Channel 2 meteorologist Andy Wallace looks into Alabama death toll from tornadoes

TULSA - As I write this, the tornado count from Wednesday’s super outbreak stands at 164.

This is preliminary and will be adjusted as storm surveys are performed. If the total is greater than 147, then it will set the 24-hour record for tornadoes in the United States, surpassing the April 3-4, 1974 tornado outbreak.

Considering those numbers, the question that comes to mind for many is; “What happened?”

I’ve heard, and in some cases been sickened by the cable chatter this morning. One meteorologist on a cable television news network went as far to say that they were expecting “thunderstorms with some severe weather, but nothing like this.” That couldn’t be further from the truth.

The weather warning system worked exactly the way it was designed to Wednesday. The Storm Prediction Center had a moderate risk for severe weather placed days in advance, only to upgrade to a rare high risk Wednesday morning. Tornado watches and warnings were issued well in advance.

Our weather staff watched the coverage from the Birmingham station in amazement - as hard-working meteorologists calmly warned of the threat, while their lives and the lives of their families were in danger.

The meteorologists at the National Weather Service in Birmingham handed off operations to the Atlanta, Georgia office while they sought shelter from an approaching tornado. And once the threat passed, they went back to work, issuing more warnings.

So, why was the fatality count so high?

At this point, my thoughts are based on past experience (the May 3, 1999 Oklahoma tornado outbreak comes first to mind) and from watching the coverage from the southeast. But, a few key factors came into play:

  1. Speed of the storms. Some of these storms were racing at 55 mph. We watched that tornadic storm go from Tuscaloosa to Birmingham in less than an hour. Rapid movement means rapid changes in weather. Rapid changes in weather mean less time to react if you’re not monitoring radio or TV.
  2. Strength of storms. When the May 3, 1999 tornado hit the south-side of Oklahoma City, television viewing was off the charts. People knew it was coming. Warnings were more than adequate as the tornado’s approach was broadcast live. Yet, there were still numerous fatalities. The storm was simply so strong (300mph+ winds) that fatalities still occurred with those who sought shelter unfortunately.
  3. Time of day. Some storms hit at rush hour. Some storms hit after dark. There is no perfect time, but early evening—when people have settled in at home, yet while there’s still daylight is still what I refer to as the safest time. You can see the storm approach, and most are not in their vehicles.
  4. Apathy. Even with warning after warning, some simply didn’t pay attention. I saw one interview on a cable channel this morning where a young man was playing video games. He heard the sirens going off in the distance, yet continued to play video games. It wasn’t until the local television meteorologist specifically mentioned his local area (one specific street) that this young man knew he had to take shelter. He’s very lucky. Had the meteorologist not mentioned his area—the outcome could have been far more tragic.

These are just my thoughts from seeing the coverage (before, during and after), and from past experience. It is a tragic event. Please keep the residents of the southeast in your thoughts and prayers as they begin the rebuilding process.
 

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