Meteorologists and weather-watchers are bidding the year 2011 a less-than-fond farewell. While it was certainly a banner year from the point of view of storm chasing—6 EF-5 tornadoes, 17 EF-4s, and many of them highly photogenic, as the dozens of home videos on Youtube illustrate—it was a catastrophe in terms of the human impact. With 552 fatalities, this year is tied for the second-deadliest tornado year in the U.S. The death toll is an order of magnitude greater than even most of the “bad years” of the 1975-2010 period. Two events are primarily responsible for this: the April 27 Dixie Super Outbreak, which killed over 300 people (breaking the 1974 Ohio Valley Super Outbreak’s grim record by a hair), and the Joplin, MO EF-5 tornado, with approximately 160 fatalities.
With the 2011 Super Outbreak, meteorologists are starting to work out an approximate historical return period for these large-magnitude events. Before the 1974 event, the last comparable event occurred in 1936, with an outbreak popularly known as the Tupelo-Gainesville outbreak for the violent tornadoes that occurred in Mississippi and Georgia. It seems that these huge events occur approximately every 35-40 years. Obviously, a comparable event could occur next spring, but statistically, it seems that they are a 35- to 40-year event. And, given that the 1974 Super Outbreak and 2011 Super Outbreak saw comparable death tolls, I think we can also estimate what the human toll for such an event will unfortunately be as long as the affected communities have unsuitable safety options for EF-4 and EF-5 tornadoes.
The Joplin tornado is a different beast. We do not have a comparable modern event. Individual tornadoes in 1953 killed over 100 people in Waco, TX and Flint, MI, but that year was something of a catalyst of public outrage, for a third tornado in Worcester, MA killed 94 people. Public sentiment that year was essentially, “DO something so that this never happens again!” And for 57 years, no single tornado in the U.S. did kill over 100 people. Then… it happened again.
Was the Joplin event a worst-case scenario? Is this the deadliest (give or take) that a single tornado can actually be now?
I think the answer to the first question is a guarded “yes,” at least for the specific case of a tornado striking a city. The tornado was about as strong as they come; its winds were estimated to be up to 250 mph. They can get more intense than that, but it doesn’t make a lot of difference in terms of structural damage. The tornado rapidly intensified precisely as it entered the heavily populated regions of Joplin, and it passed right through residential and commercial shopping areas—the worst areas it could strike. Examination of the track shows that there was also a pretty large corridor of EF-4 and EF-5 tornado damage, which would be expected for a wedge tornado. Sometimes the area of violent damage is comparatively small, but this was not the case with this tornado. Storm cellars were rare in this area, making survival above ground mostly a matter of good luck. The tornado was also rain-wrapped for much of its existence. In terms of the storm’s power and the location of impact, you can’t get much worse than this. However, I should note that it occurred on a Sunday. Some have argued that if it had happened at the same time of day on a work day, it could have been worse. We don’t know for sure, and let’s hope we don’t find out. I tend to think it probably would not have been much worse, given that residential areas (not a likely area for commuters to be stranded) and the shopping district (which probably would get more foot traffic on weekends than work-week afternoons) were such a large part of the damage zone. In my opinion, the Joplin tornado was essentially a worst-case scenario for a tornado striking an urban area. A comparable tornado striking an urban area probably would have a comparable human toll.
Unfortunately, the second question—is the death toll of ~160 the highest we could see for a single tornado in the modern era—has a different answer. There are two ways that a single tornado could kill a lot more people than that.
One is the possibility of a weak, poorly-built or dilapidated high rise building taking a direct hit from a violent tornado and collapsing with a lot of people inside it. Generally, these buildings are not supposed to collapse even in EF-5 events. Images of collapsed high rises on hurricane landfall sites are misleading; these buildings mostly had shallow foundations and were undermined by the storm surge. They were not blown over by wind alone, and storm surge is obviously not a factor for tornadoes. The St. John’s Hospital building in Joplin took a direct hit from the tornado when it was at EF-4 intensity and it did not collapse. However, a poorly-constructed or dilapidated one could. (As an aside, one does have to wonder about the possibility of a tornado tearing up ground several feet deep, as happened in the EF-5 tornado on April 27 in central Mississippi. This could definitely undermine a slab foundation on a house, resulting in the foundation being ripped from the ground—the supposed hypothetical “F6 intensity” signature that one heard bandied about prior to the adoption of the Enhanced Fujita Scale. However, high-rise buildings have much deeper foundations than residential homes.)
The other possibility is that of a violent tornado striking a crowded spectator event, such as a sports game, a fairground, a speedway, etc. This possibility has been discussed at length by meteorologists such as Dr. Roger Edwards of the Storm Prediction Center. It’s almost happened before, in fact; in 2008 an EF-2 tornado in Atlanta, GA struck the Georgia Dome while a basketball game (involving my college team) was going on. It had gone into overtime, so people were not milling around outside. Still, there are videos from that event of pieces of the roof collapsing and falling to the floor while the spectators were left to fend for themselves in the stands. A stronger tornado could very easily have taken that roof off.
So yes, although the Joplin tornado was very likely a worst-case event for a tornado strike on a city, thereby representing an approximate limit on fatalities for that type of disaster, the potential exists for individual tornadoes to kill far more people than that in a different sort of disaster. Let us hope that we can deal with the infrastructure and the safety considerations of large venues so that these greater disasters do not occur, either in 2012 or years to come.