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Tornado Outbreak Tragedy

March 7th, 2012

Tornado damage in Kentucky, March 2, 2012. Photo credit: NOAA via Wikimedia Commons public domain

There were some devastating tornadoes last Friday and Saturday across midwestern and southern United States. About a hundred tornadoes were reported and about 30 – 40 of them may have been in the “strong” and “violent” categories — the kinds that do the most damage, where winds travel 100 – 200 miles per hour, sometimes even faster.

Tornado damage in Kentucky, March 2, 2012. Photo credit: NOAA via Wikimedia Commons public domain

41 people died, some of them children, according to reports. Others were badly injured, including a mother who threw herself on her two children to save them as their house collapsed onto them. Her heroic actions saved them.

Many homes were completely destroyed. Huge metal poles snapped into thirds, entire walls of homes were carried away along with contents inside, and cars and buses were thrown around as if they were toys.  The clean-up, grieving, and healing has begun and will go on for many months and even years in these communities. Unfortunately, snow in some of these areas are hampering even that effort. Click here to watch a CNN report on that. According to news reports, approximately 34 million people were at risk during this outbreak of tornadoes.

The darker areas are states where tornadoes occured last week, updated as of March 6, 2012. Information courtesy Greg Carbin, National Weather Service.

It sounds scary, and it’s unimaginable for those who went through it.

What are the chances of being in a tornado’s path? 

HTE spoke with Greg Carbin, the Warning Coordination Meteorologist with the National Weather Service, yesterday, to help us find the answers. The National Weather Service is the government office that predicts and monitors weather-related events in the US.  Mr. Carbin explained some of the factors involved:

Location: Tornado Alley

It’s true that the U.S. does have the most tornadoes anywhere in the world. And most tornadoes in the U.S. happen in a region called Tornado Alley. Tornado Alley includes parts of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, Eastern Colorado and Western Iowa. But these aren’t firm boundaries.

Courtesy NOAA

Why here?

Mr. Carbin explained that it’s because of how the Rocky Mountains are located in relation to the Gulf of Mexico and all the flatter plains in between that create the best conditions in the world for tornadoes to form.


Still, the chance that you will be in a tornado’s parth is incredibly small. Mr. Carbin explained that “ if you were going to stand in a single spot in a field, you could stand there for a thousand years before you were in a tornado’s path .” He put it another way, saying, “There may be 50 days in a century where a tornado comes within 25 miles of your location.”  Mr. Carbin emphasized that it’s a matter of scale.

Tornadoes in the big picture are tiny … but can be tragic.

Last year, approximately 500 people died during the 2011 tornado season. There were over 200 tornadoes in 24 hours, according to Mr. Carbin. The town of Joplin, Missouri was hardest hit .

This is a video clip from a tornado in Indiana a few days ago, filmed from a reasonably safe distance.

Time of year: Season

Tornadoes usually happen in the Spring time (roughly between March and May) — when Winter weather warms into Summer.

Predicting Tornadoes

Mr. Carbin explained that while you can often see the conditions for a tornado about 5 days out, an actual tornado can form in a matter of minutes, which can make it harder to warn people of the immediate danger and make sure they get to safety.

What to do if you’re in this situation?

Seek shelter, preferably something underground like a basement. Stay away from windows. Do not try to get away from it in your car. If you are outside, get low to the ground and try to get into a ditch or a spot lower than the ground.

Tornado damage in Kentucky, March 2, 2012. Photo credit: NOAA via Wikimedia Commons pubic domain

How do tornadoes form?

When cool, dry air comes from the north where the mountains are … and mixes with the moist, warm air from down south, you could have the beginnings of a tornado.Wind is a factor too. When the warm air gets pushed up, it tilts on its side vertically (up and down) instead of staying horizontal (straight across), and then starts spinning, sometimes faster and faster. Most of the damage occurs when the spinning “funnel” cloud touches down on the ground.

Tornadoes can touch down for a matter of minutes though also longer and they are often around 1/2 a mile to a mile wide.

Click on the link to watch a National Geographic Kids video about tornadoes and how they form.

If you would like to help the tornado victims …

Please click on this link for NBC News’ list of places to donate .

HTE would like to thank Greg Carbin at the National Weather Service for providing his perspective and expertise on the recent outbreak of tornadoes.

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