Tuesday, May 21, 2013

A Very Sad Day

Once again we are reminded of the violent nature of tornadoes.  Tornadoes are not rare but a violent tornado (EF-4 or EF-5) hitting a populated area will, more often than not, mean tragedy.  This one is personal for me.  My family lived in OKC from 1999 through 2003.  We were a part of the OKC community for the May 3, 1999 tornado and the May 2003 tornado.  Our son and his family still live there.  So there is a visceral feeling as I watch the images of the unfolding event and the tragic aftermath.


At this moment, the OKC Medical Examiner says there are 51 fatalities but no one will be surprised if that number rises.  Some news outlets are reporting fatalities that approach 100.  That is larger than the 1999 tornado.  In fact, you have to go back to the 1947 Woodward tornado to exceed the number of fatalities from this storm.  Injury numbers have not been released but it is likely that the number of injuries will be over 1000.


I’m often asked about damage the day after an event has occurred.  At this point, only broad guesses are possible but if you consider the 1999 tornado as a guide, the damages will be in the billions.  That tornado created damage of $1 billion and adjusted for inflation that number would be about $1.5 billion.  I would consider that a good guess for a lower end for estimated damage.  The Joplin tornado two years ago suffered $3 billion in damages.

As the days unfold, people will form opinions about this event.  There are three storylines that I expect will dominate the coverage and I’d like to address those.

First and foremost this is the story of a violent tornado in an urban area.  As more and more people move into areas vulnerable to tornadoes, the population density rises.  Tornadoes are a normal part of life in the plains and sometimes the atmospheric conditions are conducive to creating a monster storm.  If that storm races across an open field, it’s an interesting event to watch, from a safe distance.  But if that storm strikes a populated area, buildings will be destroyed and people will suffer injuries and regrettably some will perish.  Urban sprawl is not going away so the job of researchers is to search for ways to minimize those casualties.

 This is the fourth violent killer tornado to hit Moore in the last 15 years.  The tempting storyline is to ask, “What is unique about Moore?”.  But the question pre-supposes that tornadoes return to paths they visited in the past.  It certainly appears that way.  Several times in the last few hours I have seen the path of the 1999 storm overlaid with the path of this one.  I’m surprised that the 2003 path has not been on the same graphic as it also had a similar path through Moore.  Harold Brooks did a very good job in attempting to dispel this analysis when he was interviewed on MSNBC.  He pointed out that central Oklahoma is located where the warm, moist air from the Gulf collides with the cool dry air coming off the Rockies and that this confluence provides the necessary ingredients for violent tornadoes.  Any community in central Oklahoma has the same chance of witnessing a violent tornado.  In 2011, an EF-5 tornado hit El Reno which is located northwest of the OKC metro area.  Fewer people were killed simply due to the lower population density.

The final storyline that I expect will be discussed deals with the two schools tragically hit by this tornado.  Briarwood Elementary and Plaza Tower Elementary are about a mile apart and both were in the path of the storm.  As of this writing there are no fatalities at Briarwood and many from Plaza Tower.  Why?  This is an important area of inquiry and the reasons are likely complex.  It could be engineering.  Was one school built differently from the other?  It could be storm intensity.  Along a tornadoes path, the intensity will vary.  A small change in intensity can have different effects on buildings and it could be that the change in intensity was sufficient to create very different outcomes on buildings so close to each other.  It could be location.  The path of the storm is estimated to be a mile wide.  But wind intensities vary within the path with the strongest winds toward the center.  Or it could be tragic luck.  Where in the building were the children when struck by the storm?

Tornadoes are both fascinating and terrifying events.  I have lived in this part of the country all my life and have developed a respect for the power of nature.  It is my hope and prayer that the victims of this tragedy find the help that they need as they put the pieces of their lives back together.

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