Saturday, April 23, 2011

'Miracle' in St. Louis

"There are a number of things we can be thankful for," Ms Hamm-Niebruegge said. "It's a miracle there were no fatalities."

Officials said it was a miracle that nobody was killed by the sudden storm which swept through late on Friday evening, and there were no reports of serious injuries despite widespread destruction in a heavily populated area about three-quarters of a mile west of the airport.

Above are from news reports on the Good Friday St. Louis Tornado

Lambert International Airport
Photos from KMOV and KSDK TV.

And now the amazing news: According to CNN, no serious injuries. Think about that: In the city where, historically, more people have been killed by tornadoes than in any other, no serious injuries. 

Why? Luck, yes there is always an element of that. But the main reason for this 'miracle' is the amazing tornado warning system quietly built by meteorologists the last 50 years. 

A map of the tornado's path through densely-populated areas
from the National Weather Service in St. Louis. 

The precision with which tornadoes can be tracked these days is amazing as this real-time blog posting from last night indicates. We not only knew the location of the tornado, we knew it was doing serious damage due to the debris ball on radar.
Click to enlarge radar image. NWS data via WeatherTap. 

Is the warning system perfect? No. In fact, in Warnings I highlight one of the major deficiencies and it has to do with aviation. The Federal Aviation Administration refuses to allow control towers, air route traffic control centers, and pilots (when they are getting their 'official' weather briefings) to get tornado warnings!!! 

The FAA has this myopic view that tornado warnings should not be used in aviation because they do not  originate as aviation products. There was near miss at the Daytona Beach, FL airport on Christmas Day 2006. Last night, at Lambert International Airport, it was the real thing: People on planes moved around by a tornado and, in at least one case, trapped for hours as a result.

Unless the Federal Aviation Administration changes its position, there will be a major disaster at some point in the future.

That stated, it is amazing how many lives the saved by the storm warning system. The storm warning system seems to operate below everyone's radar. We never seem to get credit for all of the lives we save.

If this sounds like an interesting topic (and, it is!), pick up a copy of Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather. Written in the style of a mystery novel, it is an uplifting and fun read that tells the story of how we unlocked the mystery of storms so we could save lives -- just as meteorologists did last night.

Note: Expanded and bumped.

If you are a weather geek or just interested in a "blow by blow" description of the storm, just scroll back two pages on this blog. Also, if you would like to read an excellent write up about the meteorology surrounding this tornado outbreak, just click here.

And, if you would like to see detailed radar data (including Doppler winds) from the STL WSR-88D when the storms were in the St. Louis area, click here and scroll down.

Giant hail fell from the STL tornadic thunderstorm. If you want to see a photo, go here and scroll down.


  1. A couple of years ago I had boarded a plane at DFW. I knew from my phone that there was a tornado warning, covering DFW. It wasn't until the threat had passed the airport that they evacuated the airplane into the terminal.

  2. This has been a triumphant year for the St. Louis Weather Service. In the 1896 and 1927 tornadoes the technology wasn't there to issue tornado warnings, though it was a meteorologist who saw the funnel cloud form and drop to the earth in Forest Park in 1927 (which involved two tornadoes, not one). In 1959 the Weather folks totally botched it, with the public frantically calling radio shows as being told the Weather Bureau said conditions weren't right for tornadoes, just severe thunderstorms. The stories which grew around that mess over the decades are amazing, but I won't go into that. In 1967 it was a phone call from a citizen which informed the Weather folks a tornado was chewing through the western suburbs. Now, this year, the Weather Service has performed brilliantly, leading to early warnings of what is coming, constant updates, and siren soundings long before the storms arrived. Life saving, you bet. Educational, yes, that, too. And a real credit to the science.

  3. As a storm spotter (chaser at times) and weather geek a THANKS go out to all the meteorologist for the fine job they do! Average citizens do not realize how much of a good thing we have by having local weather offices who not only forecast the weather but save lives in doing so. My wife's mom who lives in North County St. Louis is really grateful to the weather service and local media for the job they did. Thank you Mike so much information to absorb right now on your blog I have to take it piecemeal.

  4. You are absolutely wrong in saying that pilots and controllers are "forbidden" to get tornado warnings in their official briefings.

    A tornado warning is coded in METARs (Meteorological Airman's Reports, the official weather publications of the FAA) as FC. The METAR for the hour of the most destruction included +FC, which means a strong funnel cloud, i.e., a tornado.