Overall, however, the good news for residents of the Midwest's "Tornado Alley" and elsewhere is that over the past six decades America has witnessed a long-term decrease in both property damage and loss of life. That's the finding that I and Kevin Simmons and Daniel Sutter, two of the nation's leading tornado experts, have gleaned from studying the data on almost 58,000 tornadoes observed since 1950.
Officials in storm-ravaged parts of Oklahoma and Kansas are complaining about last weekend's influx of storm chasers—a ragtag band of amateur weather spotters, researchers, extreme-weather tour guides, news crews and adventure seekers. Their ranks have expanded in recent years with the advent of TV shows such as "Storm Chasers," cheaper technology for tracking weather and social-media sites where people can post news and videos of the latest storm.
Now, when a well-publicized storm pattern like last weekend's rolls around, chances are high for what storm chasers call "a convergence," in which they begin to get in each other's way—not to mention the way of emergency workers.
"In the past, there might have been 25 or 50" storm chasers during a weather event, said Todd Thorn of Storm Chasing Adventure Tours of Bozeman, Mont., which charges clients $2,400 for a week of chasing. "Now, there might be several hundred on a big day on the weekend."
The National Weather Service rightly applauds the services of chasers/spotters that provide the eyes to see what Doppler radar cannot. But, to coin a phrase, too many eyes spoil the view... not to mention cause traffic congestion.
On April 27th, 2011, the city of Tuscaloosa, Al. was ravaged by a tornado which killed over 50 people. On May 22nd, Joplin, Mo. was blasted by an EF-5 tornado that killed over 160 people. Both cities were heavily damaged, but which city is recovering faster? According to David Beito and economist Daniel Smith, Joplin.
In Joplin, eight of 10 affected businesses have reopened, according to the city's Chamber of Commerce, while less than half in Tuscaloosa have even applied for building permits, according to city data we reviewed. Walgreens revived its Joplin store in what it calls a "record-setting" three months. In Tuscaloosa, a destroyed CVS still festers, undemolished. Large swaths of Tuscaloosa's main commercial thoroughfares remain vacant lots, and several destroyed businesses have decided to reopen elsewhere, in neighboring Northport.
The reason for Joplin's successes and Tuscaloosa's shortcomings? In Tuscaloosa, officials sought to remake the urban landscape top-down, imposing a redevelopment plan on businesses. Joplin took a bottom-up approach, allowing businesses to take the lead in recovery.
This brings to mind the question of what's the best way to develop a society: top-down or bottom-up. A top-down society is an Astroturf society, essentially imagined and designed by rulers who then impose their will on people.
A bottom-up society, on the other hand, is a grassroots society that develops organically, and it emerges from the decentralized actions of people. If Beito and Smith are correct, chalk another one up for spontaneous order.
It's been a historic year, historic for the tornadoes and tornado-related deaths that have occurred this year. As you might expect, the Tornadovideos.net crew (Reed Timmer) was out and about in Oklahoma chasing multiple tornadoes on May 24th. Here's a short video that documents a few of the twisters they saw.
"People are 10 times more likely to die in a mobile home than if the same tornado hit a regular home," says book co-author Kevin Simmons, an economist at Austin College in Sherman, Texas.
Simmons says mobile homes constitute only 7% of the USA's housing stock, but his research found that 43% of all tornado deaths are to people in mobile homes, which can be no match for a tornado's violent winds, clocked as high as 300 mph.
According to Census 2000, mobile homes made up only 7% of all occupied housing units in the US and the proportion of people who live in mobile homes was also around 7%. Since most tornadoes occur in tornado alley, I looked for statistics on mobile homes in the states in tornado alley. While a bit larger, the numbers do not differ that much from the nation. For example, roughly 10% of Oklahoma's housing units are mobile homes and roughly 8% of Texas' housing units are mobile homes. Kansas' proportion is less than 7%.
However you want to slice it, mobile homes offer very little protection from the swirling winds of tornadoes. Advanced warning and sturdy storm shelters are the key to survival in the very unlikely event a tornado hits where you live. If you know a storm spotter/chaser or NWS forecaster, give him/her thanks. They do an important job when it comes to advanced warning.
Update: Craig Newmark over at Newmark's Door notes this bit of humor from R. Preston McAfee's book Competitive Solutions: The Strategist's Toolkit:
It is often observed that tornadoes usually damage mobile homes. This observation has given rise to the predator theory of tornadoes--mobile homes increase the food supply of tornadoes, which brings tornadoes.
. . . every standard-deviation increase in mobile-home sales--about 3,317 mobile homes--tends to increase tornadoes by 0.37 standard deviations, which turns out to be 94 tornadoes. This works out to be one tornado for every 35 extra mobile-home sales.
Craig notes that McAfee is providing an example of the problem of omitted variables bias.
Lastly, there's always this from the immortal Mater from the movie Cars.
After years of filming and 4 years on Storm Chasers, Sean Casey's Tornado Alley IMAX film is premiering this weekend in Chicago at the Museum of Science and Industry. The first showing was today and there is another showing tomorrow. Here's the trailer.
Last night's season finale of Discovery Channel's Storm Chasers, season 4, entitled Judgement Day, featured an EF4 tornado that hit the small town of Wadena, Mn. June 17th was a historic day for Minnesota in that 48 separate tornadoes spun up in the state including a total of 3 EF4's. Skip Talbot shot some phenomenal footage of the EF4 monster that hit the area just west of Albert Lea, Mn. The structure of the clouds and the tornado in Skip's video is simply amazing.
I distinctly remember that day. I chased storms from Springfield, Mn. to Mankato, Mn. I saw no tornadoes, but I saw several storms with wall clouds and 4 rotating supercells train, one after another, over Mankato.
The Storm Chaser episode was entertaining, and it's too bad that they didn't stick around Minnesota for another week since June 25th was another very stormy day in Minnesota.
A funnel cloud I witnessed on 8/12/2010 and called into the NWS office has officially been listed as an EF0 tornado. I took some pictures of the tornado as it formed and dissipated around 5:30 that day. None of the pictures are particularly awe inspiring or detailed, but I haven't seen any pictures of this tornado online. So I decided to share a few of them.
The clouds began to build and thicken late in the afternoon, and radar showed signatures of small supercells growing in the area. So I left my house and proceeded south on Riverfront Ave. in Mankato. I could see a rain-free base forming southwest of Mankato, so I traveled east on highway 14 and then south on highway 22 out of Mankato and towards Mapleton. I turned west on county road 16 and took a position by a cornfield at the intersection of 16 and T-358. That's when I got a good look at the churning skies. I was about 6 miles SSE from where the tornado hit (reportedly 3 miles WNW of Rapidan, Mn.
The tornado is just forming in the picture above. The rest of the pictures show the tornado's formation and its ending stages.
The next pictures are a little blurry.
By now, the tornado is dying.
That was it for the tornado. It was on the ground for about a tenth of a mile according to the NWS. It kicked up some debris, but I never heard of any damage reports from this storm, which is obviously a good thing.
The skies still were active-looking, so I drove east on 16 across 22 and let the storms come over me. The view in the next picture looks to the NW of my position. The wall cloud of the now-dead tornado is in the center.
Next I turned my camera to the southwest to take a picture of an inviting rain-free base. Nothing came of it.
On the afternoon of June 1st, 2010, I observed a funnel cloud violently rotating about 1 mile north of the Mankato, Mn. airport. The storm had been given a severe thunderstorm warning, but no tornado warnings were issued. The funnel lasted approximately for one minute, so the likely reason no tornado warning was issued was because the rotation that I observed did not last long enough to be seen by radar observers. This is one reason why it's important to have human spotters on the ground: human eyes can see things that Doppler radar cannot.
The following picture was taken from the entry way to the Mankato, Mn. airport at about 1:45 PM on June 1, 2010. I had observed rotation in this storm within 5 minutes of taking this picture (click on the picture for a larger version). I the picture below, I am looking north and that is County Road 12 - aka "Airport Road" - on my left. That is the Hiniker construction building on the left of 12 and about 1/3 of a mile north on this location. The wall cloud is approximately 1.5 miles north of my location and about 1.5 miles west of Lake Washington.
Since I had seen rotation in the storm, I decided to chase after it. I drove north on County Road 12 until I saw the funnel. I pulled over on T-309 - aka 240th lane - a road that runs adjacent to the north boundary of the airport. This funnel was violently rotating, but, I never saw evidence of debris swirling on the ground..
Quickly, the funnel became consumed by the storm's rain shaft, and dissipated.
I chased this storm for a little while longer, hoping to see another funnel. I went south on 12 and then east onCounty Road 26 along the north shore of Eagle Lake. I observed no more rotation, but there was a lot of rain. I didn't feel much like messing with a rain-wrapped tornado or any hail, so I buggered off to the south down County Road 27 and away from the storm. Besides, it was time for me to pick up my kids from school. Family before pleasure.