Sunday, April 25, 2010

"Miracle" in Mississippi

The monster tornado approaching Yazoo City. Used with permission.

The ten deaths from Saturday’s tornadoes are tragedy: For the familes, the friends, and for their communities.  Children are left without parents and the parents of the three deceased children are heartbroken the rest of their lives.

But there is a silver lining: Without the warnings, Saturday’s tornado death toll would likely have been in the hundreds. There were 55 tornadoes in seven states, including one that caused considerable damage in the St. Louis area. Each of these had the potential to cause death or injury.

The word "miracle" regarding survival comes up time and time again in media reports on the Mississippi storm: 

There was one serious injury with the victim suffering multiple fractures, but there were no fatalities and none of the injuries seemed to be life threatening. “That is one miracle in itself with all the destruction we’ve encountered here in Albertville,” Lyons said. 

Jean Oswalt, mother of Houston Astros pitcher Roy Oswalt, said she grabbed her dog and took cover in a closet at the last second before the house collapsed around her. She escaped without a scratch. She considers it to be a miracle that she walked away from this kind of damage.

“It’s a miracle of God. He brought me through that," Thrasher said.

While I cannot comment on Divine Intervention, I can say this: Many of these accounts talk about how the people involved sought shelter before the tornado arrived. If there is a 'miracle' involved in that, it is a miracle of science: The United States' amazing, and unique, storm warning system. 

According to Misssissippi Governor Haley Barbour, the border-to-border tornado in his state caused “utter obliteration.” Similar to the Woodward, OK Tornado of 1947 that killed 181, the ten deaths from the Mississippi tornado is an incredibly low number. Credit the warning system.

If you page down through my posts of the last few days, you learn that on Thursday the danger of a Saturday tornado outbreak was highlighted. On Friday, meteorologists were forecasting that Saturday would be the worst day of the four-day period of tornadoes. made this forecast as did the NWS's Storm Prediction Center.

By Saturday morning, every radio and television station in the region was broadcasting the “high risk” of tornadoes. I even heard it on Sirius Satellite Radio around 9 am on a music channel that doesn’t carry news. The Storm Prediction Center issued “particularly dangerous situation” tornado watches well ahead of the storms, with the PDS tornado watch for northeast Louisiana and Mississippi issued at 6 am and reiterated at 11:30am.

So, when the giant Mississippi tornado began its 180-mile long, one mile wide, path of destruction near Tullulah, LA, at 11:14am, people were prepared when the storm sirens began to blow.

Doppler radar (which I call in Warnings one of the best investments the federal government has ever made) tracked the tornado’s path. As it approached Yazoo City, the signature was unmistakable. Strongly-worded, pinpoint warnings were issued by the National Weather Service.
At left, the Doppler wind display showing the maximum values when the tornado was over Yazoo City. At right, the pink oval southeast of Yazoo City is the debris carried aloft by the tornado. We knew a major tornado was in progress.

In a few cases, storm chasers were heroes – they called in the location of tornadoes and helped rescue those trapped. From Dick McGowan:

What was at first an exciting day quickly transitioned into a sobering experience for a lot of storm chasers in Mississippi yesterday. Jesse Risley, Brad Goddard, Kevin Crawmer, Joel Taylor, Reed Timmer, Chris Chittick and many others are nothing short of heroes. They were the first on the Yahoo City, MS aftermath scene and rescued several people from their homes by digging through debris to get to them and keeping them alive until EMS arrived. The storm chasing community should be extremely proud of these individuals for their efforts.

Saturday’s tornado death toll, without the warning system, likely would have been in triple-digits. Meteorologists did their job well and storm chasers were heroes. 

Congratulations to the meteorological profession on another job very well done.

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