Friday, January 3, 2014

The Importance Of Severe Weather Safety

The year 2013 was an unusual one in terms of severe weather in several different ways.  While there were only 940 tornadoes recorded by the National Weather Service (as opposed to an average of up to 1300), the violence of several of these monster storms more than made up for the seeming deficiency in numbers.  Furthermore, the amount of property damage inflicted by these storms made them among the costliest natural disasters in U.S. history.  All in all, a total of $2.6 billion worth of houses and other structures were either severely damaged or destroyed outright.

Two of these storms in particular stand out in the minds of the "severe weather community."  The first of these took place in Moore, Oklahoma, not far from Oklahoma City, on May 20, 2013.  For the third time since 1999, this area was pounded by an EF5 tornado, with winds estimated as high as 210 mph.  Two elementary schools were torn apart by the 1.3 mile-wide behemoth.  In the case of the second school, Plaza Towers Elementary, 7 children lost their lives to the storm's fury.  In all, 24 people were killed, 1150 homes were destroyed, and the total property damage reached an incredible $2 billion, making it the single costliest natural disaster of the year.  Incredibly, many meteorologists estimated that this storm released as much as 600 times more energy that the 20 kiloton atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, in August of 1945!

Just 11 days later, on May 31, 2013, another twister struck the area of El Reno, Oklahoma, some 25 miles southwest of Oklahoma City.  Although this storm was finally rated an EF3 in terms of ground damage, several radar readings indicated winds speeds as high as 296 mph, the second highest wind speeds ever recorded.  Furthermore, the funnel generated by this storm reached a stunning 2.6 miles in width, wider even the tornado that struck Hallam, Nebraska, in 2004.

Thankfully, because this storm's path was primarily over open terrain, property damage was a mere $35-$40 million, as compared to the $2 billion in damage caused by the May 20th storm.  Sadly, however, 8 people died as a result of this twister's fury.  Of these, 3 were well-known professional storm chasers, who were caught off guard by a sudden change in the storm's direction.  Furthermore, Weather Channel meteorologist Mike Bettes and his crew were also caught off guard, and their car was tossed more than 200 yards by the violent winds.  Thankfully, Bettes and one of his crew suffered only minor injuries, while the third member suffered multiple fractures and had to be hospitalized.  (It was later revealed that the three professional storm chasers, in a possible error in judgment, had used a non-reinforced subcompact car, rather than the heavily reinforced 3/4 ton truck that was their normal vehicle of choice for storm chases.)

By far the most disturbing aspect of this particular incident, however, was the fact that many thousands of people attempted to evacuate the area, in spite of the fact that most severe weather experts strongly advise against anything of the sort during a tornado.  To make matters worse, the roads around Oklahoma City were already clogged with afternoon rush hour traffic.  The result, as described by numerous local residents, was utter chaos and confusion.  (Part of the reason for the evacuation may very well have been an extremely ill-advised and controversial recommendation by a local TV weatherman that those who did not have access to safe rooms or underground storm shelters should attempt to outrun the storm in their cars, again contrary to the recommendation of the vast majority of severe weather experts.  In this writer's opinion, that weatherman should have been severely reprimanded, at the very least, on the grounds of inciting a panic!)

This incident, perhaps more than any other in recent memory, underscores the importance of making clear, accurate information on the subject of severe weather safety available to everyone, and of reminding the public of their own responsibility to act on such information once they get it!  To that end, I will be posting articles on various topics relating to severe weather safety throughout 2014.  Links to relevant sites will be posted as well, and, if there is sufficient interest, questions from visitors will be answered online.

The bottom line on the subject of severe weather safety is that, while these storms can be undeniably frightening, and the sheer power they contain should definitely be respected, there is so reason for panic if you know what to look for, what to expect, and most of all, what to do when severe weather does strike.  That is precisely what my efforts on this blog this coming year will be all about.

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