An Iowa State University professor who studies tornadoes says he’s “amazed and shocked” by the destruction and loss of life from the tornadoes that tore across the south on Wednesday night.
“I ended up telling my students a week beforehand that the weather maps looked very much like the super outbreak from 1974,” says Bill Gallus, a professor of geological and atmospheric sciences at I.S.U. “I was stressing how serious the outlook for severe weather was.”
A strong storm system in 1974 spawned 148 tornadoes in 16 states, killing 330 people over a two-day period. Gallus says with modern warning systems, most meteorologists never thought there’d ever be more than 100 deaths in a day from a tornado outbreak.
“We have so much better technology. The warnings that were issued were as perfect as they could be,” Gallus says. “They were being issued as tornado emergencies lots of times in addition to just tornado warnings. The forecasters and broadcasters were doing pretty much everything they could to let people know that these were very dangerous tornadoes coming.”
There are several contributing factors to this week’s “super outbreak.” Power was out in many areas because a strong thunderstorm ripped through the same area Wednesday morning, meaning many residents had no access to T.V. and radio warnings. That part of the country has the highest percentage of people who live in mobile homes and that is an area of the country where few homes have basements where residents can take cover.
“When you have very strong tornadoes like that, if you can’t be underground, there’s going to be trouble,” Gallus says. “But it’s very hard, too, in a place like that to think of alternatives. Probably what people would have needed to do is get out of the way of the tornado, but especially during rush hour you could get trapped in your car which would potentially have an even higher rate of death.”
And Gallus says there are a lot of trees in the areas where the tornado struck which would have obstructed the view from a vehicle as people tried to drive away from the twister.
Wednesday’s tornadoes battered six southern states; 310 have been confirmed dead, with officials expecting the death toll to rise as people clear through the rubble. The next day was the last class of the semester for Gallus and his I.S.U. students.
“I said, ‘I hope you all realize you’ve just seen something that happens once in every two generations,'” Gallus says. “And we had talked so much about it before how all the conditions lined up, so we discussed in some detail some of the images, the radar data coming out of the event and some of the amazing aspects of how many tornadoes there were, how long they stayed on the ground.”
Iowa State University is home to a tornado simulator and one of the graduate students Gallus works with hopes to be in Alabama by this weekend to conduct damage surveys.
“We’re doing a study looking at how tornadoes are affected my mountains and hills. For instance, do the tornado winds become stronger when the tornado’s going up a hill or do they become stronger when it’s going down or does it not seem to matter?” Gallus says. “And many of the tornadoes that happened Wednesday traveled into some pretty rugged mountains in eastern Alabama and northern Georgia.”
The grad student headed to that area of the country has been using I.S.U.’s simulator to study how tornadic winds react to “hills” made out of plywood, but Gallus says that student will be able to collect “real world data” to enhance the laboratory research.