Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Tornadoes in Oklahoma

Once again, central Oklahoma is the bull’s-eye for an outbreak of killer tornadoes. I have more than a professional interest any time a tornado passes through Oklahoma having spent 4 years living and working there. Additionally, our son still lives in Oklahoma City, so any time we hear of severe weather in that region, it catches our attention. Preliminary reports are that 5 people lost their lives and another 10 are in area hospitals with severe injuries. The death toll may rise of course, but it could have been a lot worse. Tornadoes are common there and most people have had experience with them and know what to do. One anecdote from this event reported on CNN.com illustrates that. The tornado struck a large truck stop on Interstate 40 east of OKC. Workers rushed everyone in the building into the safest room they had, the cooler. Travelers also sought shelter at the truck stop in one of the coolers or the restrooms. The tornado struck the truck stop ripping off the roof and overturning tractor trailers but no one was killed at this location.

My research with Dan Sutter on tornadoes reveals that had this event happened overnight, the death toll would have been much higher. Even a well warned tornado, can be overlooked by residents simply because they were not awake to hear the warning. Additionally, after the sun goes down, tornadoes are difficult to see and even when a warning has been given, some residents want to visually confirm the warning for themselves before they heed the warning. Just to give a sense of the value of tornado warnings, Harold Brooks and Chuck Doswell of the National Severe Storms Laboratory estimate that prior to the National Weather Service issuing tornado warnings the fatality rate from these storms was 1.8 per million. Today it is .11. This suggests that fatalities, without our current warning system could be more than 16 times higher than they were today. So instead of 5 fatalities we could be looking at the potential of having almost 100 from this event. Tornadoes are scary partly because of the power they posses but also because of their unpredictable nature. But, we are fortunate to have a dedicated, professional staff of forecasters who provide valuable warnings and do indeed save lives.

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