It’s been forever since I blogged or commented here, but I can’t let the Great Tornado Outbreak of April 27, 2011 (or whatever it will ultimately be called by history) go unmentioned. Last night’s events in Alabama and across the South were not merely devastating; they were historic.
The death toll is now at a stunning 231 and counting, which is virtually unheard-of in the modern era for a tornado outbreak in the United States. There hasn’t been a triple-digit death toll from tornadoes in the U.S. since the Super Outbreak of April 3, 1974, which spawned the famous Xenia, Ohio tornado, and which killed approximately 330 people. This is easily the worst outbreak since that one, and unquestionably among the very worst in American history. It is also the first mass-casualty tornado event of the Doppler radar era. These storms were so violent, and took such devastating tracks, that not even ample advance warning could prevent massive losses of life.
As I wrote on my Tumblr and my blog, the scale and magnitude of destruction caused by yesterday’s tornadoes is almost more reminiscent of a hurricane than a typical big tornado event. Indeed, per Wikipedia, the death toll surpasses that of every U.S. hurricane not named Katrina since 1969, and maybe since 1938 (Camille killed 256 in ’69; yesterday’s death toll may well exceed that). I hope the government officials tasked with responding to this disaster, and less importantly the national media, fully grasp this fact, and understand the enormity of the situation. This not just another bad tornado outbreak. It’s something of an entirely different magnitude.
Watching the incredible and horrifying videos from Tuscaloosa and elsewhere — including the one embedded above, which was taken by an extremely foolish person who is very lucky to be alive — I don’t know how they could miss this. But after Katrina, I never underestimate the ability of the government and media to miss the bloody obvious when it comes to grasping the scope of a natural disaster. And sure enough, when I turned on my TV this morning, the first thing I saw was CNN interviewing Reince Prebius about Donald Trump, which is just completely ridiculous. Is it even conceivable that, on the morning after a major hurricane landfall (with a death toll of, say, 30), the cable news networks wouldn’t be doing wall-to-wall coverage? Of course not. Yet here we have something far worse, and it’s being treated like a run-of-the-mill story. What do we have a 24-hour news media for, if they can’t be bothered to prioritize coverage of a catastrophe like this? Perhaps a bunch of Northern media types think “oh gee, a bunch of tornadoes in the South, how original,” and assume the death toll was caused by an abundance of hicks in trailer parks. Whatever the reason, it’s inexcusable. This is the sort of epic disaster that ought to swamp all the national media noise about insubstantial fluff issues (birth certificates, royal weddings, etc.) and spur “flood the zone” coverage for days. It’s that big of a deal.
The reasons this calamity was so, well, calamitous, are easily apparent. Typically, tornadoes, although very powerful — at their worst, tornadoes’ winds easily exceed those of the strongest hurricanes — only affect a relatively small area of land, cutting a narrow path, and lasting for a fairly short period of time. So while the strongest tornadoes can utterly devastate a small area, the damage they cause is limited by the relatively small amount of territory they affect. This is the fundamental difference between tornadoes and hurricanes, from a damage assessment perspective. (Even the biggest tornadoes, like the one that hit Tuscaloosa and Birmingham yesterday, are a mile or so wide, which is much smaller than the tiniest hurricane eyewall. And hurricanes still have strong winds for many dozens or hundreds of miles outside the eyewall.)
It’s also the fundamental reason why tornadoes rarely hit cities: not because cities have some magical tornado-repelling power, but because the vast majority of this country’s land area (especially in the most tornado-prone states) is non-urban, and the odds of a powerful tornado’s small path of destruction happening to intersect with a heavily populated area are fairly low as a result.
But when you get a massive, mile-wide, EF4 or EF5 tornado that lasts for hours and impacts four states, as the Tuscaloosa/Birmingham tornado did, the math changes. When it happens on a day that forecasters pegged in advance as having exceptionally dangerous conditions for extremely strong tornadoes, that’s even worse. Further, even as long-lasting, massive, powerful tornadoes go, that one took an exceptionally terrible track. And it happened on a day where there were 100+ other tornadoes, at least several of them also huge and very powerful! Simply incredible.
Don’t get me wrong, we’re still talking about a much narrower path of destruction, per tornado, than any hurricane. But the net effect of all those narrow but exceptionally long paths of intense destruction — including the one path through two heavily populated areas — is an enormous toll on lives and property, unprecedented in the lifetimes of anyone younger than their mid-30s.
The near-certainty of a huge, triple-digit death toll was immediately apparent to me when I saw those videos last night. Yet even I didn’t think we’d already be well into the 200s by this morning. I hope I’m wrong, but I bet we’ll end up in the 300s, just like the Super Outbreak. The monetary damage figures will also undoubtedly be staggering. Furthermore, while I haven’t seen any per-tornado death tolls yet, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Tuscaloosa/Birmingham tornado ends up being the deadliest single U.S. tornado since the 1940s or 1950s.
Just an incredible, terrible, heartbreaking disaster for the folks affected. Please keep them in your thoughts and prayers today.