Could A Single Tornado Kill 1,000 Americans?

You might imagine, I've been asked about meteorologist Paul Douglas' piece in yesterday's Huffington Post which said it is inevitable that a tornado will eventually kill 1,000 people.

While there are a number of factual errors in the article (e.g., none of the Dallas-area tornadoes this week "violent?), there is no evidence that tornadoes are shifting to east of the Mississippi (one year does not a trend make), and there is zero evidence that 'climate change' is making tornadoes worse.

That stated, do I agree that a thousand could die in a tornado? Basically, yes.

However, I come at the issue from a somewhat different angle.

Paul uses the 551 deaths in 2011, and the 346 deaths on April 27 in particular, as the foundation for his concern. From his piece, it appears he is unaware of the power failures due to storms earlier in the day that affected 700,000 in the tornado zone when the violent tornadoes arrived. Those people -- in many cases -- were not able to obtain the warnings which greatly inflated the death toll. That unique situation is unlikely to recur.

That said, Paul is right that an F-5 striking, for example, a NASCAR track with more than fifty thousand in the stands and thousands on/in infield trailers certainly has the potential to kill a thousand or more.

I agree with his safety recommendations (i.e., make sure you are close to home during a tornado watch when thunderstorms threaten) to make sure you are in position to take shelter should the need arise.


  1. I read the article as well, and while I think it is certainly possible that a future single tornado could rack up a four-digit death toll, it is by no means inevitable.

    Here's how I DON'T think it will happen: as part of a mega-outbreak like 4/27/11, or as a super long tracked Tri-State-like tornado. Both events would be forecast well in advance and covered heavily by The Weather Channel and local media (as was the DFW outbreak this week). Hence, there would be plenty of warning lead time and, in the case of vulnerable outdoor/sports events, time to reschedule or cancel them. If a long-tracked tornado formed during such an outbreak, it would be closely followed and the people along its path warned, again, reducing the potential for death and injury.

    Now, here's how I think it COULD happen: if a Joplin-like tornado formed over a large city during evening rush hour, or during a large outdoor gathering (state fair, music festival, etc.) By "Joplin-like tornado" I mean:

    -- forming very close to or on top of the affected area (instead of 10 or 20 miles away, which would allow more time for warning)

    -- becoming violent almost immediately upon touching down;

    -- rain wrapped and without an easily visible funnel, so that a casual observer might mistake it for merely a severe thunderstorm;

    -- moving slowly enough to augment or maximize the damage and injury inflicted along its path.

    I could also envision this happening on a day with only a slight or moderate risk of severe weather and no more than a 10% tornado risk -- significant, but not high enough for most people outside what I would call the "weather community" to take notice. It would have to be something that caught the general public by surprise, and it would have to happen at the worst possible place and time.


  2. Elaine, I agree with you. Insightful comment.

  3. Mike, I read the article as well and agree with your post entirely. One thing that I thought of with the Dallas-area storms last week was all of the airplanes full of people sitting on the taxiways and tarmac at DFW. If the Arlington tornado had continued on the ground, many of those planes would have been hit by a tornado rather than just large hail from that storm. I was just wondering your thoughts on airport safety and management in a situation like this, and it also relates to this "1000 death" issue, as that could be not out of the question if a large, violent tornado took a direct hit on a major airport such as DFW.



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