I arrived in Birmingham, Alabama two years after the historic 2011 tornado outbreak. What struck me most was how nearly everyone I met had a story about the storm, knew someone who didn’t survive or knew someone who knew someone who didn’t survive.
An astonishing 199 tornadoes touched down in 14 states over the two-day period from April 27-28, 2011 as an unprecedented combination of weather factors resulted in the explosion of severe weather. Meteorologists with the National Weather Service and throughout various broadcast outlets valiantly tried to keep up with the steady stream of seemingly relentless storms.
The scope and strength of the storms also resulted in a disturbing loss of life. While some argue that the advanced detection capabilities of the weather enterprise and increasing availability of technology should have saved more lives, others are dismayed at a death toll which topped 350. In some cases, warning systems failed, preventing some from learning of the danger. Many others, however, failed to heed timely warnings; choosing instead to wait until the visible danger was upon them.
Some had nowhere to go in the face of unimaginable destruction, however. I contrast this outbreak to an approaching tropical threat. Having spent years advising coastal residents; the advice was always simple: head indoors. However, even with a well-forecast two or three-day outlook of extensive severe weather what should residents do? It remains an unanswered question even today. As I write this, we could be on the verge of observing another historic outbreak across the southern Plains. One that had also been forecast days ahead.
Hopefully there will be a different outcome and people will heed warnings, take timely safety action and survive. However, even that may not always be enough in the face of a power we can measure, but not control.
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