Tornadoes tear through Southern states, but new alerts saved lives
The Super Tuesday tornadoes were the deadliest in the US in more than a decade.
Atlanta and Boston
The devastation in tiny Atkins, Ark., following a deadly spate of winter tornadoes, hit residents hard as rescuers picked through the rubble of churches and homes Wednesday.Skip to next paragraph
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"It's just terrible," says J.L. Austin, a local barber, in a phone interview.
The Super Tuesday tornadoes killed at least 48 people, including four in this town. But a year-old siren system in the rural Arkansas county may have saved lives. Sirens blared 20 minutes before the tornado hit, enough time for Mr. Austin and his family to find shelter in his brother's basement.
With better weather monitoring and the wider use of sirens and other warning systems, the number of tornado deaths per million Americans has been decreasing in the United States for decades. Yet the tornadoes that swept the mid-South served as a reminder, experts say, that better public education and new technology, such as text-messaging on cellphones, could augment traditional warning systems.
Meteorological trends seem to favor efforts to accomplish that. The frequency of the strongest twisters – F-4 and F-5 tornadoes, whose destruction is the most difficult to mitigate – is on the decline, even as the overall number of weaker storms has increased.
The sheer power of the front produced the most powerful breed of twisters, some of which may have overpowered even well-prepared residents, experts say.
"This was kind of an early season event, and I think it caught people off guard a little bit," says Chris Wikle, a weather statistician at the University of Missouri.
The Southeast is no stranger to winter tornadoes, notes Harold Brooks, a scientist at the National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Okla. Last year, three tornadoes touched down along a track through east central Florida in the early morning hours of Feb. 2. They carved a path of destruction some 70 miles long. In Lake County, 21 people were killed. Then on March 1, a tornado outbreak struck southern Alabama killing 11. But to have an outbreak this severe in this part of the Southeast in the first week of February "is pretty rare," he acknowledges.
Since 2000, only 8 percent of tornado deaths have occurred inside the traditional tornado alley that runs from Texas and Oklahoma to Kansas, Nebraska, and South Dakota, according to the Storm Prediction Center, also in Norman. In 2007, the vast majority of tornado deaths came farther east, in the mid-South, ranging from Alabama to Kentucky.