Saturday's tornadoes: Success amid devastation
By Robert Henson
As of last week, the nation's tornado activity for 2010 stood at record lows -- at least when adjusted for the "inflation" produced by ever more spotters, chasers and video cameras. But the relatively placid spring turned violent on Saturday across the Deep South as a swarm of tornadoes ripped from Louisiana to Tennessee. The NOAA Storm Prediction Center (SPC) tallied 69 preliminary tornado reports -- among the largest 24-hour totals logged in recent years -- from 7 a.m. CDT Saturday to 7 a.m. Sunday.
A total of 12 people were killed by the twisters, 10 of them in a violent, long-track tornado that carved a nearly continuous path of damage -- a stunning 149 miles long and up to 1.75 miles wide -- from extreme northeast Louisiana across central Mississippi, including particularly hard hit Yazoo City. The initial damage survey gave the tornado an EF4 rating on the enhanced Fujita scale, with EF2 and EF3 damage common along its path. The surveyors noted that this twister may later be reclassified as a series of tornadoes, rather than just one, after a more exhaustive analysis is conducted.
Tornadoes across the populous, forested South are notorious for producing many fatalities. Given this twister's huge swath and intense strength, how did the death toll remain so low?
Much of the credit goes to the National Weather Service, where recent advances in warning technology and preparedness strategies were put to superb use. On Thursday morning, more than two days before the event, the SPC declared all of Mississippi at risk for significant severe weather for Saturday, noting that "several tornadoes" could strike and that the threat would ramp up by late morning (which it did -- the long-track tornado was in progress by 11:15 a.m. CDT). The SPC's statements grew steadily more ominous and confident with time, culminating in a rare and large "high risk" area outlined on Saturday morning.
The Jackson NWS office took the threat equally seriously, issuing a discussion on Thursday afternoon that warned of a "particularly dangerous" situation for Saturday -- wording rarely used until the day of an event. A tornado watch was issued at 6:00 a.m. Saturday that included the entire path of the long-track tornado. Residents had ample warning of the twister itself, originating from the Jackson NWS office and amplified through local radio and TV. One sign of how seriously the day's storms were being taken: Major NASCAR events at the Talledega Speedway were shut down for the entire day, a decision never taken lightly. (When asked about his own tornado safety plan that day, driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., replied, "I ain't got my plan together yet. I'll look up in the sky a lot, I reckon.")
To say that Saturday's twister toll could have been worse is a gross understatement. Major outbreaks like this one often killed hundreds of people before the 1950s. (Even today, a tornado striking a venue like Talledega, with some 200,000 fans on hand but little shelter, could produce unfathomable tragedy.) Along with constantly evolving and improving warning systems, the people of Mississippi had the clock on their side this time. Midday tornadoes are far more likely to be seen and avoided than those occurring after dark, when many of the worst twisters in the Deep South strike.
Meteorologist Robert Henson is a writer and editor at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, which operates the National Center for Atmospheric Research. He is the author of "The Rough Guide to Climate Change" (second edition, 2008) and "Weather on the Air: A History of Broadcast Meteorology," to be published this summer by the American Meteorological Society.
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