Severe tornadoes had been mercifully scarce over the past year. Sadly, folks in Oklahoma can't say that today.
The devastation and death toll are staggering after a half-mile-wide twister packing 200 mph winds tore through Moore, Okla., on Monday afternoon.
Some two dozen people, including nine children, were killed, and the toll could rise. Scores more were being treated at hospitals. Block after block of the Oklahoma City suburb lay in rubble from the strongest-category storm that meteorologists say packed more power than the atomic bomb that leveled Hiroshima.
Until the past week or so, the 2013 tornado season had been relatively quiet. This had been the longest the United States had gone into May without registering an EF1 or stronger tornado, the type that can cause damage, according to researchers at the National Severe Storms Laboratory.
But that ended when tornadoes claimed lives in Oklahoma and Texas over the past week.
This news should remind all of us living in Tornado Alley that these storms can and do strike at random and without mercy.
April 2011 saw 497 EF1 or stronger tornadoes, a record number and more than the next two highest months combined, according to the severe storms lab. From June 2010 through May 2011, there were 1,050 EF1 or stronger tornadoes, a record high for a 12-month period.
The Moore disaster also highlights two important factors surrounding these deadly storms — the importance of warnings beforehand and the certainty that neighbors will help in the aftermath.
After 30 years of testing and trials, the National Weather Service has made a $50 million radar upgrade that will double the information radar can glean from a storm. To make warnings of dangerous weather clearer and more convincing, the weather service also has beefed up and simplified the bulletins it issues. Tested last year in Kansas and Missouri, the testing was expanded this year to 12 more states, including Nebraska and Iowa. The change adds explicit descriptions of the damage expected and in an easier-to-read format.
But the warnings work only if they are taken seriously. When dangerous weather threatens, residents in a storm's path need to be alert to the changing weather and pay attention to the warnings, and they should have a family tornado plan in place so everyone knows where and how to take shelter quickly.
Disasters such as this one show again that neighbors and complete strangers will rally to help.
Some of the first to volunteer were from Joplin, Mo., itself the scene of the deadliest tornado in 60 years on May 22, 2011, a storm that claimed 158 lives. About a dozen public safety employees from Joplin quickly headed to Moore. “We remember the amount of assistance that we received following the tornado two years ago, and we want to help others as they helped us,” Joplin's city manager said. The Lincoln-based Nebraska Task Force One Urban Search and Rescue Team arrived in Moore on Tuesday.
Midlanders are no strangers to dangerous weather and have ably demonstrated their willingness to help whenever disaster strikes. There's a need again now.
While Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller issued a timely caution Tuesday about criminals who might try to take advantage of the caring, a number of legitimate nonprofit groups are collecting donations to assist the Oklahoma victims. Those include the American Red Cross and Salvation Army. Contact information for both have been published in The World-Herald and on Omaha.com.
As we've seen before, it's a safe prediction that many Midlands residents will step forward to help. It's a show of unity that links the neighbors in Tornado Alley.