Tornado Preparedness? In December? Yep!

Hi friends. For those who might not be aware, the STM team is actually now based in two different areas – the Northeast, where we were founded, and the Southeast, where one of our team members now lives! Unsurprisingly, we now deal with very different weather-related issues. For example, at the time of this writing, I know that those of you living in New York are dealing with a winter storm all day today (December 17). On the other hand, yesterday I was able to go for a run in a tank top because the high temperature in my town was 75 degrees! Unfortunately, no location is perfect, and the southeast is known for it’s secondary severe weather season beginning in the late fall, sometimes lasting through early winter. In fact, on December 16, 2000, a powerful EF-4 tornado tore through Tuscaloosa County, killing 11 and injuring over 100. The tornado was on the ground for 18 miles, all within Tuscaloosa County. The tornado path was estimated to be 750 yards wide at its maximum intensity. Although the warnings were excellent for this tornado, the public perception still wasn’t where it should be.

Damage to houses from the December 16, 2000 tornado.

The mission of the National Weather Service is to protect lives and property through the issuance of timely watches, warnings and advisories. However, the warnings can only do so much if people don’t receive them and take proper precautions in response to them. After the April 27, 2011 tornado outbreak, meteorologists and social scientists collaborated in order to find ways to get people to take protective actions in the wake of a tornado warning. It was discovered that one large issue is that of False Alarms (when a warning is issued for an expected hazard, such as a tornado, but that hazard never materializes). After April 2011, meteorologists at the NWS Office in Birmingham researched what environments tended to lead to tornadoes versus those that don’t. Three years following that outbreak, the NWS Office in Birmingham has reduced their False Alarm Rate by 31%! The National Weather Service and National Severe Storms Laboratory (NSSL) located on the University of Oklahoma campus are continually working on Hazardous Weather Testbeds, where they invite meteorologists, broadcasters, and emergency managers to test new concepts for tornado and severe thunderstorm warnings (among many other testbeds as well!) Furthermore, one of the biggest problems that Alabama residents encountered in the April 2011 outbreak was a reliance on tornado sirens. Since then, even more emphasis has been placed on having at least two methods of finding out about weather conditions, specifically a weather radio with backup batteries and some type of smartphone app. Regardless of where you live in the country or what weather hazards you typically encounter, this is important.

Understanding the risk is critical in being prepared

How far have we come? That’s a difficult question to answer, but a look back at Monday’s tornado outbreak can provide some insight. Although storm surveys are ongoing, we do have some preliminary information on what happened. As of Tuesday afternoon, NOAA’s Storm Prediction Center has received 27 preliminary reports of tornadoes in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama on Monday, December 16, 2019. Furthermore, there have been 64 wind reports and 14 hail reports. The storms caused damage in at least 10 counties in Louisiana, 25 counties in Mississippi, and 16 counties in Alabama. Counties in Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee, and Georgia also reported damage. One person was killed in their mobile home in Louisiana, and two were killed in their mobile homes in Alabama. Several people were injured across the southeast.

At 12:30 PM local time December 16, 2019, an extremely large and dangerous tornado wreaked havoc and destruction across portions of Alexandria, Louisiana. The NWS Office in Lake Charles has estimated the length of the tornado to be 63 miles, stretching from DeRidder to Alexandria. Storm surveys are ongoing, and the path width has not yet been determined. There was significant structural damage to several homes, churches, and other buildings, and a substantial number of trees and power lines are currently down. Extensive damage was reported at the Hope Baptist Church and School in Louisiana, but fortunately the church’s pastor heeded the warning and directed everyone into their safe place. Looking at the photos of the aftermath, it is truly remarkable that there was only one minor injury.

Significant tornado damage was also reported from a long-track supercell storm in parts of Bibb and Shelby Counties in Alabama. However, no injuries or fatalities have been reported in those places. Although the information we currently have is preliminary (check out our blog from this summer or see the tweet below for more details on why storm surveys seem to take “so long”), and three deaths is three too many, this number is quite low for the severity and length of the tornadoes. The science, as well as public perception and readiness, is constantly improving. It’s an evolving process that requires effort and positive communication between meteorologists and the public, and we are optimistic that one day tornado outbreaks can and will occur with no loss of life.

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