joplin, MO. It is easy, in retrospect, to understand why a densely packed urban area may be the worst possible place to be. Other than high-rise office buildings, there is no safe place to be. High-rises, according to the EF-scale, will not be demolished even in an EF-5; the maximum expected damage is “permanent structural deformation.” However, directing everyone to the nearest tall office building is a ridiculous “safety” recommendation, needless to say.
What are some other problems with urban areas? Many buildings in the central business district, like fast food restaurants and small businesses, are not constructed to withstand anything like a tornado, and they are simply not safe places to be. Big box retailers will contain very heavy stock that is piled high, providing plenty of potentially deadly missiles. Vehicles are everywhere, and they will become airborne. Designated tornado shelters, which some communities do have, would be useful only if people flocked to these sites well in advance of an actual tornado, because congestion on the roads could result in mass fatalities. Storm cellars would be all but nonexistent, and basements are limited in spatial extent and would be directly beneath the houses, which puts anyone taking shelter therein at risk of exposure to tornadic winds and suction if the house is removed. There is no easy way to get out of danger; traffic congestion will occur if people try to evacuate en masse, putting people in possibly even greater danger than they would have been if they had stayed put. And, of course, cities will have more debris than any other type of community.
We need to seriously consider what kind of safety recommendations can reasonably be given to people who live in town—if any. It is highly uncommon for cities to be struck by EF-4 and EF-5 tornadoes, but it can happen, and the buildings do not provide friction-based wind resistance that would mitigate the effect of violent winds. The situation needs to be looked at to see if any sort of useful specialized safety advice can be given to urbanites.
2. Vulnerability of cell phone networks.
Sometimes when tornado victims are quoted in the news as saying “there was no warning,” what they mean is that they, personally, were not aware of the situation. However, every fatal tornado this year except for one occurred within a tornado watch (link), and that one, an EF-3, occurred within a severe thunderstorm watch. I do not want to sound callous, but there is a responsibility to be weather-aware, which includes awareness of tornado watches and warnings. The outbreaks were all extremely well forecast. Most warnings this year had lead times of 20 minutes or so. In these situations, it is simply inaccurate to say that there was “no warning.” It is passive-aggressively blaming the Weather Service for one’s own failure to be aware.
However, in some cases, there was a legitimate lack of warning, though this is not the failure of the Weather Service. These instances involved the failure of the power grid and the cell phone network, taking down any means by which one might receive weather warnings other than a battery-powered or hand-crank radio. This occurred in some of the small towns that were overrun by the extremely violent EF-5 tornado that traversed northwest Alabama on April 27. I think it also occurred in one of the EF-4 tornadoes of the same day. This is a real problem. Most new phones have the ability to function as handheld PDA, music player, portable gaming device, organizer, Rolodex, e-mail, Twitter, Facebook, and even web browser. With this kind of capability—and none of it dependent on a steady AC/DC power supply—it is easy to understand why people would be reluctant to buy a portable radio. They depend on their phones, and with good reason. However, the cell phone network is clearly vulnerable. If there is significant damage to a tower, down the network goes. This goes for other disasters, including terrorism. The problem needs to be examined to see if these towers can be made more robust. Severe weather outbreaks usually have more than one round, and areas that saw their power and communications knocked out by one (even relatively benign) event can be extremely vulnerable later on.
3. The DTV conversion.
I had a bad feeling about this as soon as the DTV changeover began back in 2009. With the old analog signals, one could have a fuzzy screen—even no visuals at all—and still have audio. With the digital signal, the broadcast becomes choppy, and before long it goes completely black and silent. You have either a near-perfect picture or you have nothing. I have heard more than one anecdote of people in tornado-struck areas who did not lose power until after the tornado hit, but who could not hear the warnings because their TV signal had gone out. I don’t know how many fatalities, if any, were caused by this, but it is a problem that, in my opinion, was severely underrated when the rush to DTV was taking place.
4. Dangerous amateur videography.
There are a lot of videos out there of this year’s tornadoes, and a great many of them were not taken by experienced storm chasers or always-running security cameras. They are also not all taken by people who were a safe distance away from the tornado. One tornado video from Alabama was shot by someone who had a car accident while taking the video! This is a major problem. There is not one thing that can legally be done to stop people from taking video of approaching tornadoes if that is what they want to do, but it is a sad reflection on our society. I don’t blame storm chasers for this. Responsible storm chasers and weather spotters have provided a lot of on-site reports, helping newscasters and people following the situation online know when there is actually a confirmed tornado. Real-time reports of a tornado on the ground helped me decide to evacuate in advance of an EF-5 tornado. Some storm chasers behave highly irresponsibly on the road, and they should be condemned by the rest of the community for it, but overall these people take their hobby very seriously. The videos I speak of are taken by people who just happened to see the tornado and decided it would be a cool idea to get video of it, and the videographers clearly have no knowledge of how far away they should be or where to go if the tornado shifts its path. This particular trend is not the fault of storm chasers; it was produced by social media culture.
5. Lack of shelter from violent tornadoes.
The overwhelming majority of this year’s fatalities have occurred in violent tornadoes, those rated EF-4 and EF-5. This is because these tornadoes will utterly demolish well-built houses, leaving only a pile of debris over a foundation (EF-4) or a bare foundation altogether (EF-5). The Hackleburg, AL EF-5 tornado even buckled the concrete slab foundation of one structure, and the Neshoba County, MS EF-5 (“my” tornado) dug up dirt two feet deep. I think that the odds of survival in these tornadoes are still better than 50-50, but it is easy to see how this kind of situation is incredibly dangerous. The unfortunate fact is that a majority of houses in the South and Midwest do not have basements or storm cellars. My position is that storm cellars are preferable to basements, especially if they have a “fallout shelter” design in which the entrance is not directly above the main room, but is horizontally removed from it. I have read enough accounts of people who took shelter in their basements and were sucked out that (while I agree that basements are clearly preferable to any above-ground shelter) I cannot equate basements and storm cellars. I would also recommend firmly anchored handrails in the main room, in case the door was torn away. The opening sequence of Twister is not myth.
I definitely do not equate above-ground saferooms with underground shelter. These structures are engineered, yes, but they are highly vulnerable on two counts. One, if they are undermined from below, they will roll. Two, the engineering is based on a typical flying missile the size of a 2×4 and a typical flying missile speed of 100 mph. EF-5 tornadoes have wind speeds upwards of 200 mph and have even been clocked as high as 300 mph, though it is a matter of debate whether a large object would travel at these extreme speeds. However, these large objects do travel. In Smithville, MS, the town water tower was dented 120 feet above the ground by a car that became airborne. This is known for a fact by matching paint from the tower and the car. There is video on the Internet of a Canadian F5 tornado in which a whole house is clearly airborne at a great height before it disintegrates.
It’s easy to say, of course, that everyone should have an underground shelter. It is quite another to bring that about. I am opposed on principle to any government mandate to protect people from themselves if there is no risk to other people. This must be a matter of personal responsibility. However, I am in favor of rewarding the decision to install a storm shelter with a tax rebate or credit. Such credits have been offered in the past, usually to specific regions after particularly high-profile and destructive weather events; I argue that they should be permanent and universal.
These are my suggestions about what should be looked into when the year 2011 becomes part of history, or when people begin to examine what has gone wrong with severe weather preparedness, whichever comes first. Undoubtedly other people will focus on other things. One thing is for certain: We need to know whether this year’s atrocious human toll was in any way preventable, because if it was, it must not be allowed to happen again.