The tornadoes of 2011 raised the toll of people who have died in U.S. tornadoes to 552. It goes down as the highest recorded death toll in a single year in over 75 years. It begs the question "How can it be?" with all the incredible advances in forecasting and warning systems, that there was such a high number of fatalities? The overall yearly statistics show a wonderful downward trend of fatalities. Yet, there were 552 deaths and thousands of lives shattered and scattered like the debris field of an F5 tornado.
Here are some reasons to consider for this and other major weather disasters.
1- Stating the obvious, a severe weather event is random, chaotic (non-linear) by its nature.
The major fatality weather event is a statistically a "just so happen" occurrence. To have those "just so happen" days, just so happen 2 or 3 times in one season as opposed to perhaps a few every decade is rare.
2- It's also not just about the track and intensity of these "perfect" (F4, F5) storms themselves. There are also the "perfect storms" of circumstances and human reaction/miscalculation, and disaster response systems weaknesses.
There is a dynamic of how these large-scale dramas are played out, be it in Joplin or Tuscaloosa or any other major city. It involves the many thousands of people making split second decisions , as citizens scramble to take shelter. The chasers on the other hand converge on the storm as anxious fearful people looking for which escape road to take spread out in a diffluent pattern.
The NWS included four "social scientists" on the assessment team to study what happened for the shortcomings this year (Historic Tornadoes of 2011).
Imagine if one could quantify and colorize all the "data" of people's understanding and actions/reactions, and the mass movements. It would probably take on a "form" if it were possible to see it on a screen. I think the human responses/actions would have the appearances of a chaotic form, like the kind produced by the atmosphere itself.
The science of weather forecasting , those who have labored for years has made great strides. I am not trying to rain on that parade of success here, but I think we have to rethink what it means to really tame the weather beast. This especially in light of the social science of how people respond.
The year 2011's tornado fatalities is a reminder that we are not quite out of the bear's cage yet.
Thankfully, the foreseeable/predictable patterns of the ultimately unpredictable , are getting better understood and the deadly affects mitigated.
author "Life is Like a Weather Forecast"( full article at www.WindPhoto.com )