Super Outbreak 5 years later: My story and the meteorology (Part 6 – conclusion, lessons and the future)
All this week I have been writing on my experience 5 years ago this week, as well as the meteorology of one of the worst tornado outbreaks ever experienced on this planet. The previous posts:
This last post focuses on what happened two days after the main event, along with lessons learned and both my future and the future in forecasting in general. By April 29, the storm system had reached the Atlantic Ocean and the outbreak was over. However, beneath the sunny skies lied communities wiped off the map, lives shattered, people homeless and so many questions. Why did this happen?
April 29: The aftermath and rethinking begins
Friday, April 29, 2011 was a sunny day in the areas hit by the deadly tornadoes, but there remained many dark clouds over the science of meteorology. Since the last outbreak with an extreme death toll (the 1974 Super Outbreak) technology has changed greatly, warnings could be given with timely notice and billions of dollars has been spent on safety and awareness. For over 35 years, the changes appeared to be making huge dividends as the human toll of tornadoes had decreased dramatically despite the fact major tornadoes were still happening, including EF-4 and EF-5 tornadoes in populated areas. We thought we had turned a corner. However, this outbreak, along with another catastrophic outbreak about 3 1/2 weeks later (including the Joplin, MO EF-5 tornado which killed 158 people) changed our thinking. Such was especially true given that these were not overnight tornadoes when people are most vulnerable either – most of the fatalities were between 2:00 pm and 11:30 pm, when most people are awake or aware of the situation.
Looking at the above graphic (from the NWS Indianapolis site), this kind of human toll had only been approached twice in the previous 60 years – in 1965 and 1974, both of which were as a result of a single catastrophic tornado outbreak. In those years, tornado warnings were in their infancy, and hard to get (the best source would be AM radio, if they could send them out in time). Like in 2011, violent tornadoes hit populated areas in those years, but that also happened in 1979, 1984, 1985, 1995, 1999, 2003, 2010 and other years, and while any loss of life is horribly tragic, instead of death tolls in the hundreds, they were typically between 10 and 60 (or less) from those outbreaks. What happened this time? Here are some thoughts. A much more in-depth report was published by NOAA in December 2011.
1) No matter what, neither the meteorologists nor the system was to blame. The severe weather setup was very well predicted days in advance, although the exact intensity could not be fully predicted as we were dealing with a rare, historic event. The SPC issued a very well done forecast and incredibly strongly worded watches well in advance. Every media outlet in the region – themselves exhausted – and NWS office did an excellent job with timely, strong warnings. In fact, visual evidence of tornadoes was provided from several TV stations, which is extremely helpful in getting the message. No one can say “it hit without warning” – not by a long shot!
2) The intensity of these tornadoes was so high, many times they were unsurvivable. That was particularly true with parts of the tracks along the Tuscaloosa-Birmingham tornado (a high-end EF-4 which killed 65 people) and the long track tornado from Hackleburg to Phil Campbell, Harvest, Tanner and other communities (an EF-5 which killed 72 people). In many cases, residents DID take shelter in the best place available, such as an interior room or closet (well protected), but that was of no help when their houses were reduced to concrete slabs. Even though EF-4 and EF-5 tornadoes represent (combined) about 1% of all tornadoes, they represent well over half of all fatalities.
3) The morning squall lines from “Round 4” and “Round 5” – which themselves produced many tornadoes – knocked out power to large areas, particularly in northern Alabama which was largely in the dark. In addition (and more critically) NOAA weather radio transmitters were knocked off the air. Combined, it made it very difficult for warnings to be received by the general public by the time the next round of supercells (“Round 6”) reached the area that afternoon. In fact, several communities hit by tornadoes in the morning were hit by even stronger ones later in the day!
4) General reactions by people. Tornado warnings are not uncommon in the region, in fact most counties get several each year (at least). 80% of the time they are radar indicated and either produce nothing, straight line wind damage or a weak EF-0 or EF-1 tornado (which can still be dangerous if precautions not taken). As a result, it is likely many decided to either shrug it off, or just wait for additional ground truth. By the time it got close, it was too late. Most people are not like you or I (referring to the weather community) and don’t pay attention to what is going on downstream. The fact the storms were moving 50 to 70 mph meant time was of the essence.
5) Message availability. Notwithstanding the power outages, there were many people that couldn’t get the message anyway. Lower income people are much less likely to have media access (especially in rural areas), so even if they could take shelter, they may not until it is too late. There is a myth that sirens are the silver bullet, and many people waited for them but couldn’t hear them indoors. They aren’t meant to capture everyone’s attention, just those outdoors in limited circumstances. In addition, those travelling on the highways were extremely vulnerable and often caught unaware since they may only have commercial radio available – if that – and even if they got the message, sheltering would be extremely difficult (overpasses are NOT safe places!). There were numerous fatalities in this and other outbreaks from motorists caught in tornadoes on highways. It is also important that residents with limited knowledge of the English language be aware of warnings as well – having weather radio channels in Spanish or other languages (such as Chinese, Vietnamese, German and French in certain areas) in communities helps greatly for them. Currently, very few options are provided in Spanish, and none in other languages.
Sometimes, your goals change…
As I have also mentioned this week, I was en route to Florida during most of this outbreak. Friday was the third day on the road and a sunny day. However, starting that morning in eastern Tennessee (I was travelling I-75 now), the travels took me into areas devastated. Along the route and side trips, I crossed over no less than 15 tornado tracks – three of which were EF-3 and two were EF-4 in Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia. I knew it would be an emotional day. We considered changing course to the eastern route, but the recommendation from professional meteorologists was that we stay the course, knowing Interstates were usually cleared first, largely to aid in relief crews (which our Thursday was spent with).
After crossing one tornado track and seeing the devastation very early in the morning, I was feeling sick to my stomach. We took a quick break at a small hotel on the highway (not ours), and I got some rest. In addition, I asked for an address for the local Red Cross office, and they directed me to their computer. I found the address and recommended a side trip. My parents were skeptical at first, but I felt like my heart needed to do such. This had been such a historic event that I just had to help out.
That led us into the late morning hours. We arrive in Chattanooga, a lot of the power was still out and extensive repairs were taking place. Downtown we went (power was on there and everything seemed normal) around 10:00 am. I popped into the local Red Cross office and they really were surprised. I explained my story and why I wanted to do this. Yes I was on my way to Florida, but my heart couldn’t take it. Out of my wallet came 100 dollars and they received it. Then came one of my biggest quotes:
I don’t think this is fair. We are heading to Florida, onto cruises (not me but my parents) and to Disney World, while people here have lost their lives, their homes and everything. The least we can do is give back and help out. (my quote, April 29, 2011)
Additionally, we decided to actually do some cleanup nearby. In one of the communities devastated, we actually cleared up a heavily damaged park and helped while time permitted. We agreed to stay away from any human suffering or destroyed houses, since I felt we had no reason to be there as there could be families dealing with personal tragedy (not just their damaged park). Also that park could act as a distraction for local residents dealing with the emotional toll.
After all that happened, that afternoon we continued onward. Not much happened the rest of the way, but it a lot for me to ask for and respond, especially given that I have no family anywhere near there, and knew no one in person there. Regardless, it was a major reason why I wanted to become a meteorologist later – we all have our weather events. I have always been interested in weather, but this was the big one of my recent life. I was unable to get in straight after high school due to low grades and troubles then, and until now other complications have come into play. When I started college that fall I had multiple ideas and felt a general degree was best for me. It was 2013 when I decided to push especially hard and take the specialist route. But it all comes back to that week in 2011.
What can be done and what was done?
Fortunately, in the preceding four years (2012 to 2015) there have been no tornado outbreaks with anywhere near the intensity of this one. In fact, while there were six EF-5 tornadoes in 2011 – four in this outbreak alone, there has only been one since. However, many of the messages may not have been heard, especially the last one. These are a mixture of personal thoughts and facts mentioned from previous reports. In many cases, money is a limiting factor, especially given the fact incomes are fairly low in most of the regions affected.
NOAA has pushed especially hard to upgrade the weather radio network, upgrading radars to dual polarization with much quicker updates (a big issue during the Joplin tornado) and adding cell phone based warnings which automatically ring smartphones (which many people have nowadays) to show tornado warnings. The phone service has been very helpful in spreading messages to those who would otherwise not receive them – particularly outdoors or in vehicles. Reverse 911 services have been useful as well when power outages limit access via traditional sources.
Sheltering is another challenge. 99% of the time, a tornado can be survived in a frame house above ground by moving into an interior room, with no walls, and protecting yourself with a helmet, shoes and a mattress. Due to high water tables or bedrock/economical reasons, many houses have no basements and are simply built on concrete slabs. However, during a very violent tornado like many of these, such is often insufficient for those who experience the core. Community safe rooms and special tornado shelters are useful and use of them have increased over the past few years, but they are expensive and must be properly used and installed (underground shelters also can have flooding risks if built in low ground).
Nonetheless, vulnerabilities remain. Over the past three years, a large percentage of the tornado fatalities have been in vehicles, including all the fatalities from May 31, 2013 in El Reno, OK and most of the fatalities from the December 2015 outbreaks. We have not come very far in sheltering or awareness for motorists given the fact that vehicles are as vulnerable as mobile homes in tornadoes. That leads to my expected research project starting this fall.
My next project: Solving a vulnerability
Largely inspired by this outbreak, personal experiences that I had and more recent stories, I feel this has driven me as well. This fall, I will be starting at Mississippi State University for my graduate meteorology degree. While I may also do other courses and even broadcast work, the primary research focus I intend to do will be on tornado safety for motorists. As mentioned, sheltering is nearly impossible (especially on Interstate highways) even if the message is received. Given that exits can be 5 to 15 miles or more apart, motorists may not have time to take cover, and if they do not receive the message, they are a sitting duck. Most of the fatalities on December 23 and 26, 2015 were as a result of such, as intense tornadoes crossed major Interstate highways during the busy Christmas travel season.
I hope to work with local weather offices, researchers, social scientists, media outlets and departments of transportation to find solutions to the problem. One early idea that I have had include flashing borders on exit signage combined with awareness campaigns. That way, if the border of the green exit signs is flashing, motorists will be strongly advised to immediately leave the freeway at that exit. A parking area and safe room(s) would be provided there, protected at the highest standards possible with sufficient capacity, accessible 24 hours a day but patrolled to ensure proper use. The same would also be available at all rest areas and parking areas along the freeway.
Yes, that is an expensive proposition and would take time to implement. However, experimental versions have already developed in Texas, and saving lives should be paramount. There may be many other solutions that could be adopted, and they may be adjusted depending on the area (urban areas may have different demands). Discussions with social scientists, engineers, meteorologists and transportation departments will assist greatly in solving this problem. Hopefully we can learn and avoid tragedies in the future.
The week peaking on April 27, 2011 was a very tumultuous week for many. I am sure I am not the only person that decided to become a meteorologist largely from that week! However, the combination of personal experiences, the human toll and the historic nature was an incredible coincidence – of good and bad – that, in the end, changed my life and brought my career goals in focus. For other friends, it was Hurricane Katrina or some other storm. We all have those days.
Finally, my thoughts and prayers continue to be with those suffering after that week even 5 years later through lost loved ones or having to rebuild their lives. As we found out a few weeks later, it was not the last catastrophic event of 2011 either. Hopefully the next time such a bad year happens, we will be better prepared from a human perspective at least.
Forecaster Craig Ceecee
Remainder of the series: