There were over 130 tornado sightings reported (some say more than 150) on Wednesday night. It will take a while to generate a fully accurate count. Over 300 fatalities are reported in states ranging from Alabama to Virginia.
Depending on how current reports are deconflicted, April 2011 may have seen more North American tornadoes than any prior month since record-keeping began in 1950. The historic record is May 2003 with 543 confirmed tornadoes. The preliminary count for the current month is close to 600.
Depending on how the Wednesday night reports are confirmed, the record for the largest single tornado outbreak may also fall. Until Wednesday night the record was 148 confirmed tornadoes on April 3-4, 1974. Over 300 fatalities resulted from the 1974 series of storms.
On Wednesday, according to the Birmingham (Alabama) News:
In the Birmingham area, the severe weather started about 5:30 a.m. with winds as high as 100 mph ripping through parts of the city, toppling trees and knocking out power. By nightfall power was out to 370,000 customers statewide, and more than 170,000 in metro Birmingham, Alabama Power reported.
That early storm was just a prelude to what weather forecasters had been warning for days. Schools were shut down and many took a day off from their jobs in anticipation of the events to come. People stayed glued to the radio, and many watched tornadoes touch down live on television, striking Cullman, Tuscaloosa and Birmingham.
“We were very prepared”, Alabama Governor Robert Bentley told reporters. But in a highly populated area such as Tuscaloosa, where a maximum force, mile-wide tornado wiped out parts of the city, “you cannot move thousands of people in five minutes.” (See more from the Christian Science Monitor.)
While weather forecasting continues to be a less-than-certain undertaking, it is more accurate than in 1974. There are also many more sources of weather information than 37 years ago. It is impossible to precisely measure this complex event against the prior complex event. But it is not unreasonable to assume lives were saved on Wednesday night because of increased awareness and accuracy of the weather forecast.
Last Friday I proposed five principles of good practice for resilience:
- Awareness: Observe and engage the full context,
- Connectedness: Recognize and engage our full range of relationships and dependencies,
- Realism: Differentiate between cause and effect, capacity and capability, novelty and continuity.
- Agility: Expect change in context and relationships, remain creatively open to change, and actively embrace change.
- Flexibility: Expand the “basin of attraction” where and how turbulence can occur without threatening our fundamental identity.
Increased weather awareness is an outcome of 1) much greater communications connectedness and 2) a more sophisticated scientific understanding of the connectedness that “makes” weather.
Most, though not all, residents of tornado alley — and hurricane alley or snow valleys or flood bottoms — are entirely realistic about the threat. This is not as much the case for earthquakes, wildfires, and some other threats. I wonder if this is because the connectedness of these other threats seem more obscure?
Because we are more aware of the forecast we are more agile. We are more alert. We are not surprised. Back in Illinois when a friend built a new furniture factory, a tornado safe room was specifically added. Less than a year later the factory had been flattened, except for the safe room. All forty-some employees came out without a scratch. That is anticipatory agility.
The closing of schools is a practical example of expanding the basin of attraction in which turbulence can occur. Distribute your critical resources, children and otherwise.
Awareness, connectedness, realism, agility, and flexibility seem better suited for a self-help book than a serious piece of homeland security strategy. Waaay too motherhood and apple pie? Maybe so. But I perceive we can undervalue both our mothers and apple pie. What might come from greater attention?