Friday, April 29, 2011

Tornado Hell

The NYTimes is front-paging a raft of heart-stopping pictures, stories and video from last night’s record-setting barrage of tornadoes:

Tuscaloosa—At least 285 people across six states died in the storms, with more than half — 195 people — in Alabama. This good-time college town, the home of the University of Alabama, has in some places has been shorn to the slab, and accounts for at least 36 of those deaths. Thousands have been injured, and untold more have been left homeless, hauling their belongings in garbage bags or rooting through disgorged piles of wood and siding to find anything salvageable.

While Alabama was hit the hardest, the storm spared few states across the South. Thirty-four people were reported dead in Tennessee, 33 in Mississippi, 15 in Georgia, 7 in Virginia and one in Kentucky. With search and rescue crews still climbing through debris and making their way down tree-strewn country roads, the toll is expected to rise.

“History tells me estimating deaths is a bad business,” said W. Craig Fugate, the Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator, in a conference call with reporters.

President Obama announced that he was coming to Alabama on Friday afternoon, saying in a statement that the federal government had pledged its assistance.

The Red Cross has a request for donations up on its site. No dedicated link at the ASPCA site, yet, but if you are shopping for Mothers Day/wedding/graduation gifts, has a page for donations to the International Fund for Animal Welfare through the Animal Rescue site store.

I did not grow up in tornado territory, and when I first moved to the Midwest I found it difficult to appreciate how dangerous ‘mere wind’ could be. This super-storm, though… I guess the best analogy I can think of is “a tsunami of air.” As another NYTimes story about the “guessing game of prediction” phrases it, “Tornadoes in particular, researchers say, straddle the line between the known and the profoundly unknowable.”

... Usually, when tornadoes strike, they will devastate a single town or small area of a state. What was unusual in Alabama was that a mass of twisters ravaged the entire northern half of the state.

No single storm took a linear path. Rather, an untold number of tornadoes hit an untold number of homes and buildings in a chaotic flurry, touching down and picking up power at different places at different times. By the time they were gone Wednesday night, the devastation was huge, in terms of lives lost, neighborhoods crushed…

Alabama is not part of what is traditionally considered Tornado Alley, which covers the Plains States. But it is part of Dixie Alley, which runs through the South. Tornadoes in Dixie Alley can be worse because they are more violent, the Southern states are more densely populated, and the tornado season is less predictable, so residents are not always prepared. Studies have also said that housing in the South was made of less sturdy material than that in other parts of the country, making homes more susceptible to storm damage.

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