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Volume 27, Issue 3

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Deadliest Tornado Season in 50 years

Tornado season 2011 is the worst since 1953. And, like 1953, major tornadoes occurred well outside of “Tornado Alley.” Massachusetts, North Carolina, and Alabama were all hard-hit this year. We saw the worst loss of life in a single tornado (Joplin, Mo.) in more than half a century. Nationwide, the tally has grown beyond 520 deaths.

As a meteorologist specializing in the mitigation of the effects of extreme weather and the author of a book that tells the story of how weather scientists struggled to create today’s life-saving storm warning system (Warnings: The True Story of How Science Tamed the Weather, Greenleaf, 2010), I’m asked, over and over, “How could this loss of life have happened?” What makes this doubly perplexing, is the warnings of these storms were accurate and timely.

What went wrong? And, what can we learn and improve going forward?

While government survey teams are investigating the worst of these tornado outbreaks, the results will not be available until the start of tornado season 2012. Given that tornadoes occur in all 50 states and all months of the year, it is important to incorporate this knowledge into business risk management plans as quickly as possible. This article will attempt to explain, on a preliminary basis, what lessons we can learn from these horrific events to help better protect your people and assets from these storms.

There appear to be three lessons from tornado season 2011:
  • Preserving communications is essential
  • Underground or reinforced shelter is necessary to save lives and assets
  • Too many alarms breed complacency

The worst outbreak of tornadoes in 2011 occurred in Alabama and northeast Mississippi on April 27. It vividly demonstrates the vital importance of insuring continuous communications.


No Electricity, No Warnings

Between 4 a.m. and seven o’clock the morning of the April 27, a line of violent thunderstorms moved from far eastern Mississippi across the northern two-thirds of Alabama. Those thunderstorms produced small tornadoes and winds of 60 to 100 mph. Power was knocked out to 1.2 million in Alabama.

By late afternoon, power was still out to more than 700,000 leaving those people without television, Internet, and – in some cases – cell service, local radio, and NOAA weather radio. Without power, many could not receive the warnings. More than 300 died. I have personally interviewed several survivors that tell stories of desperately attempting, without success, to learn where the tornadoes were and where they were going. One tells a harrowing tale of being in between two of the major tornadoes with no functioning source of warnings.

Business Continuity Suggestion:

For less than $2,000 a satellite phone, external antenna (so you don’t have to be outside to use the phone), and extra battery can be purchased. Even if you do not have a routine requirement for a satellite phone, subscribe to a minimal monthly plan so you have a pre-assigned telephone number. This way, you always have communications between your company and your weather provider as well as instant access to resources outside of your immediate area if a disaster occurs and immediate assistance is needed.

Safe Rooms, Underground, or Reinforced Shelter is Essential

Many are familiar with the Fujita tornado intensity scale from the movie, Twister. Tornadoes are rated on a zero to five scale with 4 and 5s having the highest winds and worst damage potential. The 4s and 5s represent only 2 percent of all tornadoes. Yet, those cause deaths and damage far out of proportion to their numbers. While the total number of tornadoes in 2011 has not been remarkable, the number of 4s and 5s has been. And, many of those 4s and 5s have struck densely populated areas.

The fact is that no conventional home can withstand an upper-intensity tornado and mobile/pre-manufactured homes cannot withstand weaker tornadoes. In many cases in 2011, people received the warnings but had no place to shelter.

Business Continuity Lesson:

Determine the location or locations inside your facility that are safest during a tornado. Then mark them so people have no difficulty quickly finding the shelter(s) in an emergency.

You may wish to consider making this shelter available to your employees 24/7 if their residences do not have basements or safe rooms. This could be of significant benefit to your employees and engender loyalty to the business. Employees that feel secure are more productive than those worrying about where to find shelter when extreme weather threatens.

Plus, sheltering at the office is a win-win-win. If nothing happens, you have provided a benefit at practically no cost. If your business is struck by a major storm, your employees are already on site-to begin restoration. If employees’ homes are struck by a tornado, you have protected your most important asset.

Too Many Alarms Breed Complacency

I’ve learned in 2011 that many jurisdictions activate tornado sirens over entire cities and counties when there is a threat to any part of the county or even any part of the region (i.e., St. Louis Metro area). There is substantial anecdotal evidence that this overwarning may have played a role in people delaying sheltering decisions during tornado warnings. Too many siren activations may be unwittingly “training” people to disregard the sirens.

For a business, false alarms not only call the credibility of your warning system into question, they can be costly (lost productivity) or even dangerous (unnecessary movement of critically ill patients in a hospital). Meteorology today routinely differentiates between areas at risk of a tornado and those safely beyond the reach of the storm.

Business Continuity Lesson:

A commercial weather company specializing in the mitigation of the business risks of extreme weather can minimize false alarms while maximizing the safety of your people and assets when a genuine threat presents itself. The warnings can be exactly tailored to the unique requirements of your business. Thanks to the Internet and easy access to radar, “everyone is a meteorologist.” Too much information from too many sources will lead to less than optimal decisions.

Weather providers can provide actual warnings that differ from those provided by the National Weather Service (NWS). This is important because many weather providers simply “repackage” government warnings. NWS warnings are valuable to the public-at-large but a one-criterion-fits-all approach may not be suited to business purposes.

As this is being published, the National Weather Service is upgrading its radar network with “dual polarization” (DP) capability. Without going into the physics, DP will allow more accurate flash flood and hail warnings and will result in a slight additional improvement in tornado warnings. That capability should be in place in much of the U.S. by the 2012 tornado season.

The science of meteorology performed in an outstanding manner during 2011’s onslaught of major tornadoes. It is time to take that breakthrough science and technology and leverage it to the benefit of your business and your people.

Mike Smith is the senior vice president and chief innovation executive of AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions and is based in Wichita. He is a board certified consulting meteorologist and a Fellow of the American Meteorological Society.

This line of thunderstorms (left) at 4:45 a.m. CDT that produced winds up to 100 mph over most of central and northern Alabama. Tuscaloosa (left) and Birmingham (right) are circled. Killer tornadoes (right) appeared 12 hours later with these tornado warnings (red polygons).