The Great Plains recently experienced an outbreak of tornadoes stretching from as far south as Texas to as far north as Missouri. This is not uncommon for this time of year as you have cold dry air from the Rockies combine with warm moist air from the Gulf of Mexico followed by warm dry air from the southwest that create strong thunderstorms that produce heavy rains, large hail, high winds, and if the weather conditions are ripe enough they spawn tornadoes.
Even though tornadoes have been recorded in all 50 states at various times of the year, this region of the country sees a higher number of these types of storms due to the weather conditions during the spring months that it earned the name Tornado Alley. It stretches from as far north as South Dakota to as far south as Central Texas and encompasses such metropolitan areas as Kansas City, Tulsa, Oklahoma City, Wichita Falls, Waco, and the largest one: the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex.
Yes, I live in this region. I cannot count how many times regularly scheduled evening programming was preempted with a breaking news bulletin as the local weather person shows on the Doppler radar where the severe weather is and the affected counties scroll at the bottom of the screen.
In April 1994 a tornado tore through the south Dallas suburbs of DeSoto and Lancaster destroying over 500 homes and killing 4 people. The storm happened at night and the tornado was difficult to spot. When daylight broke, you saw the damage and the path the tornado took. I still remember the destruction that the local news showed from the air.
Mayfest in Fort Worth is an annual event, but the 1995 edition is remembered for the super cell thunderstorm that appeared without warning that produced hail as large as 4 inches in diameter. What was to be the Fort Worth community celebrating the onset of the warmer months, it turned into a nightmare. People were leaving the event crying and bloodied. 90 people were treated for injuries ranging from broken bones, lacerations, and deep bruises. As the storm headed east from Fort Worth, drivers on I-30 did their best to seek shelter under bridges but those that couldn't unfortunately had their windows smashed by hail stones.
I remember my then-72 year old grandfather standing outside in the torrential rain as the storm crossed into Irving. He was a Navy man who survived World War II, Korea, and Vietnam so that storm was probably nothing to him.
The 1995 Mayfest storm claimed 13 lives due to flooding and cost $1 billion in damages. For the longest time it was the costliest hailstorm in US history.
Then there was the 2000 tornado that cut through downtown Fort Worth...
In this recent outbreak, there was a tornado that struck southwest of Fort Worth in Granbury that killed 6 people and injured a dozen last week. On Monday an EF-5 tornado tore through Moore, OK located halfway between Oklahoma City and Norman on I-35. Recovery efforts are currently underway. Already the Oklahoma Office of the Chief Medical Examiner confirmed the 24 people were killed; 9 of them children as two elementary schools were in the path in the tornado's 1.3 mile-wide path that traveled 17 miles in 50 minutes.
Part of the reason why surviving tornadoes has improved in my lifetime is because we have invested into research programs into how to improve tornado survival. In her interview segment of her show on Tuesday Night, Rachel Maddow interviewed research professor Larry Tanner of the Edward E. Whitacre Jr. College of Engineering at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, TX. These people find ways to make buildings more structurally sound through studies in mathematics, science, and material design properties. They test their ideas by shooting two-by-fours and other projectiles to simulate debris flying through a tornado, record the results, and find ways to their results better.
In my lifetime it is amazing how weather forecasting has improved. It used to be that storm warnings were issued for an entire county but now we have pinpoint accuracy on when the storm will reach your home at street level. The persons affected by the Moore, OK tornado had 16 minutes to get to shelter. That amount of warning time saved several lives to allow people time to get into shelters.
Weather forecasting and construction research takes money and most importantly people who are willing to study these topics.
Recently the federal government administered a self-inflicted wound called the sequester which was across the board budget cuts. One of those agencies that suffered these cuts was the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) which oversees the National Weather Service (NWS). The sequester lopped off 8.2% from NOAA's budget, instituted an across-the-board hiring freeze, and four days of mandatory furloughs are up ahead for this agency.
There is a debate over whether climate change played a role in this tornado. Over the last decade there have been six least active tornado seasons and four most active tornado seasons. Is this a sign of changing weather patterns where there are strong push and pulls? Perhaps but it appears that the climate change label is being applied to a totally different phenomena. It's one thing to apply it to hurricanes, droughts, and blizzards, but tornadoes are their own phenomena.
Again, I cite my own experience having lived in Texas for most of my life. We've had all kinds of storms; some produced tornadoes, others just a lot of rain and wind.
Harold Brooks, a top researcher at the National Weather Center in Norman, OK, was quoted in a 15 March 2013 USA Today article that: "It's hard to predict future tornado seasons when we don't understand current tornado seasons. We're not sure what's going to happen with the tornado numbers."
I note the large metropolitan areas that are in Tornado Alley. Again, the largest one out of those areas is the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex with (according to 2012 estimates) 6.7 million people. We saw a jump in our population between the Census counts of 2000 and 2010 that the area gained an extra representative in the US House. It was one of the four additional congressional districts that Texas got after the 2010 Census.
People are moving to this area for a lot of reasons. We need to ensure that we are funding research and drawing people in who have an interest in this field to improve our weather forecasting techniques along with designing and constructing buildings that are resistant to these types of tornadoes.
Lives are at stake.