We can say that today, only a few hours removed from a weekend outbreak that saw more than 100 tornadoes touch down across the Great Plains states of Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Iowa. The National Weather Service confirmed 122 tornadoes in that dangerous weather system, yet authorities Monday maintained that the storms killed only five people.
Earlier this month, a similar weather system — with 13 confirmed tornadoes — roared across Texas, including the heavily populated Dallas Metroplex cities of Fort Worth and Arlington. No deaths occurred.
Contrast that with 2011’s unforgettable storms: the April 27 outbreak that devastated towns across several Southern states, and the Joplin, Mo., twister last May. More than 300 died in the April storms (nearly 250 in Alabama alone) and more than 150 died in Joplin. Long will it be before we forget the iconic image of Joplin’s hospital with shattered windows, damaged exterior walls and debris strewn across its parking lots.
There are those who are attributing the difference, in part, to a renewed understanding by the public and authorities’ use of heightened, almost-apocalyptic warnings. That was the case last weekend, when the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla., decided its warnings should be earlier and more ominous than normal.
Saturday afternoon, the center sent out a message that warned Kansas residents of the impending danger. Its all-caps warning was instantly tweeted around the nation by those monitoring the situation. “THIS IS A LIFE THREATENING SITUATION. YOU COULD BE KILLED IF NOT UNDERGROUND OR IN A TORNADO SHELTER,” the center said.
The center’s warning even caught the attention of The New York Times, which Monday published a front-page story that carried this headline: “Officials say a new warning system saved lives.”
Do not consider this an indictment of the warnings issued prior to those killer storms of last year. The April 27 outbreak was legendary; Joplin took a direct hit. Yet, the death toll from recent years’ storms has heightened the awareness of both casual observers and meteorologists who monitor storms and issue warnings.
Had last weekend’s storms fizzled out, critics may claim that such dire warnings do more damage than good because they reinforce the belief that too many warnings are given and some aren’t big deals, anyway.
We urge Alabamians not to think that way.
Likewise, we are glad that Calhoun County Emergency Management officials are moving to a storm-based prediction warning system that will cut down, for instance, on weather sirens sounding for an entire county when only a portion of it needs to take cover. Accuracy and timeliness matter.
The nearing anniversary of April 27 will be an emotional time in Alabama. We’d like to think that our state — and our county — is as prepared for the next killer storm as it can be.