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)


Anonymous said...

WHNT NEWS 19 also made a call to Madison County Commissioner Roger Jones to find out why no public storm shelters exist.

"Well, it comes down to money and being able to afford building a community shelter. We just don't have the money," said Jones.

The District One Commissoner says he and the other commissioners have talked about getting some storm shelters in the county. In the past, the commission has applied for grants for that purpose, but the funding did not come through.

"We didn't get the grant. We don't have the money. We spend all of the money that we can rake and scrape up on in District 1 for roads," added Jones.

Separately tv station ABC 3340 announced that one of the newer churches in I think, Culnam, had said its basement was available as a shelter, having being built with that sort of use in mind (eg tornado).

KateNation said...

With severe weather causing destruction throughout the region, now is a good time to think about how to keep safe during a tornado. Please read this article and spend a few minutes planning today,

Anonymous said...

I recently started blogging about videos of tornadoes as weather is a huge passion of mine. My collection of videos I've found is at

The tuscaloosa tornado was just scary to look at. The tentacles on the thing were just wow.

I'm Stranger than Fiction said...

One thing that was mentioned as an issue was that many residents had already lost power before these storms, and even some NOAA weather radio bands were apparently knocked out, so the only means of alerts for many were via cellphone--or an approaching tornado.

Dewdrop said...

It's unfortunate, but because of the water table in the south, most homes are built without basements. Unfortunately, all we have is an interior room in most cases. When you experience EF4 or, God forbid, EF5 damage, there isn't much value in the interior room. Total destruction. It's sad. They had no where to go. They had no where... no storm shelters, no basements... my heart breaks.

Unknown said...

Several of the tornadoes touched down in the mountain areas of TN, KY, and NC. These are areas and geographies which are known to locals as areas where tornadoes cannot organize and form into true 'ground touching' twisters. And Glade Spring VA lost seven people to an EF-3!!! Yes an EF-3, deadly tornado in an area that has never had true confirmed tornadoes, yet alone a killer like an EF-3.

Pixelsmithy said...

NPR stated today (Mon. May 2nd) that 340 people are still missing in Tuskaloosa alone. Thus, sadly, the April 27th event may yet reach "Number 1" on the all-time tornado killers list.

Storm said...

Thanks for a great article, Jon! Can't tell you how much I appreciate your posts. I agree completely about the sociological aspect of tornado safety. At this point, it seems to me that the NWS has approached its ceiling of practical effectiveness as far as warnings are concerned. Back in the days of the 1965 Palm Sunday Outbreak and the 1974 Super Outbreak, that couldn't be said; people died not because the storms weren't well forecast, but largely because the warning and communication system was practically stone-age compared to what we have today. Yet despite all the technological advances, April 27 has outstripped the death toll of the Super Outbreak. It's just unbelievable. You and Shawna have made some spot-on comments about why that is. I just don't see how the SPC and NWS could have done a better job of warning the public. Practically speaking, the challenges today lie elsewhere.

Point of interest: The actual death toll of the 1965 Palm Sunday Outbreak is probably 272. I've seen several numbers given, but the earliest and probably the most dependable is the one that appeared in the "Weather Bureau Survey Team Report of Palm Sunday Tornadoes of 1965," conducted directly after the outbreak and published just three weeks later. That report gave a death toll of 271. Add to it an Iowa farmer who died of his injuries a week or so after the report was published, and 272 seems like a reasonable figure. Ironically, the farmer appears to have been both the first and last casualty of the Palm Sunday Outbreak.

Unknown said...

Normalcy bias! People hear the watches and warnings, but think "it will never happen here!!" They don't want to be interrupted, they want to come home from work and lay on the couch and "Zone Out". Their informed but choose not to react! I have family member who are exactly like this, I've seen it for years. And when it does happen, they don't know what to do because their not prepared!!

Roy D. Slater said...

Tornadoes are scary things. I guess that it proves that it's important to be prepared. Personally I have a noaa weather radio and I always use it when it starts to look stormy outside.

Unknown said...

I live in Alabama, right outside of Birmingham. That was the scariest day of my life and I live in the pink area on that map. It was coming straight for us and we didn't get hit. No one in my town did I am so thankful.

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