Thoughts I’ve accumulated from last Friday night’s tornado disaster in the Mid-South, Tennessee Valley and Kentucky…
Forecasts were very good. Outlooks, watches and warnings ramped up into the event. Sure, one can look back and do “coulda shoulda” style Monday-morning quarterbacking about peripheral details or one level this way or that. Such second-guessing happens after most events, soonest from people who don’t have what it takes to “sit in the hot seat”, and instead make a social-media presence as nuisance trolls. Holistically, the Integrated Warning System did its job and did it well in every step until public safety (in a few locales). Mayfield, KY, had been in a tornado watch for over 6 hours before it was hit, and that whole track of tornado(es) was very well-warned by local forecast offices.
Were there glitches? Of course. The St. Louis-area office had to shelter temporarily when a tornadic mesocyclone nearly hit them — the same one that hit the Amazon warehouse in Pontoon Beach, IL, soon thereafter. The Paducah KY office lost power and the ability to send radar data for a few hours; their warning service was backed up quickly and adroitly by Springfield, MO (who has some experience with these things).
Footage from the most intense tornado damage areas presents awful scenes — reminiscent to me of historic events like Waco-53, Wichita Falls-79, Spencer SD-98, Tuscaloosa-11, Joplin-11, Moore, OK (thrice: 1999, 2003, 2013!), etc. The collapsed buildings and slabbed houses in particular will tell a terrible story. Despite good warnings, long-tracked tornado(es) from AR into MO/TN/KY were deadly in multiple places, not just Mayfield, and separately in that Amazon warehouse across the Mississippi River from St. Louis.
The morning after through today, it’s very important not go “instapundit” and rush to spouting exact figures yet for casualties, track length, or damage rating. Was the southern Kentucky event the longest-tracked ever? We don’t know yet; there’s some evidence both ways at this juncture. [Take some time to read the definitive, formally published science on the 1925 Tri-State tornado path.] How long-tracked & intense were all the tornadoes? We don’t know. All else is speculation. Until NWS damage surveys w/boots on ground are finished, we won’t know. The rest is variably educated guesswork. In such mass destruction, surveys and debris cleanup are still way incomplete. Casualty totals remain in flux for days, and some people perish later from injuries sustained (unfortunately, one was that beautiful Kentucky baby who initially survived in her car seat). Don’t treat any tornado info as final until survey results are released in days to come. Let’s back off, be patient & let the process fill in those facts with time.
Journalism on this event has run the gamut in quality from excellent to wretched, and that’s just in one newspaper (Washington Post). What else is new?
The worst of the journalism: take this steaming heap of dung, for example, sprinkling in some legit facts with factual errors, sloppiness and conjecture. Let’s look into this story a little closer. It was written by a political correspondent, not a scientist nor science reporter. So adjust your bias detectors & credibility expectations accordingly. More importantly…It also states, “The tornado that struck over the weekend that traveled from Kentucky into Arkansas…”. 1) Factually wrong. Backward. 2) Premature at story time on claiming that it was 1 (“the”) tornado. Surveys are not done yet. We don’t know. There goes the story’s credibility. If one can’t get basics like that right, what else do they screw up in any sort of stories? Don’t write “news” like this, kids.
Want an example of a well-done, well-researched, smartly organized, on-point story on the tornado event, authored by someone with solid credentials and impeccable subject-matter experience? Look no further than this excellent article by Bob Henson, which you really ought to read. Both this masterpiece and the junk story above appeared in the same newspaper.
The sad stories are worth reading too. Every tornado disaster has a human side, perhaps none more compelling in a tragic way than this story of the Kentucky baby who survived, bruised and conscious, only to perish later of a stroke probably induced by her injuries. I post that not to glorify tragedy, but to remind all that every single digit of every tornado death count involves the loss of someone and their future, someone who had friends and loved ones now grieving. In this case, the future was an entire lifespan. As a parent, how can this not hit hard? Sometimes we need these reminders, and we need to get uncomfortable. Detachment breeds complacency.
Let’s get brutally honest about something here. When a violent wedge tornado engulfs a densely populated area, devastation is assured. Even the very best warnings only minimize, not eliminate, casualties. Think Greensburg KS (4 May 2007), which had a similarly intense radar presentation as Mayfield, and excellent warning. We do what we can to minimize that from the meteorological end, of course. Many more vulnerabilities, after warnings are issued, still exist in the South, at night, with local preparedness, warning receipt, access to sturdy shelter, construction quality, etc. It’s complicated. As Bob Henson wrote in the above-linked good story: “…the timing of the tornadoes, coming in the dark of night, their exceptional intensity and the population density of the region hit were all key factors in the catastrophe — which advanced warning could not overcome.” That’s the bottom line.
Mayfield candle and Amazon facilities: It’s still to early to know a lot of specifics beyond the obvious fact that large-span factory/warehouse structures collapsed onto people and killed some. So let’s be patient on that and not start foaming at the mouth based on anecdotal interview stories. As a severe-storms forecaster concerned for decades with large-venue vulnerability & safety (including occupied factories), this bothers me…a lot. We must learn why so many perished there, not to assign blame but to make a safer tornado future. I’m very glad Tim Marshall is on-site in Mayfield, so we will assuredly get the best possible assessment there. From what is obvious, and in a general sense: if you want to look to improve on tornado casualties in situations like those, look to (lack of) local sheltering options, improved receipt of and response to both watches and warnings, and of course construction.
We can say already that this is a story of failure: structural failure. When roofs fall on people, crushing injuries happen. We know that caused many fatalities in single locations like these warehouses. This already presents us with two areas on which to focus, specifics to be determined:
a) Sheltering (such as sufficient capacity safe rooms and procedures to get workers into them fast and orderly) for existing large-span facilities that may never be retrofitted for decades and decades into the future, and
b) Engineering for new structures of that sort, along with safe rooms. New ASCE engineering standards are fixing to go into effect, which will be good, but we’ll still be dealing with non-compliant legacy construction hit by tornadoes for 200+ years.
That brings us to onsite safety in general. Here’s the encouraging news: We have a major positive example to use! In July 2004, a violent tornado demolished the Parsons factory near Roanoke, IL. Nobody died. Why? Facility management had a well-organized, practiced tornado-safety plan, sturdy shelters to put people in, and storm spotters to give them notice added to what they could get from official warnings. Here’s the scientific conference paper on that shining example of how to do it right.
We learned and advanced from Waco, Palm Sunday(s), April ’74, Wichita Falls, Spencer, Moore, Tuscaloosa, Joplin, etc. Now this. Over time we’ll learn from last Friday night’s horrors, so we can educate & try to keep it from happening again, and so their tragic loss isn’t in vain.