Saturday, December 31, 2011

The 2011 tornado death toll - 2nd worst in U.S. history!

Here we are on the last day of 2011, and the U.S. tornado death toll for the year is at least 552, tied with 1936 as the 2nd deadliest U.S. tornado year! (The number of deaths may be even higher depending on how one categorizes them; the city of Joplin lists 161 tornado deaths for the May 22nd tornado instead of the National Weather Service "official" number of 158 deaths, probably due to how NWS categorizes some deaths as "direct" vs "indirect".)

I don't think most people who hear this in passing on TV comprehend how huge this is. In this day and age, that number is incredibly sobering! (See how dramatically 2011 stands out in the chart above among the last 50 years of U.S. tornado deaths.) Many of my colleagues, myself included, thought we would never see such huge death tolls again with the warning systems that are now in place in our country.

Given the violent tornadoes in 2011, without our warning systems, the death toll in 2011 would certainly have been worse. But I also think things could be better. The NWS assessment from Joplin earlier this year concluded there is considerable "desensitization" to warnings in our population from perceived overuse of sirens and warnings.

There obviously aren't easy answers. Some quick random thoughts with the new year upon us:

- Continued and ongoing public education is clearly needed about the importance of severe weather awareness and safety.

- Though not talked about much, siren policies across the country could be more standardized and less confusing... there are big inconsistencies regarding how sirens in different areas are used and activated. For example, some cities such as Joplin run them in shorter 3-minute bursts and then stop (as on the Joplin tornado day) which can be confusing to people in the most dangerous situations (when the sirens stop, is the danger past?), while other cities run them longer. And in many metro areas, sirens tend to be an all or none proposition until technology is installed to activate them only for localized areas directly threatened by an approaching tornado. Siren policies and equipment (as well as the NWS interface with those who activate them) appear to need closer examination and standardization between local governments so we don't inadvertantly train our citizens to ignore them due to a perceived "cry wolf" factor.

- If the NWS endorses use of "tornado emergency" statements to alert populated areas of imminent danger to life, then they can be more consistent in using them. If there was ever a situation that cried out for a tornado emergency statement conveying increased urgency, it was Joplin last May 22nd where 161 people died. But none was issued. By around 5:38 pm when the tornado was entering Joplin (about 20 minutes after a standard-worded "radar-indicated" tornado warning and 3 minute siren burst), there was enough information from radar and spotters to quickly issue a strongly-worded tornado emergency statement for local Joplin media, adding urgency and emphasis in a dangerous life-threatening situation. This would have been timely enough to possibly save some additional lives in spite of the hard-to-see and rapidly-developed violent tornado. The tornado warning was reissued at 5:48 pm with much stronger wording, but why wasn't an urgent tornado emergency statement issued 8 to 10 minutes earlier?

I hope some lessons from last year's tornado disasters (unprecedented for our modern technological age) result in growth and learning for all of us, as well as better tools and preparedness in 2012.

Jon Davies - 12/31/11