Thursday, May 26, 2011

How Could This Happen?

            April of 1974 was a very special month for me.  I met, then asked to my senior prom the young woman who has now been my wife of 33 years.  But April of 1974 has a tragic history for it was on April 3, 1974 that hundreds of people died in what was one of the worst days for tornado fatalities.  Since that time, Doppler radar was installed and increased dramatically the accuracy and timeliness of tornado warnings.  Communication technology has improved beyond anything we imagined in the 1970’s and this has allowed warnings to be disseminated quickly and to virtually anyone with a TV, radio, computer or even cell phone.  As a result, casualties from tornadoes have dropped to an annual average of about 60.  Not until April of this year have we witnessed any tornado event which killed more than 100 people.  So it’s not surprising that we are shocked when we see the death tolls from the tornadoes of the last 6 weeks.  For the first time since 1953 we have exceeded 500 fatalities and by the time this season is over, we may top that total of 519.

            Some are asking if we had bad warnings for these storms.  The answer to that question is a resounding no.  Joplin had over 20 minutes of warning and the same has been true for each of the horrific events that our country has endured.  In fact, a good argument can be made that without our current warning technology and the expertise of our forecasters, the death toll would have much, much higher.  It is true that an EF-5 tornado which makes a direct hit on a home is going to kill and injure anyone inside regardless of the lead time these unfortunate souls had before it struck.  But keep in mind, that not all of the tornadoes we have experienced have been that strong and even the ones that were, may not have been that strong for the life span of the tornado. 

            So how could this happen?  Is it climate change or just bad luck?  I am not a climate scientist, so I will leave that question for more qualified researchers.  But I do have some insight into why this year has been one that we will likely never forget.  First, it has been almost 50 years since we have seen an outbreak of this magnitude.  And over that time we have come to believe that outbreaks of this size are so rare that we just don’t consider that they could happen in our lifetime.  But, 50 years is a blink of an eye to Mother Nature.  Our records and oral history only go back a few hundred years at best.  The Midwest was not aggressively settled until the latter part of the 19th century so our experience with tornadoes is limited.

            Secondly, we have increased the population in vulnerable areas dramatically.  Land that was once uninhabited is now crammed with subdivisions.  When my wife and I attended the prom in 1974 the Dallas/Ft. Worth area consisted of 2 counties, Dallas and Tarrant.  It now stretches across 10 counties with a population of about 6 million.  The same can be said for Oklahoma City, Kansas City, Little Rock and other metropolitan areas in “Tornado Alley”.

            Finally, part of the reason is truly nothing more than bad luck.  Even with the increased population, there are still vast areas of rural land.  An EF-5 tornado that plows through a corn field kills nothing more than the fruits of a farmer’s labor.  A financial blow but not a human tragedy.  Tornadoes go where they do and if they cross human settlement, bad things are going to happen.  It is not the act of an angry god but the unfortunate consequence of living with a sometimes violent environment.   

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