What lessons can be salvaged from Alabama's deadly tornado

What lessons can be salvaged from Alabama's deadly tornado
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A recent devastating tornado in rural Lee County, Alabama, had a familiar narrative for people who live in one of the nation’s growing number of tornado prevalence zones.

Predictive advisories began some 72 hours prior to the disaster informing the public that weather conditions were ripe for the development of potentially powerful storms accompanied by tornados.

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By the time the storms actually arrived, it can be assumed that most of the citizens in harm’s way understood that the advisories were serious and potentially lethal weather was headed their way. That said, it is likely some level of disaster complacency existed among Alabamans who had seen too many warnings that never materialized as actual threats. 

When the predictions came true and an assessment of the damage along the 24-mile path of destruction began to unfold, at least 23 people have perished — including three children. At number could rise as some people are still missing and an exhaustive search of the impacted community is not yet complete.

On a number of levels, these highly destructive — and particularly terrifying — weather events remain enigmatic. While there are suspicions that climate change may be increasing the severity or frequency of tornados, the science around this point is less established than the relationship, say, between planetary warming and sea level rise or the intensity of coastal storms.

Over the last decade, there has been a southeastward shift of tornado risk areas from “Tornado Alley” in Western states like Oklahoma and Kansas to Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama. These new tornado risk states have earned the label “Dixie Alley”. This shift may or may not be a related to climate change. It’s a possibility that remains to be seen.

But the concerns about tornados in the Southeastern U.S. are substantial for at least two reasons.

First, when tornados form and begin to move in the Western Plains states, they travel over flat, relatively unobstructed terrain. People can literally see the on-coming calamity at a farther distance than would be the case, say, in a wooded, hilly and more populated region — likely to be the case in much of Alabama or Arkansas. 

This also affects warning time for imminent impact of the tornado, which in many risk areas in the West can be as much as 15 minutes.

But in Lee County, eight to nine minutes was as much as many people had to make final preparations to ensure their own safety. Needless to say, an extra seven minutes can mean the difference between life and death.

Second, if tornados strike a community with high rates of poverty, such as is the case in Lee County, Alabama where nearly 18 percent of the population lives below the federal poverty guidelines, the risk to communities is relatively greater than would be the case where average income levels are higher. Practically speaking, this means fewer resources available to move to safer ground and more people living in inexpensive housing like mobile homes, affording extremely limited protection from the wrath of a high intensity tornado.

Although the Lee County tornado with winds as high as 170 miles per hour was considered an EF 4 tornado (on a scale of EF 1 to EF 5), the death toll was essentially as high as was that caused by a massive EF 5 tornado that struck Moore, Oklahoma in May 2013. Wind speeds reached 210 miles an hour as that tornado crashed into Moore. It could be speculated that a relatively lower death toll in Moore may have to do with a far different terrain, more long view visibility and the number of mobile homes along the tornado’s trajectory.

There’s another factor that’s important to understand concerning the vulnerability of children during tornados. Children are lighter and more medically fragile than adults. They are more subject to being flung by high intensity winds, less likely to be able to protect themselves and highly vulnerable to lethal traumatic injuries.

Finally, Lee County’s tornado — or multiple tornados — occurred on Sunday. Schools were closed. Moore, Oklahoma’s catastrophe occurred on a Monday, during regular school hours. Incredibly, neither of the town’s two elementary schools had tornado shelters — and one of those schools took a direct hit, killing six young children. In spite of intense efforts by advocates for getting the state to mandate tornado shelters in all schools, Oklahoma’s state legislature still refuses to take up the measure.

In contrast, following a deadly tornado in Alabama in 2007 that killed nine high school students in the town of Enterprise, the state passed legislation three years later that mandated any newly constructed school to have a safe room or formal tornado shelter. Schools built prior to 2010 have no such requirement, although many communities in the state are finding ways to retrofit older schools with safe places in the event of a tornado.

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So, while there are lots of mysteries about the life cycle of tornados, including why their prevalence is rapidly growing in the Southeast U.S., and how to improve early warning systems, we need to take common-sense steps to make sure families are safer, for instance creating below surface shelters for people who live in mobile homes.

And as far as children are concerned, every state in Tornado Alley and Dixie Alley must mandate that all schools have adequate protective space for children — and staff — to be safe when and if the terrifying funnel cloud of a tornado is on a trajectory with a school in the crosshairs.

Irwin Redlener, M.D., is president emeritus and co-founder of the Children's Health Fund and has more than three decades of experience providing healthcare to medically underserved children. Redlener is also the director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, and professor of Health Policy and Management at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University. Follow him on Twitter @IrwinRedlenerMD