Tornado-the Natural Lethal Weapon of Mass Destruction in America

“I have seen it coming…I have witnessed the aftermath…and I am luckily to be alive ’cause quite a few times the town that I lived, barely missed hit by tornadoes. The thing with a tornado ? even when you know it’s coming, you’re helpless, because you don’t know precisely where it will hit. As a Lions Club member and Red Cross Volunteer I have assisted in the cleanup of two tornado disasters close to the town where I lived. No matter where they happen, though, one thing’s for sure: Tornadoes can be lethal. They kill, on average, about 100 Americans a year, with wind speeds that reach 320 miles per hour (515 kilometers per hour). The deaths are usually caused by flying debris landing on them. Although deaths may be less, the damages are unbearable, with people losing everything they have. You have to see it, to believe it-and I know it because I have seen it personally.  Yes, Tornadoes are bad, scary and disastrous”.

Before I go further I would like to extend my heartfelt condolences to the bereaved family members of the victims who lost their lives in the Oklahoma tornado disaster.  At least 51 people, including 20 children, were among the victims of an enormous tornado that roared through the suburbs of Oklahoma City Monday, 20 May 2013, pulverizing entire city blocks and leaving behind miles of mangled cars and splintered wood. Officials warned the death toll was likely to climb, making it among the deadliest tornadoes in U.S. history. The deadly tornado destroyed mobile homes, buildings, flipped trucks and sent people across 100 miles running for cover.
I was watching CNN-IBN channel, and there was the breaking news of a tornado ripping through the city of Oklahoma-the very next moment I thought of my friends who had lately moved from Chicago suburbs to Oklahoma. It was 8am morning here in Mangalore, while it was late night in Oklahoma. For a while I couldn’t get through the phone-I was worried assuming that tornado might have hit the place where my friends had moved. But after many attempts, I finally got through and was able to talk to my friends, and found out that they were safe and ok – they were quite far from the tornado affected area. My friends appreciated my concern in enquiring about them.

When most of us think of weapons of mass destruction, we think of nuclear bombs, or nerve gas, or biological agents, but one can consider tornadoes as weapons of mass destruction too, because of the way they kill people and create heavy damages to property. Tornadoes are completely natural — humans have witnessed them on every continent except for Antarctica. However, the United States has far more observable tornadoes than any other country. This is because the United States has an abundance of flat, low-lying geographic regions, and it also has a climate that is conducive to intense thunderstorms, and tornadoes tend to form during thunderstorms.

The United States averages about 1,200 tornadoes per year. The Netherlands has the highest average number of recorded tornadoes per area of any country (more than 20, or 0.0013 per sq mi (0.00048 per km2), annually), followed by the UK (around 33, or 0.00035 per sq mi (0.00013 per km2), per year),[ but most are small and cause minor damage. In absolute number of events, ignoring area, the UK experiences more tornadoes than any other European country, excluding waterspouts.
Turning for a moment from topography to geography, the United States has a few places that might be called tornado hot spots. Most prominent among them, of course, is “Tornado Alley,” a slice of America’s mid-section running horizontally from Texas up to North Dakota — taking in portions of Oklahoma, New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska. Tornadoes have also hit states like Illinois, the state where I lived for 23 years in a town called Ottawa- a far west Chicago suburbs. Although Ottawa was always on the path whenever tornado was about to strike according to the weather-man, but Ottawa always missed hit by a tornado. Instead neighbouring towns very close to Ottawa got hit by tornadoes really bad.
On April 20, 2004,there was a tornado outbreak affecting parts of the U.S. Upper Midwest . Thirty tornadoes formed in eastern Iowa, extending into northern and central Illinois and Indiana; a tornado that touched down in Utica, Illinois, was the only one to cause fatalities. And the town that I lived was just 10kms from Utica. Utica was hit by a tornado rated F3 on the Fujita scale. The winds caused the superstructure of the Milestone Tap, a barn converted into a tavern in downtown Utica, to collapse into its basement, causing the deaths of eight people. Nearly half of the downtown Utica was completely destroyed. Sirens all around town signaled people to take cover. The tornado left shortly thereafter. A long-track wedge tornado immediately preceded the Utica tornado. As a member of Lions Club I helped out in the rescue and cleanup efforts of Utica tornado.

Memorials placed for the victims of the tornado that hit Utica, Illinois in 2004

On June 5, 2010 evening, an F2 twister touched down in Streator, Illinois-a small town located 15 miles from where I lived . 17 people were reported taken to St. Mary?s Hospital, Streator  with injuries.  At least 30 structures suffered heavy damage. There were no reported fatalities.  Tree?s and power lines were down throughout the southern portion of the city where the tornado swept through. As a volunteer I helped out in the tornado aftermath cleanup -It was indeed a pathetic scene to see all the structural damages, and also the loss of precious things that residents lost.

Destruction caused by the tornado in Streator, Illinois on 5 June, 2010

Tornado alley’s tornadoes usually happen later in the spring time and sometimes into the fall. The region is considered a prime breeding ground for super- cell thunderstorms, which tend to produce the strongest tornadoes. Super- cell thunderstorms contain something called a mesocyclone, which has a rotating updraft — they’re very dangerous but also, when identified as supercells, can provide a good heads-up that the extreme weather they can produce, like tornadoes, is possible. Florida, too, has lots of tornadoes. That’s because the state has many thunderstorms on a daily basis, and it’s also a pit stop for many tropical storms or hurricanes (the tropical storms and hurricanes don’t tend to produce the kind of killer tornadoes that come about during non-tropical storms)

The USA in the past 12 months has seen the fewest number of tornadoes since at least 1954, and the death tolls from the dangerous storms have dropped dramatically since 2011. Just two years after a ferocious series of tornado outbreaks killed hundreds of Americans, the USA so far this year has enjoyed one of the calmest years on record for twisters, until the latest tornado that struck Oklahoma. Until two weeks back, tornadoes have killed only three Americans in 2013; by the end of May 2011, 543 Americans had died. So far in May ? usually the USA’s most active month ? only three tornadoes have formed. All have been rated EF-0 on the Fujita scale of tornado intensity. EF-0 is the weakest rating for tornadoes, with wind speeds of about 65-85 mph. The EF-5 tornado that ravaged Joplin, Mo., two years ago, had estimated wind speeds as high as 250 mph and killed 158 people.
A tornado is a violently rotating column of air that is in contact with both the surface of the earth and a cumulonimbus cloud or, in rare cases, the base of a cumulus cloud. They are often referred to as twisters or cyclones, although the word cyclone is used in meteorology, in a wider sense, to name any closed low pressure circulation. Tornadoes come in many shapes and sizes, but they are typically in the form of a visible condensation funnel, whose narrow end touches the earth and is often encircled by a cloud of debris and dust. Most tornadoes have wind speeds less than 110 miles per hour (177 km/h), are about 250 feet (76 m) across, and travel a few miles (several kilometers) before dissipating. The most extreme tornadoes can attain wind speeds of more than 300 miles per hour (483 km/h), stretch more than two miles (3.2 km) across, and stay on the ground for dozens of miles (more than 100 km).

Though tornadoes can strike in an instant, there are precautions and preventative measures that people can take to increase the chances of surviving a tornado. Authorities such as the Storm Prediction Center advise having a pre-determined plan should a tornado warning be issued. When a warning is issued, going to a basement or an interior first-floor room of a sturdy building greatly increases chances of survival. In tornado-prone areas, many buildings have storm cellars on the property. These underground refuges have saved thousands of lives.

Some countries have meteorological agencies which distribute tornado forecasts and increase levels of alert of a possible tornado (such as tornado watches and warnings in the United States and Canada). Weather radios provide an alarm when a severe weather advisory is issued for the local area, though these are mainly available only in the United States. Unless the tornado is far away and highly visible, meteorologists advise that drivers park their vehicles far to the side of the road (so as not to block emergency traffic), and find a sturdy shelter. If no sturdy shelter is nearby, getting low in a ditch is the next best option. Highway overpasses are one of the worst places to take shelter during tornadoes, as the constricted space can be subject to increased wind speed and funneling of debris underneath the overpass.

But many a times I have observed that in spite of the warnings, people ignore the warnings and stay back home or wander outside-and unfortunately these people are the first ones to die. Also that there are huge damages to the houses, that’s because house in America are mostly constructed of wood, and they are light. A tornado can rip the roof of a house in a second. Tornadoes can uproot trees, flip cars and trucks, knock down electric poles, grab animals and push them in the air, and can destroy anything that’s in its path.

So when there is a weather warning  of tornado, you need  to DUCK!

    D – Go DOWN to the lowest level
    U – Get UNDER something
    C – COVER your head
    K – KEEP in shelter until the storm has passed

Take responsibility for your safety and be prepared before a watch or warning is issued. Meet with household members to develop a disaster plan to respond to tornado watches and warnings. Conduct regular tornado drills. When a tornado watch is issued, review your plan ? don’t wait for the watch to become a warning. Learn how to turn off the water, gas and electricity at the main switches.

Despite Doppler radar, tornadoes can sometimes occur without any warning, allowing very little time to act. It is important to know the basics of tornado safety. Know the difference between tornado watches and tornado warnings.
Tune in for weather information on TV channels or radio.

And if you really want to know what a tornado does, go rent a movie-“Twister” and watch it on big Flat TV screen ? Twister is a 1996 American disaster drama film starring Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton as storm chasers researching tornadoes. Twister was the second-highest-grossing film of 1996 domestically, with an estimated 55 million tickets sold in the US. In the film, a team of storm chasers try to perfect a data-gathering instrument, designed to be released into the funnel of a tornado, while competing with another better-funded team with a similar device during a tornado outbreak across Oklahoma.

Author: Alfie DSouza- Illinois