NWS Reports Reasons for Super Tuesday Tornado Death Toll

By Matthew Harwood

Misperceptions, a false sense of security, and nowhere safe to shelter helped create the deadliest tornado event since the mid-1980s, according to a report from the National Weather Service (NWS).

“Dubbed the ‘Super Tuesday’ tornado outbreak due to the presidential primary elections held that day, 82 tornadoes raked nine states throughout the South, killing 57 people, injuring 350 others, and causing $400 million in property damage,” the NWS said.

The tornadoes decimated portions of Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Alabama. Tennessee was hit the worst of all with 31 people killed. It was the deadliest tornado outbreak since May 31, 1985, when a wave of tornadoes destroyed portions of Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, and Canada.

The report finds four main factors contributed to the high death toll despite the fact that those who died lived in areas under a tornado watch and received tornado warnings before the storm touched down.

The overwhelming factor was flimsy homes. Six out of ten people died inside trailers. Most did not have access to “safer” and “safest” sheltering options, such as framed houses or basements, respectively.

To limit deaths during severe weather events, the NWS recommends the construction of hardened safe rooms. According to the NWS, a hardened safe room is “lined and topped with concrete, has no windows, and is designed to withstand severe sustained wind and wind gusts.”

Because many communities will not be able to afford these protective shelters, the report recommends state and local agencies help vulnerable populations obtain them.

Human perception also played a factor in the high fatality rate. Over half the people the NWS interviewed don’t associate tornadoes with the month of February but rather with spring and summer months. Moreover, most people are not spurred immediately to take cover when they hear a tornado is barreling down on them. The report notes that evidence from the Super Tuesday tornado outbreak “illustrates how people may require multiple sources of information throughout their decision making process to assess their personal risk, and how a single source of information will not necessarily spur protection action.”

Finally, many people believe tornadoes happen to someone else and therefore simply don’t take the necessary precautions.

That most of the tornadoes occurred during the night and hit densely forested areas contributed to the death rate as well.  “Most of the fatalities in this event occurred at night,” the report says.  Forested areas, note the report, lead to higher death tolls because trees obscure approaching tornadoes from being spotted unlike tornadoes on the Great Plains and cuts down on time people have to react.

The report also disagrees with the increasing tendency of schools to close down or dismiss students early during potential tornado outbreaks.

“Many homes in the rural South are of lightweight construction and offer little, if any, shelter against tornadoes,” the report says. “In some cases, the students would be better protected in well-constructed schools that have an organized and practiced tornado emergency plan."


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