Thursday, April 28, 2011
The 27 April 2011 tornado outbreak: A stunning death toll.
Wednesday's staggering death toll from a huge outbreak of tornadoes in the southern states was truly historic. We haven't seen anything of this magnitude since 1974's 3-4 April Super Outbreak, 37 years ago. I know that news will tend to focus on the number of tornadoes. But a more important statistic sociologically is the _death toll_, which as I write this (on Thursday morning) is being reported to be well over 200 people and climbing!
Ranked by death toll, here are the tornado outbreaks/events with the most deaths in the United States, using Tom Grazulis' landmark reference book, Significant Tornadoes (1993):
Deadliest U.S. Tornado outbreaks/events (total deaths)
747 dead 18 Mar 1925 MO/IL/IN/KY/TN/AL (Tri-State tor 695 dead)
454 dead 5-6 Apr 1936 AR/TN/MS/AL/GA/SC
339 dead 27 April 2011 MS/AL/GA/SC/AR/TN/NC/VA ******
330 dead 21-22 Mar 1932 IL/IN/KY/TN/MS/AL/GA/SC
324 dead 23-24 Apr 1908 TX/AR/LA/TN/MS/AL/GA
317 dead 6 May 1840 Nachez MS (no records on other tors that day)
307 dead 3-4 Apr 1974 MI/IL/IN/OH/KY/TN/WV/VA/MS/AL/GA/NC
305 dead 27 May 1896 MO/IL (St. Louis tor 255 dead)
256 dead 11-12 Apr 1965 IA/WI/IL/IN/MI/OH
217 dead 8-9 May 1927 NE/IA/MO/IL/IN/MI/TX/AR/LA/KY
(Sunday 5/1/11 update: The death toll is now officially at 339, putting the 27 April 2011 outbreak at #3 on the list above, an incredible and tragic event in U.S. history, particularly in our day and age.
******News sources are reporting the 27 April 2011 outbreak as the 2nd deadliest U.S. outbreak on record. Although it may be the 2nd largest _single day_ tornado death toll, the 5-6 April 1936 outbreak, which featured the Tupelo MS tornado [216 dead] and the Gainesville GA tornado [203 dead] only 11 hours apart with 454 total deaths, certainly tops the 27 April 2011 death toll at this point. Our news media today would certainly have reported those 1936 events as one outbreak, so that's why I have the 27 April 2011 outbreak at #3 behind the 5-6 April 1936 events.)
Notice that all but the 1974 Super Outbreak, the 1965 Palm Sunday Outbreak, and yesterday's outbreak occurred more than 50 years ago when a tornado warning system did not exist. Undoubtedly, the death toll would have been worse without excellent forecasts/warnings by government and private meteorologists (see yesterday's SPC outlook above), and excellent information dissemination by the media. National morning news I watched on Wednesday, such as CNN, was strongly highlighting the dangerous situation to come over the South.
However, the number of deaths from Wednesday's outbreak in an age where technology and information exchange are better than ever does raise questions from a sociological standpoint, as my wife Shawna is quick to point out. How many deaths occurred in areas of low-income structures (e.g., mobile homes) where people did not have ready access to shelter from fast-moving storms? Did many people killed not have safe places nearby to go (e.g., below ground)? Were some people not paying attention or not have access to warning/awareness information, and not know about the high tornado risk on 27 April 2011? What was the general level of severe weather awareness and safety knowledge of many of those injured or killed?
Tornado warnings and forecasts are quite good these days with our knowledge and technology, particularly on days with big weather threats over large areas. The watch/warning system did its job quite well on Wednesday. It's also true that there are some situations where people can do all the right safety/shelter actions and still get hurt or killed. But the stunning death toll from the 27 April 2011 outbreak begs many questions, and screams that this is a prime opportunity to study what we as a society can do to further reduce death tolls in weather and other disaster events. In our superior age of information availability, events within the past 10 years like yesterday's outbreak and 2005's Hurricane Katrina seem to suggest that we as individuals may not be as aware or prepared for disaster as we want to think.
- Jon Davies 4/28/11 (updated 5/1/11)