Let’s Twist Again: The Myths and Realities of the Earth’s Most Powerful Storms

“It’s important to find the southwest corner of your basement.”

A television weatherman in a suit presented this admonition with confidence and authority to my primary school class. “Tornadoes travel from southwest to northeast.”

I went home after school, and I asked my mother to verify which direction was southwest. She raised an eyebrow, and I repeated the weatherman’s unambiguous instructions.

Her reply blew my mind: “if you went to the southwest corner, wouldn’t the tornado just hit you sooner?”

I decided to heed weatherman’s advice. After all, my mother was an English professor, and that guy was on television and wearing a suit. I had pinpointed the safe refuge of the southwest corner.

In retrospect, my mother was on to something. The average tornado is 500 feet (150 meters) in diameter. Some are double that size. The tornado would dwarf the size of one’s basement, southwest corner or otherwise. If the storm were powerful enough to penetrate a subterranean shelter, the geographic corner would be insignificant.

 

A weatherman (never a woman) usually materialized in my school about once a year. His warnings would have a certain solemnness, particularly in reference to Xenia. This oddly-named town near Dayton had the misfortune of multiple deadly tornado strikes in the past few decades. (Note to self: do not go there.) In 1974, one of the Xenia tornadoes struck the local high school. The story goes that students were in the auditorium practicing for a school play, and they were killed because auditoriums are large, open spaces without pillars to support the massive roof.

Subsequently, we were to have a tornado drill in school, and we would be instructed to go to the safest place in the school to seek shelter. I thought, “they’re trying to kill us.” Was I the only one to heed the warnings about the Xenia auditorium?

Xenia

A massive tornado strikes Xenia, Ohio in 1974

We were told to stay clear of the glass windows in the corridors. “They’ll rip right out and turn into missiles,” admonished one of my teachers. In my eight-year-old mind, I imagined that the weather somehow could trigger an air strike by the USSR, Satan missiles charging through a Midwestern primary school building.

Perhaps my mind had been blurred by the TV movie, “The Day After,” which involved a Soviet nuclear strike in Kansas. Kansas—like Xenia—was to be avoided. They had a nuclear winter and they had frequent tornadoes.

dayafter_composite

Jason Robards and Georgann Johnson comfort one another in a scene from “The Day After”
Photo: ABC

If I was not already fearful of a combined tornado/missile attack, the news was about to get worse. The line so often repeated—by the weatherman and his colleagues on television—was, “Just remember, tornadoes can happen anywhere, any time.”

They do not.

Even the thickest meteorologist can explain that tornadoes are a function of massive thunderstorms—so called “supercell” storms. There is thunder, lightning, the wind blows and gusts. The sky turns bizarre colors, and the clouds shift and swirl. Confluences of marine, mountain, and flatland weather combine to make certain geographic areas far more prone to tornadoes. Although there are exceptions, someone in Oklahoma or Kansas should be far more concerned than a resident of Alaska or Maine.

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Unsatisfactory driving conditions: a tornado in Schwamtal, North Rhein-Westphalia, Germany.

“We are protected,” the weatherman would remark, “because of the city and the hills.”

There is a certain hilarity to this bad advice. “Tornadoes do not strike cities as often.” This is true, but it Is not due to the powers of city lights, skyscrapers, nor the firm wishes and prayers of urban dwellers. One need only consider what proportion of the earth is comprised of urban areas versus rural ones. Rural areas are more like to be struck by any atmospheric event because so much more land area is rural. A meteor is more likely to hit an ocean than the center of a city.

Tornadoes have indeed struck major cities: Miami, Salt Lake City, Buenos Aires, St. Louis, Edmonton, Johannesburg, Moscow, São Paulo… even Brooklyn has been hit.

Dallas
A tornado looms over Dallas. Photo: National Severe Storms Laboratory

The hillside argument is equally ridiculous. Tornadoes have wind speeds of 200 miles per hour. The idea that a hillside could stop a violent tornado defies the simplest principles of physics.

The weatherman would adopt a more reassuring tone when he spoke of forecasting. He would explain the system of watches and warnings that would protect us all. With Cold War-style irrationality, he would explain a “distant early warning” system. Forecasters would know what conditions could spawn a tornado, and they would issue a tornado “watch.” This would be indicated to us by a white “W” in the upper left of our television screens. Should a tornado be sighted, they would issue a warning, also indicated by a white “W.”

When I lecture about violence in adolescents, I use the same comparison. A “watch” suggests ripe conditions, a “warning” indicates an imminent threat. The audience always agrees that someone should have chosen words that do not start with the same letter of the alphabet.

The concept of a tornado watch is not inherently foolish, but the result creates some puzzlement: a tornado watch can last for eight hours, perhaps more. The watch encompasses huge brushstrokes of counties and states on a map, forming southwest-to-northeast parallelograms on the map. The instructions for a watch are blurry: “stay alert,” “keep your eye on the sky,” and—of course—“remember, tornadoes can happen any time, anywhere.”

These are not the most concrete of recommendations. Unlike hurricane preparedness, there is no evacuation route. Unlike a winter storm, one need not rush to the supermarket to purchase shelf-stable foods. In fact, there is not much to do at all. Except worry and watch television.

WRAL watch map

A tornado watch stretches from Georgia to the Maryland border. One best keep watching until 2:00 am, as one can expect “storms with damaging winds tornadoes?” Despite the bright crimson warning, it is hard to know what to anticipate or what to do. Photo: WRNL Raleigh.

It is akin to the color-coded warning system following the September 11 attacks. Signs at airports would warn of an “orange” or “elevated” threat of terrorism. There was no instruction as to how to act on this warning. “Be more scared,” seemed to be the only message.

Although not invented for such a purpose, tornado watches are a Mother Nature’s gift to the local news. The channels can stop their programs periodically with elaborate maps of radar, storm fronts, and the status of watches and warnings. The undisguised message to viewers is “keep the television switched on.”

As a kid, I remember that my parents were having a party, and we were given the extraordinary permission to watch television while the party took place downstairs. My sister and I were given the luxury to watch “The Love Boat.” I remember not understanding the characters nor the plot, but I was livid that the show was subject to frequent interruptions due to a tornado watch. The television weatherman up in arms, yelling about the weather. I found his drama irritating at best. The people on the Fiesta Deck seemed to have far more interesting problems than a storm striking some unknown county hundreds of miles away.

ABC photo - The Love Boat

Fred Grandy, Ted Lange, Gavin MacLeod, and Bernie Kopell investigate hijinks aboard The Pacific Princess. Photo: 20th Century Fox

In the rare event that a tornado actually touched the ground, a funnel had been sighted, or the characteristic “hook echo” appeared on radar, the television news exploded. “The Love Boat” would be cancelled entirely. A warning was in place. The screen blew up with colors, lights, and maps. The weatherman would be ignited with glee while trying to maintain some sense of gravitas. On one occasion, a small tornado touched down not far from where I lived. I went to work the next day, and a colleague said that she “watched the weatherman orgasm about a tornado warning.”

Warning

A television screen featuring four different color codes of weather “bulletins” over Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin.  Photo: Channel 3000

I used to dread tornadoes. The problem was solved in part by moving outside of tornado alley. But I also grew up to be an epidemiologist.

A quick glance at the statistics suggests that tornadoes are to be avoided and treated with healthy respect, but perhaps improperly portrayed as a major cause of death.

This table shows the number of tornadoes and tornado-related fatalities in 2016 in the states with the highest numbers of confirmed tornadoes.

Rank State Number of Tornadoes Tornado Fatalities
1 Kansas 99 0
2 Texas 90 1
3 Alabama 87 3
4 Mississippi 67 1
5 Oklahoma 55 2
6 Illinois 50 0
7 Florida 48 2
8 Nebraska 47 0
9 Iowa 46 0
10 Colorado 45 0

Source: U.S. Department of Commerce, Storm Prediction Center, National Weather Service.

Not to discount the nine fatalities, but let us expand the table:

State Number of Tornadoes Tornado

Fatalities

Heart Disease Fatalities Suicides Homicides Drug Overdose Fatalities
Kansas 99 0 5,672 514 147 313
Texas 90 1 43,772 * 1,669 2,831
Alabama 87 3 12,832 * 544 756
Mississippi 67 1 7,865 * 345 352
Oklahoma 55 2 10,209 822 322 813
Illinois 50 0 25,013 * 1,157 2,411
Florida 48 2 45,659 3,143 1,294 4,728
Nebraska 47 0 3,322 246 60 120
Iowa 46 0 6,937 451 85 314
Colorado 45 0 7,277 1,168 235 942

*data not available

Source: National Center for Health Statistics. US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/nchs

Mortality statistics can by skewed for all kinds of reasons, but it does not require complex statistical analysis to recognize that tornadoes are not among the “big killers.”

Moreover, tornadoes are a largely survivable phenomenon. Although one would not want funnel clouds circling above, but only one of the 90 reported Texas tornadoes from 2016 resulted in loss of life.

There certainly have been devastating losses of life and property. Outbreaks in April and May of 2011 led to 503 deaths. Twenty-four people were killed in Moore, Oklahoma in 2013. But these events were anomalies. Not to belittle the wrecked communities, but there were 4,245 drowning deaths in 2011; 610 deaths were attributable to machinery accidents. (Source: CDC Wonder).

Elkhart
Twin funnels attack Elkhart, Indiana. Photo: National Severe Storms Laboratory

As with any emergency, we cannot expect ourselves to behave exactly as we have been told.

In one instance, I had just purchased a new car. Hail was coming down, and the tornado sirens started to sound. Without a garage, I was terrified to think of my new car getting pummeled with hailstones. I picked up my dog (appropriately a cairn terrier,) and I drove from my apartment to the hospital parking garage. As I arrived at the hospital, the grass was flat against the ground from the force of the downdrafts. In retrospect, it would have been best to stay in the basement. My fear of tornadoes was far outweighed by my fear of a blemished car.

Some years later, when I lived in Washington State, I saw a swirling column of air extend from a low cloud toward the ground. Off in the distance “That’s odd,” I thought, “that looks like a tornado.” It was a tornado. As I expressed the situation to my dad, he commented, “Did youhave trouble piecing that together?”

The same occurred near my house in Arizona. I was driving home from work, and caught site of a tornado touching down a few miles away. Without the hyperbole and flashing maps of the local news, the tornado appeared to be avoidable but not life-altering. Although I had been taught to get out of my car in such an instance, to find a ditch, to cover my head… I did none of this. I was driving perpendicular to the tornado, it did not appear to be coming toward me, and I drove home—a bit bewildered but not in harm’s way.

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In a world without a news cycle, tornadoes might be reduced to their reality: a threat, but not a crisis. It is wise to know to seek shelter, to avoid driving toward a tornado, and to establish plans for institutions like schools and hospitals. Better vocabulary would help explain the easily-confused “watch” versus “warning” terminology. And tornadoes would not be described as an “any time, anywhere” phenomenon.

©2018
All photos labelled for non-commercial re-use

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*“The Love Boat” survived an astonishing 250 episodes. It was filmed aboard a sailing, active cruise with real passengers. After the show ended, its signature vessel became famous for drug smuggling. Mental Floss, 9 August 2017.

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