Surprising Data on Tornado Deaths in U.S. Since 1925.

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In the weather section of the Washington Post, on June 15, 2011, there was an interesting write up of the deadly tornadoes in 2011 and how problems remain, even with the advent of radar and better warning systems since 1925.  See the article : Shocking: Tornado death rates in 2011 return to pre-1925 levels.

I just located the original NOAA briefing materials, titled Spring 2011: A season of U.S. Climate and Weather Extremes  (June 15, 2011; 14 pages). I highly recommend reading the full report.

Joplin, MO — many reasons for the devastation after the EF5 tornado

Tornado ???

Mind-boggling tornado count, deaths raise hard questions about causes, warnings & response,WashPost, May 25.

Approximately 1,000 tornadoes. Nearly 500 dead. The numbers are staggering as the 2011 tornado season rages at a record pace. From the the EF5 tornado that struck Joplin, Mo., killing at least 122 people to become the deadliest tornado in the U.S. since 1950, to the pair of explosive and deadly April tornado outbreaks, and now also yesterday’s Plains outbreak moving east today, this year’s barrage of violent twisters has people asking questions about everything from the impact of climate change on tornadoes, to the accuracy and effectiveness of warnings.

First, on the “are all these tornadoes a manifestation of global warming?” question, there is a consensus on that, but it’s neither comforting nor conclusive. We simply don’t know.

Jeff Masters at Weather Underground: “… this year’s incredibly violent tornado season is not part of a trend. It is either a fluke, the start of a new trend, or an early warning symptom that the climate is growing unstable and is transitioning to a new, higher energy state with the potential to create unprecedented weather and climate events. All are reasonable explanations, but we don’t have a long enough history of good tornado data to judge which is most likely to be correct.”

… one factor that has clearly played a major role in this year’s high tornado death toll: Bad luck. Sure, the more tornadoes there are the better chance that one or more will eventually tear through a highly populated area.

Next, this tornado season has obliterated the notion that massive investment in a national severe weather forecasting infrastructure and early-warning network ensures a low tornado death toll. .

Among tornado researchers, it’s widely recognized that population growth and the increasing urban sprawl is a driving factor that is placing more people in harm’s way. I gave a presentation to the American Meteorological Society several years ago on the challenge of dealing with urban tornadoes, and this issue has only grown in urgency since.

Also relevant is the growth of the portion of Americans who live in mobile homes, which are particularly susceptible to strong winds, be they from tornadoes, hurricanes, or typical severe thunderstorms. … seven percent of Americans – about 20 million people – now live in mobile homes. Also, the greatest share of mobile homes is in the South, where tornado deaths have been especially significant this year.

But making sure that people get the warnings is only half the battle. You also have to get people to take appropriate action once they get the warning, and considering that tornado warnings have a high false alarm rate (as high as 75 percent, by some estimates), people can be forgiven for being skeptical that a given warning will turn out to be the real deal.

Already some are discussing “tornado fatigue” and the ability of the human psyche to distance itself from existential threats, thereby leading people to avoid heeding tornado warnings that could be false alarms (a similar dynamic comes into play concerning climate change, but that involves a longer-term threat).

As Jeffrey Kluger wrote for Time.com, “…paradoxically, what may be the true undoing of good tornado preparedness is the sheer number of the storms themselves. When twisters are touching down by the dozens per day (a whopping 68 were reported in the Midwest this past weekend), being more rather than less prepared would seem the way to go. But familiarity breeds habituation, and habituation, in turn, breeds insouciance.

My Prediction: Huge Disaster Recovery Problems in U.S. during May

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I have never posted a prediction before, but it is not hard to anticipate that FEMA and many other agencies and organizations dealing with disaster recovery should expect a demanding workload in May.  Here are 3 reasons for this prediction:

Reason #1:  aftermath of  the tornadic outbreaks in 6 southern states, less than one week ago; we already have  seen  major damage to many thousands of residences/businesses/other structures. The damage assessments are not yet completed, but it is easy to anticipate major rehousing/and or relocation efforts will be necessary.  [Today’s Christian Science Monitor discusses the likelihood that the Tuscaloosa Tornado is an all-time record setter for size and impact.]

These tornadoes also present the first major challenge to FEMA under the Obama Administration. See the WashPost article today: Storm recovery a test for administration, April 30, 2011.  At a later date I am planning to cover some of the problems likely regarding the large numbers of low and moderate income housing units needed, and the problems of budget constraints at all levels of government. Note that Prof. Bill Waugh has touched on these issues already:

The enormity of a cleanup effort that spans eight states provides first major challenge for President Obama in responding to a natural disaster. Promising federal aid to help towns rebuild, he says, “We’re going to make sure you’re not forgotten.”

Rebuilding is going to be a real chore” for the federal government, said Bill Waugh, a professor at the University of Mississippi and an emergency management expert. FEMA will need to move quickly to find enough temporary housing for displaced survivors, he said. “These days, with the economy so bad, a lot of people have probably dropped their house insurance,” Waugh said. “So recouping the losses could be very difficult.”

Reason #2:  anticipated major flooding in the Mississippi Valley. Warnings are already being posted for major flooding in a number of states in the Mississippi and Ohio Valley areas.  A repeat flooding event poses significant problems, some of which can be anticipated from a record-setting previous event in 1927 and others will result from some states experiencing both disasters.  See Historic Flooding Unfolding Along Mississippi, Ohio Rivers, from Accuweather.com, April 29, 2011.

As if tornadoes and damaging thunderstorms were not enough, historic flooding is also threatening the Mississippi River, below St. Louis, as well as the lower part of the Ohio River. The rising waters are expected to top levels set during February 1937. This mark is the middle Mississippi Valley’s equivalent to the 1993 event farther north along Old Man River.

Even if rain were to fall at a normal rate for the remainder of the spring, the consequences of what has already happened in the Midwest will affect the way of life, property, agriculture and travel/shipping/navigation for weeks in the region.

While the amount of evacuees currently numbers in the hundreds, it could soon number in the tens of thousands as levees are topped or breached and rivers expand their girth into more farming communities, towns and cities.

Sadly, the response in 1927 included some truly awful racial discrimination; the arbitrary and inequitable aspects of the response and recovery presented great hardship to a number of victims.

Reason #3: FEMA is planning a major disaster exercise, in the New Madrid Earthquake Zone in early May.  This National Level Exercise will involve active “play” by several federal regions, several states, and a large no. of municipalities.  Some of those key actors will be dealing with the two actual events noted above.  If  FEMA Director, Craig Fugate, goes through with his plans to hold the exercise as scheduled, FEMA, and also state and local emergency management officials, will be extraordinarily busy with two real and one simulated large-to-catastrophic events.