Students at the University of Alabama hunkered down as a massive, mile-wide tornado came within a mile of the campus that houses thousands of people. It became the site of terror many of them had never experienced before.More >>
April 27 and April 28, 2011, brought the deadliest tornado outbreak in the United States since 1974. By dawn on April 28, at least 250 people had been killed in 6 states. Alabama was the hardest hit, with 162 confirmed dead as of Thursday morning.More >>
It was a day that also set a new record for the number of tornadoes in a twenty-four hour period.
To understand what happened that day and how we can prevent it in the future, we must understand the science behind the storms.
Almost a week before the 27th, long-range forecasts indicated a severe weather outbreak was possible.
Here at Storm Team 9, we began alerting our viewers on television, culminating with one final warning on our 6 pm newscast before the storms hit, talking about the timing of the severe weather and safety tips one should follow in case there was a tornado warning issued.
It became clear that all of the ingredients needed for tornadoes -- powerful tornadoes -- would be coming together.
One of the most important things we look for in order for tornadoes to develop is instability - the ability of the air to rise and keep rising, fueling long-lived thunderstorms.
Another very important thing to have is what we call shear - the ability for wind to change speed and direction the higher up in the atmosphere you go.
Many times, we will have one or the other -- and can still get tornadoes -- but on 27th, it was clear both of these ingredients - and many more - would be more than sufficient for large, damaging tornadoes - an atmospheric setup that may only come around once every 30 to 40 years.
When it was over, 336 people had lost their lives - 238 in Alabama, where there were sixty-two tornadoes - and fourteen were dead in Georgia.
Meteorologists, social scientists, and others immediately began to ask the question - why did so many people die, and what can we do to prevent it in the future?
Certainly, some of the tornadoes were simply unsurvivable without underground shelter.
The combination of the large, destructive tornadoes hitting urban areas put a lot more people in harm's way than we normally see in tornado outbreaks, increasing the risk of casualties.
As a meteorologist, we tell people all the time that being prepared isn't just finding that safe place - it's having a way to get the warning.
After the Ringgold, Georgia tornado killed seven people on April 27th -- perhaps the strongest tornado to ever strike the Peach State – thirty-four people who were directly impacted by the storm were interviewed about their behavior immediately before and during it.
While all those interviewed reported they received the tornado warning, thirty of the thirty four said they got it through TV - none reported they heard about the warning through a weather radio.
A similar study done in the town of Smithville, Mississippi after a large tornado killed sixteen people had similar results - no one reported getting the warning via a weather radio - 86% said they first heard about it through the town's outdoor siren system, while12% credited local television.
While other forms of getting watches and warnings like TV, the internet, and outdoor warning sirens are fine, only by having a NOAA weather radio - or a similar application on your smartphone - can you be assured you will be able to hear the information no matter the time of day or night, and whether you have power or not.
Another common theme that came up in these studies was what ultimately prompted people to seek shelter.
In Ringgold, about two-thirds of people sought shelter as soon as the tornado warning was issued, but 24% wanted to wait until they could see the storm before taking cover.
In Smithville, some residents said the tone of the meteorologist's voice on TV gave them the sense of urgency they needed to seek shelter - but overwhelming, individuals wanted to see it to believe it.
If they couldn't see it with their own eyes, they wanted confirmation of the tornado from at least two trusted sources - whether that is TV, a website, or hearing it from a family member or friend.
This is the very mentality that we do not want people to take, and the same mentality that cost some people their lives on April 27th. When it comes to having lead-time for tornado warnings, every second counts. We encourage people to immediately seek shelter instead of trying to confirm for themselves whether there is a tornado or not. The extra seconds may save your life.