Thursday, April 28, 2011

Thoughts About Tornadoes

1. Disaster Relief

As you may already be aware, the Southern U.S. has been repeatedly raked over by tornadoes in the past three days or so, in the largest, deadliest tornado outbreak in the U.S. since 1974. And we had been having an exceptionally busy April already, with large numbers of tornadoes reported on April 14 (38), April 15 (146), April 16 (139), April 19 (77), April 22 (29), April 25 (44), April 26 (68), and now April 27 (164).

The red dots are the reported tornadoes.

Across the entire U.S., an average April usually sees 150-160 tornadoes total.1

Official numbers will take a while to sort out, but it looks like about 200 people have died from tornadoes so far this April, and obviously a lot of homes and structures (including the roof of the St. Louis Airport) have been damaged or obliterated.

It's not, obviously, on the scale of the recent Japanese earthquake and tsunami,2 but if you were one of the people who just lost his/r home, it'd still loom pretty big, so if you have the means to do so, I'd encourage readers to donate to, who say:
We are providing direct financial assistance to as many people as we can. This assistance will take the form of cash debit cards in the amount of $100 each. These cards will be provided to individuals and families identified to us by local officials, the local sheriffs, mayors, etc. These local leaders are in the best position to determine local need as well as vet recipients. In Alabama, North Carolina, Arkansas, Missouri and likely other places to come, lives have been thrown into chaos. The ability to spend a few dollars as needed will be crucial. Please make a financial contribution...and make a direct difference.

We also have a lot of flooding going on, as the record-setting snowpack in the northern U.S. (ND, SD, MN) is melting at the same time as the tornado-generating storms are dropping heavy rains (mostly AR, TN, MO, KY, IL, IN, OH) --

Total observed precipitation over the last two weeks. That one little white dot in southern Missouri means they've gotten over twenty inches there.

-- which is setting up the town of Cairo, IL (where the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers meet) for a record-setting flood, which will continue south along the length of the Mississippi, breaking records the whole way down.

The severity of the recent storms is thought to be related to unusually warm temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico, which has been running about 1 degree (C) above the long-term average for this time of year. A warmer Gulf means more moisture in the air, and more moisture in the air means more moisture that can fall when it meets colder air, and more energy for a storm to work with.

2. Tornado Videos and Tornado Safety

I really like watching video of tornadoes. Seriously, I could do it all day long and not get bored. Here's one from yesterday, an enormous and deadly tornado that went through Tuscaloosa, AL (I prefer it with the sound off, BTW):


And the same tornado from a different angle:

The reader will notice one huge difference between the two, which is that the first guy set the camera down on something that wasn't moving, so you can actually tell what's going on most of the time. Which, if you're going to be outside filming while there's a tornado going on, is really the way you should do it. There's no point going out into an intense storm with a camera if your video is shaking around so much that nobody can tell what you've recorded.

But the other thing that stands out, especially about the first video, is that people are out driving around. People: this is so, so, so, so, so stupid. Tornadoes pick up large, heavy, sometimes pointy objects and fling them long distances away. They change directions unpredictably. They can move faster than you can drive. They overturn cars. And the motherfucking tornado in question was like a mile wide. If there's a mile-wide tornado in the vicinity, and you can see it clearly from your vehicle, YOU ARE IN PERSONAL DANGER. QUIT BEING A MORON, DRIVE TO A STURDY-LOOKING BUILDING, AND GET THE FUCK IN IT.4

I've only been through one tornado personally, which hit Iowa City about five years ago. (13 Apr 2006) Thirty people were injured in that one, but nobody was killed, and nothing in our5 building was damaged. The husband and I experienced it together, in his bathroom, and I think the tornado must have passed more or less directly over our building, because 1) I remember a sudden loss of pressure that hurt my ears, and a huge amount of air suddenly blowing in under the bathroom door (presumably the air was all getting sucked out through the vent in the bathroom ceiling), and 2) when it was over, we went outside and saw this less than a block away:

This picture was taken the next day; it was spookier to see at night, immediately after the tornado happened, but those pictures are harder to find in the public domain. In case you're wondering: yes, there were people in it at the time (Passover-related services), but they were all okay.

Further evidence that the tornado passed directly over us: the official map the city produced a week or two after the tornado hit. We were living more or less right at the tip of the arrow.

Two blocks to the north and one block to the east, a co-worker of mine was waiting out the tornado in her closet when her roof went away. She was still shaken up by it for several days afterward, as one would expect.

I was terrified of tornadoes when I was about 7 or 8 years old, but grew out of it by about 9 (partly because I got intensely interested, and read everything I could get my hands on about them). Each of my three younger siblings in turn also became very scared of tornadoes at about the same age and grew out of it; apparently it's genetic. As far as I know, I'm the only one of us who's ever actually experienced one directly, though, and I may be the only one who thinks they're pretty. (We've never had a conversation about it.)

So it's not like I want people to stop getting video of them. I just want people to stop, you know, being so focused on getting the video that they put themselves in danger. I kinda want to grab the people in the second video above and just . . . shake them, hard, by the shoulders, and tell them never to do that again.


Anyway. Please do contribute to if you happen to have a big pile of money lying around that you're not doing anything with. And if you don't, do you have any tornado-related stories, phobias, video, etc., to share? I'm curious.


Photo credits:
* tornado reports for 27 April and precipitation maps from National Weather Service.
* Destroyed St. Patrick's Church from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), via Wikipedia page for Easter Week 2006 tornado outbreak sequence.
* Iowa City map was a publication of the City of Iowa City, to which I added the arrow.

1 It may be worth noting that the number of tornado reports received by the NWS is usually an overcount by about 15%, according to Jeff Masters at Weather Underground. But even taking that into account, we have had a huge number of tornadoes in April: just on those eight days I listed, assuming a 15% overcount, there have still been 600 tornadoes -- nearly 400% more than usual. And there were tornadoes on other days, besides those eight.
2 I felt kind of bad, by the way, for not blogging about Japan when all that happened, but I sort of didn't feel like there was anything I could contribute: I had (and still have) trouble grasping the scale of it, I knew everybody already knew about it, so there wasn't any point in trying to increase public awareness, and I didn't have an interesting or unique perspective on it. So I elected not to say anything, rather than say something dull or obvious.
3 Just to make a little observation, for those of you who didn't listen to me and watched with the sound on anyway: if Jesus really wanted to help the people of Tuscaloosa, he could maybe have just made the tornado go back up into the cloud and stop destroying shit. I think it's pretty obvious from the video that Jesus is not interested in helping the Tuscaloosans.
Also, I predict that this is somehow going to be the gays' fault, because natural disasters are always the gays' fault. In fact, I'd bet money that a respectable public figure who ought to know better will have blamed the gays before the end of the day today.
(UPDATE, 11:42 PM CDT: Well, it looks like I would have lost that bet. I did find a number of people on Twitter who were sort of tongue-in-cheek saying that God was punishing the South for being anti-gay, but they didn't mean it, they're not public figures, and I find that only slightly less distasteful than when people say natural disasters are the fault of gay people.
Full disclosure: I considered such a remark myself, when writing this post, but took it out. So it's not like the thought process is unfamiliar to me; it's just, you know, in really poor taste to actually go ahead and say these things anyway. Not that that's ever stopped Pat Robertson et al.)
(SECOND UPDATE, 30 April: If I'd only said three days, I would have nailed it.)
4 You probably know the drill already, but in case you don't: go to an interior room on the lowest level of the building, away from windows, preferably either under something sturdy (like a staircase) or something cushiony (mattress, sleeping bags, thick blankets). Avoid spots that are below heavy objects on the floor above (for example: refrigerators, pianos, waterbeds). DON'T stop to open windows: this was recommended in the past, but the people who study this sort of thing have determined that it doesn't help.
If you must drive, the usual recommendation is to drive at a right angle to the tornado's path, though that presupposes that you can tell where the tornado is headed and that the tornado will move in a straight line, neither of which is a particularly good assumption. Overpasses or bridges do NOT provide protection from tornadoes, and are probably worse places to be than lying in a ditch in the open, so don't stop and hide under overpasses or bridges.
See this page for other tornado safety tips.
5 The husband and I were, at the time, renting two separate apartments in the same building.


Kenneth Moore said...

I can't say my personal satefy is always my first thought. So, while in high school near DC and a tornado ripped through the area, leveling houses just two blocks away--I was at home on the front steps watching it. We lost a small branch from a half-dead 50-foot oak in our backyard and the lounge table's umbrella fell over. Two houses down, people's grill disappeared and half a tree fell over. I was outside the entire time. It was AWESOME. And, yes, stupid. But I remember not being able to really think clearly. I mean, a tornado? In DC??

Liza said...

I felt like an asshole for complaining about our winds, then the next day 200 people are dead.

Mile-wide tornadoes, "regular" tornadoes, they're humbling.

Plowing Through Life (Martha) said...

We had some really powerful winds hit us yesterday and I thought to myself "There must be some really bad shit going on somewhere down south. I hope there weren't any people hurt." I was stunned to find out that so many people had lost their lives. Very sad. Very tragic.