Historic tornado outbreak, worst of my lifetime, devastates Alabama and the South; more than 200 dead

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.

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30 Responses to Historic tornado outbreak, worst of my lifetime, devastates Alabama and the South; more than 200 dead

  1. R. de Haan says:

    Thanks for the posting Brendon.

    Our media have lost it a long time ago but warnings pointing to the severity of today’s events have been around over the past day’s a.o by AccuWeather, WeatherBell, NOAA and smaller blogs like Weather Musings

    Some day’s ago I posted an article here stating April 2011 would go into history as the all time April Tornado record holder.

    There is nothing Governments can do to stop this phenomena other than providing the best early warming system available, providing the best building regulation and tornado shelters.

    I personally have big doubts about the way US houses are constructed.
    Building in concrete with a solid foundation won’t prevent destruction but it will save lives.

    As for the scale of the damages, a lot has changed over the past 50 years.
    More people are living in Tornado Alley than ever before. And now Tornado outbreaks have emerged outside the corridor I.M.O an overhaul of construction regulations making new buildings more resistant to tornado’s has become inevitable.

  2. Brian says:

    “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.”

    Yep. The fact is that anti-Southern bigotry is quite widespread and intense. To put it simply, the MSM doesn’t care about Southern people. Nor does this administration.

    Have you seen the reports that the federal gov’t is refusing to declare a state of emergency for the TX wildfires, despite being requested to do so more than a week ago by the TX governor? “Let Texas and Rick Perry burn” seems to be the federal attitude. B@st@rds.

    (Although to be honest, one could say that massive flooding in the upper Midwest never gets its “fair share” of coverage either, and that the real problem is the attitude to “flyover country” but I think that’s really a sign of indifference rather than outright hostility.)

    • Bob says:

      FEMA says that it’s continuing to closely partner with Texas:

      http://blog.fema.gov/2011/04/wildfires-federal-assistance-and-safety.html

      • Brian says:

        Heckuva job, FEMA!

        http://www.businessweek.com/ap/financialnews/D9MS0VE80.htm

        Wildfires have already ravaged nearly two million acres in Texas, and Perry is requesting federal help to pay for the emergency response, officials said. Spokeswoman Katherine Cesinger said without the federal assistance, “we’re going to have to get pretty creative.” She said it has been about 10 days since the state requested federal disaster assistance and the governor, who has repeatedly bashed Washington, believes disaster response is one of the government’s “core functions.”

        She said the state has estimated the cost of the response at $70 million. The state can pay 25 percent of that, or about $17.5 million, Cesinger added. Perry wants Uncle Sam to pick up the rest of it.

        “We can’t afford ($70 milllion),” Cesinger said. “That’s why we asked them for help.”

        • Bob says:

          The gov has billions in his rainy day fund and wants the feds to pay most of the $7o million the fires will cost, so that he can keep billions in reserve? Some nerve. Someone should tell him that today’s a rainy day.

          Isn’t he the gov that was promoting secession?
          Even more nerve. But who can blame him: everybody’s on the dole.

  3. lynmeryl says:

    Good to see you back for a visit Brendon. Well articulated article. Thanks!

  4. lynmeryl says:

    Sorry! Brendan.

  5. seree says:

    Thanks for this, Brendon. Yes, the concept of insufficient or misdirected media coverage is very disturbing. Are there nationwide calls for financial assistance – people who wish to donate? people who want to help in other ways?
    Ron’s remark about building regulations is spot on. Every home in these areas should have the equivalent of a bomb shelter. If there are mobile home parks, do they have public underground safety areas? Has there been govt slipsliding as far as ensuring preemptive safety measures? [a bit like the floods in Queensland some time back... known about and not taken care of properly].
    Those clips are horrifying.

  6. R. de Haan says:

    I have watched several “before” and “after” pictures and wood is the main construction material in US housing.
    Watch this picture from the 24 th for example.
    The houses look fine at first sight but in fact the are build just like the trailers on a trailer park. A wooden frame with chip wood plates, the cheapest material available.
    To make matters worse it is all put together with a nail gun instead of rfs screws.
    Don’t get me started about the roofing. A cart board box provides better protection.
    http://climaterealists.com/attachments/database/WA%20News%207.pdf

  7. R. de Haan says:

    After the historical tornado events it’s time for historical floods

    • Brendan Loy says:

      The 2012 apocalypse people must be going NUTS about now.

      • R. de Haan says:

        It’s just weather and it happened before, you know that.
        All major tornado outbreaks happened during La Ninja conditions and a fast moving jet stream, cold versus hot air boundaries.

        Of course it has nothing to do with the non existing Global Warming scam or the non existing 2012 apocalypse scare.
        What is flabbergasting to me however is the fact that so many educated people have devoted themselves to this kind of religions. It’s really amazing.

        Yesterday I had a talk with some government officials, all with a higher education and two with an technical background who talked absolute crap bout our climate.

        When I asked them if they could tell me how much CO2 currently was present in our atmosphere they said it was 40% and rising.

        Even when I showed them the factual state of sea level rise, Arctic Ice extend, the real figures of CO2 and explained the influence of the PDO/AMO cycles, El Ninko and La ninja influences to them they couldn’t be convinced.

        In fact they took a run for the door. Totally incredible.

        • Brendan Loy says:

          Of course the 2012 stuff is nonsense, but we’re all so interconnected with the media and the Internet now that people understandable feel like there are more disasters. It’s inevitable that people will try to fit these sort of epic events — the Japanese earthquake/tsunami/nuclear nightmare, this epic tornado outbreak, a coming 100+ year flood — into their mythologies. We’re human beings, that’s what we do.

          (No comment on AGW. I’ll discuss abortion with people, but not AGW. Passions are way too high.)

          Meanwhile, are “El Ninko” and “La Ninja” (as opposed to El Niño and La Niña) some sort of inside joke I’m not privy to?

          • R. de Haan says:

            Yeah, sorry for the El Ninko, you know how it goes! The j and the k are close neighbors and I, as usual displaced my glasses but still think I’m cocky enough to think I can do without.

            As for AGW, you’re right about the ‘passions’ involved but that’s not reason to evade the debate, any debate because doctrines driven by ‘passion’ have a tendency to end up extremely violent and bloody (from public witch condemnations and burnings to industrialized genocide, something we should prevent with all our might.

            Besides that the Climate Change doctrine was a hot item for Alan and it deserves a place at this blog, just like other weather related subjects like hurricanes, tornado’s, volcano’s and earth quakes.

          • R. de Haan says:

            Besides that, the subject is impossible to escape.

        • Brian says:

          “When I asked them if they could tell me how much CO2 currently was present in our atmosphere they said it was 40% and rising.”

          You cannot be serious.

  8. R. de Haan says:

    Brown gashes on otherwise green earth.
    Tornado tracks visible from space

  9. Tim Murphy says:

    Brendan, it’s good to see you post, though this a horrible subject. I think I was eight when the Tornado took out the north side of Fargo. Mom bundled all of us into the furnace room, and all of us survived. Many people didn’t. I’ve never been so scared.

    I was just a baby in the insurance business when the Xenia disaster occurred. All of my young friends who were claim adjusters jetted to Ohio, and they made things as right as young men can.

    Of course we don’t get storms like Tornado Alley. But one missed me by half a mile.

  10. R. de Haan says:

    Update on the tornado numbers: 305

  11. Brandon says:

    Sorry to disappoint you but something is happening to the planet with all these earth changes. It’s human nature to think we’re invincible. However I’m not a 2012 believer. Check out the Extinction Protocol.

    • R. de Haan says:

      Come on Brandon, what earth changes? Nothing that has happened over the past months was new or unexpected.

      We are just cooling down with the weather as a part of that process.

      Think ‘sixties’, everything goes in cycles and what goes up must come down.
      Gravity keeps the lid on our atmosphere, better than bottle with a cork.

      Just live your life and don’t worry too much.

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