The devastation near Oklahoma City this week is the latest reminder of the tremendous damage tornadoes and other cataclysmic storms can inflict. The reminders are frequent. Last year, in our own region, we had the late-winter tornado in Henryville, which wiped out the town and united the region in relief efforts. Later in the year, Hurricane Sandy ravaged the East Coast.
And the list goes on and on. For those of us who live in the Ohio River Valley, spring and summer storms are familiar, and for most of us they have been part of our lives. But because they are so unpredictable, and because their damage can be so great, they are almost mythic in the shadow they cast. As a child, I can remember having an unusual fear of fires and later tornadoes, and I am sure the latter grew out of early television viewings of The Wizard of Oz. That tornado—even by the cruder standards of Hollywood in 1939—was frightening. (And it still is). But in the 1950s and ’60s we didn’t have weather radar and all the satellites that help predict and warn people in the paths of storms.
But I’ve heard a lot of talk in recent years about the increasing frequency of severe weather outbreaks. Global warming has gotten a lot of blame for these and without question there are alarm bells sounding in many areas because of the environmental crisis. Three winters with essentially no measurable snow in Louisville ought to have people puzzled, if not downright worried.
But a report this week on the Atlantic Monthly’s online edition—shared on Facebook by my longtime colleague at The Courier-Journal Greg Johnson—indicates that for all the talk, statistically the tornadoes we’re experiencing are not that different from previous years. For instance, statistics prove that tornadoes are not becoming more frequent.
“There has been little trend in the frequency of the stronger tornadoes over the past 55 years,” according to a U.S. Weather Service report. The main difference in that period of time is the way in which these weather systems are reported. “Today, nearly all of the United States is reasonably well populated, or at least covered by NOAA’s Doppler weather radars. Even if a tornado is not actually observed, modern damage assessments by NWS personnel can discern if a tornado caused the damage, and if so, how strong the tornado may have been,” the service explains.
The Atlantic report also explores whether the death rates in tornadoes have been rising in recent years. Again, the answer is no.
“Although there are more people, and therefore a greater number of injured parties, in the United States in the regions where tornadoes strike, better forecasting and warning systems have greatly reduced the rate of fatalities per million people and the overall number of fatalities, as you can see in the following two charts,” the magazine reports.
Of course the hyping of weather reporting is far more aggressive in 2013 than it was, for instance, in 1974, when Louisville was hit by one of 148 tornadoes that ripped through the Midwest and South in the second-worst tornadic storm system of the 20th Century. That storm followed an unseasonably warm weekend. But the advance warning was almost nil. All of us went about our business in the normal way, even though all through that balmy day I remember the air felt oddly unsettled, which was obviously a result of the precipitous decline in the barometric pressure. It was truly the brave and dogged radio coverage of WHAS-84 that kept the community together on that terrible afternoon. Those were relatively early days of traffic reports by helicopter, and Dick Gilbert was WHAS’ “traffic tracker.” For those who still had electricity (and broad segments of Louisville lost power in that storm) or were in their cars, the radio provided vivid and accurate reports, even as the tornado moved South along Interstate 65, then veered east at the Fairgrounds and moved aggressively into Cherokee Park, Grinstead Drive, Indian Hills and Northfield. (You can listen to an hour of that coverage on this YouTube site.)
I had a particularly keen interest this week as I heard the statistics about deaths from the storm. As a young city desk reporter, I was assigned to keep a body count of the number of deaths in Kentucky (my colleague Howard Fineman had the same assignment for Southern Indiana). Since I had spent three of my college years writing obituaries for The Courier-Journal, I knew every undertaker in the state, not to mention the long list of “stringers”—freelancers who called in obits from their hometowns. As the evening progressed, I worked my way down the list, and then when I finished, I started calling again. The Associated Press depended upon our work in the newsroom for its fatality counts.
This storm had a lot to do with the advances in alarm and siren systems not only here, but across the region. Signs in airports, department stores and other large public spaces gave directions to storm shelters. And broadcast advance warning became far more accurate. For instance, the intense storm system of Friday, March 2, 2012, was predicted hours in advance; schools in Jefferson County dismissed early based on those forecasts, and televisions reported the advance with the kind of detail that would have been impossible to imagine in 1974.
Arguably, this kind of knowledge is lowering the death rate and the unpredictable nature of tornadoes. Of course, that doesn’t prevent truly cataclysmic storms (like Monday’s in Oklahoma) from doing plenty of damage. But it is somewhat reassuring to know that even though we hear more about tornadic activity, these ferocious storms are no more frequent than they ever were.
Keith Runyon is a veteran Louisville journalist and former editorial page editor for The Courier-Journal. He’ll discuss this commentary with WFPL’s Jonathan Bastian at 1:30 p.m. Thursday on Here & Now. Listen at 89.3 or stream at WFPL.org.