Tornado Aftermath – Some Observations after 35 Years

By Jim Stefkovich, Meteorologist, Alabama Emergency Management Agency

CLANTON – 8 am March 19, 2019

The devastation and loss of life on March 3rd was as overwhelming for me as it was on April 27, 2011, when over 250 lives were lost. During almost 35 years with the National Weather Service (NWS), across every state from Georgia to Texas, and the past two with AEMA, I’ve been involved with hundreds of storm surveys and seen too much death and destruction. I’ve also encountered resilience and faith from Emergency Managers, First Responders and those directly affected from the storms that have greatly encouraged me. This has included many conversations, conferences and meetings on improving warnings and safety response.

Let me say up front that the following is NOT aimed toward anyone or anything in particular with this recent event. These are observations over a number of years that hopefully will stir additional conversations, hope and action for future events.

The NWS, media and Emergency Management are considered the Integrated Warning Team. Technology for all three groups has improved, especially when it comes to better warnings and messaging. However, we still see so many people hurt or killed. Why?

It’s a complicated issue and there is no single solution. You will always have a segment of the population not paying attention and thus will always fall into the category, “It struck without warning”, even when a warning was in effect well before damage occurs.

Although there are multiple methods are available to receive severe weather watches and warnings, there is no single way that reaches EVERYONE as generational issues are just one of several contributing factors. Every single method can fail. That’s why you should have at least two methods to receive warnings (I have four and this coming from someone who is keenly aware of upcoming weather events).

I am amazed when I find out that in 2019, people still rely on outdoor sirens as their only source of warning information. Outdoor warning sirens are meant for people who are outdoors, not indoors. Others have NOAA Weather Radio but forget to change out the battery. So, if the electricity goes out as the storm approaches, they don’t receive the warning. You should change your smoke detector battery AND your weather radio battery twice a year when the time changes.

Not everyone is watching live TV during events and even for those that are, a minority complain during severe weather interruptions when the storms are not affecting “them”. I am confident the TV meteorologists are NOT going to stop going live during severe weather, and I applaud them for that.

About 15 years ago in another state, I was doing a severe weather class for approximately 300 people. During the question period at the end, someone asked if I would tell the TV meteorologists to stop interrupting programs. I asked him if his Mother was in the path of the storm, would he be OK with the interruption. He said, “Yes”. I responded, “Well, someone’s mother IS in the path of that storm!” You could have heard a pin drop.

For those that use mobile devices to receive severe weather information, are you positive it works all the time and from a trusted source? These are very important questions to answer.

Research is showing many people don’t know how to read a map, and thus don’t know if an approaching storm is going to affect them. I really don’t have a good answer to this except to say you should be able to look at a map and know where you live in your county, as well as know surrounding counties to give yourself a buffer when storms are approaching.

There is always discussion after a big event concerning safe locations during storms. Tornadoes are survivable. But, there are considerations. Construction methods are not uniform in wood and brick construction, nor in the installation of mobile/manufactured homes.

Tornadoes wind speeds are determined by the National Weather Service (NWS) from the Enhanced Fujita (EF) scale. This is actually a damage scale. The NWS performs damage surveys and based on a number of factors (type of trees, type of building, construction methods, amount of damage, etc.) assigns a likely wind speed. This scale ranges from EF0-5.

I’ve done hundreds of damage surveys in my career.  Two identical buildings, one with better construction methods to withstand high winds, would fail at a much higher wind speed than the other with poorer construction.  In other words, the better the construction (for winds), the higher the winds needed to produce damage/destruction.  Concerning mobile/manufactured homes alone, the NWS can’t rate a tornado higher than EF2 for complete destruction, as that is when these structures completely fail.

Certainly, poorly constructed wood and brick buildings can also fail at lower wind speeds, but statistics have proven that one is more likely to die in manufactured/mobile homes than in wood/brick construction.   This is why the advice from the NWS and other meteorologists is to leave mobile/manufactured homes for all tornado warnings and seek a sturdier shelter.

Ultimately, each of us must take personal responsibility for ourselves and loved ones to know when severe weather is coming, receive the warning, and take the proper safety actions. Unfortunately, Alabama leads the nation in storm related fatalities, and my hope is this statistic changes. It can’t happen fast enough for me.

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