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Thread: Devastation in Alabama and Southern States of the US. Late April 2011

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    Devastation in Alabama and Southern States of the US. Late April 2011

    Many of you may not know that my background is in severe thunderstorms meteorology and understanding the environments associated with those thunderstorms. Its the subject of my PhD but also my passion, and I depart to stormchase in the great plains in about a weeks time. I pay close attention to the happenings of weather across the world and I felt it important to raise this here. This is very much the dark side of what can happen when the atmosphere turns violent.

    Unfortunately yesterday in Alabama one of the more devastating thunderstorm related disasters occured and obliterated large portions of multiple cities. While outbreaks commonly occur in the Great Plains states of sparse population, every now and again a heavily populated area is hit by an outbreak, and in this case one of amazing ferocity which produced likely in excess of 100 confirmed tornadoes, many rated at the top end of the scale. 284 people are dead at last count and the death toll continues to rise in Alabama, Virginia, Georgia, Missisippi, Arkansas and Tenesse. Over 1 million people are without power in Alabama, and thousands of homes have been completely destroyed. To put it into perspective this is very much like their black saturday and it would be sad if we didn't pay this event the same attention as they did in that time of crisis. The last event of a similar scale was the superoutbreak of 1974, which killed 313, and on current indications this event will exceed it, the number of dead is completely unknown but a classic example of what happens when violent tornadoes occur in highly populated cities, and the dangers of technological failure surrounding the warning system (ironically knocked out by morning thunderstorms). The worst part about these storms for me was knowing they were likely to happen, and seeing my worst fears realised. These people had little warning of these deadly tornadoes, and the only place was underground in a purpose built shelter and unfortunately many had no chance. I spent most of yesterday feeling physically ill as I watched what unfolded with no control. My deepest sympathies are with the victims, and I will be making a donation of 50% of money from image sales that arise from my storm images on this trip and from past trips to the appeal as well. Please contact me if you would like to join in a similar venture for storm related images.

    If you haven't been following, take a look at the following but I warn you the images may haunt you like they have me. There is extensive video, but I don't feel it appropriate to show so please PM me if you would like a link to some of the more impressive videos.

    WARNING: THIS LINK CONTAINS PHOTOGRAPHIC IMAGES THAT SOME VIEWERS MAY FIND DISTURBING, IF YOU ARE OF A SENSITIVE DISPOSITION I SUGGEST YOU DO NOT CLICK.
    http://www.boston.com/bigpicture/201...?p1=News_links

    In light of this terrible event, if you feel you want to contribute to the recovery of these peoples lives donate to the American red cross at :[URL="http://www.redcross.org"] [url]www.redcross.org[\url] any donation I think would be appreciated, as many of those affected have lost loved ones and come from poor backgrounds.

    Just thought I'd bring that to peoples attention.

    John
    Last edited by Xebadir; 29-04-2011 at 8:23am.
    John
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    Stormchasing isn't a hobby...its an obsession.
    For my gallery and photography: www.emanatephotography.com

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    Most of my family is in Oklahoma, and it's always nervewracking when they're on tornado alert. Whenever I'm over there and experience the sirens and alerts for myself I wonder how they live with it year after year - even without the tornadoes, damage from the huge hail and strong winds they get is bad enough.
    Michaela

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    It can be very frightening Michaela. A tornado siren can really be terrifying in its haunting noise. Im not sure I would be able to live with it every season living there. I guess the knowledge that the probability of getting hit is relatively low is some comfort.

    I figure it is necessary to update here. According to the authorities this is now the 6th deadliest tornado outbreak on record. 310 fatalities have been recorded and a number of people are still yet to be accounted for (3rd deadliest is 331). The devastation and images that I have seen thus far are truly staggering. To give a sense of scale this is just one of the many confirmed destructive tornadoes and but a fraction of its damage path from aerial survey. The path survey is from Birmingham which is possibly a record setting EF-5 (rating yet to be official but likely it will be IMO as a trained surveyor).
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h8SLdLOAM2c
    A second EF-5 has been rated for the Smithville Missippi tornado, making it the first time since 1990 that two tornadoes of this intensity have occured during the same system. Unfortuantely it appears that a third and possibly a 4th will also be added. The tracks of these tornadoes are actually visible from space such is their extent.
    For a sense of scale in these EF-5 tornadoes, being above ground is not safe or advisable if you were in the path (which may have been over 1 mile (1.6kms) wide). Even basements were not adequate shelter in many cases. With little warning due to communications being knocked out it was like an outbreak in the past. Any house and all but the most fortified or underground buildings are destroyed by tornadoes of this ferocity, they leave slabs of concrete swept clean. Reports I have seen from the damage surveyors thus far suggest that concrete power polls have been snapped at the base, and other things which simply boggle the mind. The death toll from two of these tornadoes alone is in excess of 50 for each. Alabama and the south rarely sees tornadoes of this intensity and so the shelters available were a minimum. Its sad to just keep on hearing this event and the aftermath. I have had a number of enquires from media in the states and have given a few interviews, hopefully the words might do some good for peoples understanding and their willingness to respond to warnings in the future.
    Last edited by Xebadir; 30-04-2011 at 12:23am.

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    Absolutely terrible. Mother nature has really had a Bee in her bonnet lately. I hope the American government handles the situation right.
    Cheers, Paul.
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    That YouTube video link is stunning, not in a good way. I sat and watched it in stunned silence. It seems wrong to say 'thanks' for posting the link.
    "It is one thing to make a picture of what a person looks like, it is another thing to make a portrait of who they are" - Paul Caponigro

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    Just watched the you tube video........ there just are no words.......

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    They are the most extraordinary photo's. Number 9 just stops you. I cannot believe the devastation. Number 17, I cannot imagine walking out of a safe room and finding the world around you gone.

    Thank you for the link, it certainly made me more aware.

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    I know what you mean Rick, its hard to know what to say.

    While I was watching live footage I witnessed an entire house being thrown several hundred feet into the air. I thought for posterity, those who are interested may want to see what one of these violent tornadoes can do, I have chosen this link as it demonstrates the motion and the power withouth being too graphic: CAUTION THE FOLLOWING VIDEO CONTAINS FOOTAGE FROM THE BIRMINGHAM TORNADO, IT MAY DISTURB SOME PEOPLE GIVEN THE EVENTS OF APRIL 27th, HOWEVER CONTAINS NO VISIBLE DAMAGE TO PROPERTY OR PERSONS. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
    http://cnn.com/video/?/video/us/2011...ma.tornado.cnn

    For a side note, I have seen footage from many violent tornadoes of a similar scale, and the dynamic motion of the tornado is amongst the fastest I have seen. It does not surprise me this tornado did so much damage based on this sort of behaviour on the day. The death toll has now been upped to 353 (the vast majority of which are from Alabama) which puts this to the 4th deadliest outbreak in history, and of a scale not seen since an outbreak way back in 1932. One of the more frightening statistics that has recently come to light is that despite the number of dead, approximately 400 people are still missing from the Birmingham/Tuscaloosa area. At this stage with little communication and power it is not known if these people are alive, or amongst the extensive debris field as further fatalities. I am hoping that its just problems with the communication. The count tornadoes thus far is 96 confirmed tornadoes. Many more are yet to be surveyed for damage and there has been extensive debate in rating circles regarding the rating of some of the upper rating storms as to whether they were of the maximum category.

    See here for a slightly dated lump of material from CNN, note the first picture with the damage path through the city for scale.
    http://edition.cnn.com/2011/US/04/28...her/index.html

    I've come across tornado damage paths before, and seen this stuff first hand, and taken images and will only consider taking them if the resident is comfortable or I am on a survey. I generally don't like to post those images or share them as I find them too disturbing and find them exceptionally hard to take, after all you are taking a picture of the remains of someones life. I keep them as a personal reminder of the devastation that I have seen, and use them where possible to help inform people though generally in a physical context (in my presentations) as I feel the online media trivialises it somewhat.

    I will say here that I am trained to a reasonable level to provide first aid for this purpose and certified in CPR, both of which are essential in my opinion as we are often the first ones on the scene (and I don't believe in these so-called human beings who drive past devastated homes with people inside in the name of adrenalin). We leave the dangerous situations to the professionals and try not to get in their way, and offer what little help we are qualified to do so. It is not a pleasant feeling to walk amongst the ruins of someones house yelling out to find out if they are ok. Fortunately I have not run into too serious a situation or a fatality as yet while storm chasing.
    Last edited by Xebadir; 30-04-2011 at 10:15pm.

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    Hey John.
    Every time I see this stuff on the TV I think of you and pray you are safe.
    So please be safe. I am always thankful for what you taught me.
    So John. Please be safe.
    Peter.

    Some of my photo's are at www.peterking.id.au

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    The world has certainly seen its fair share of disasters this year, and we're not even half way through it yet.

    I have often wondered why Americans, especially those that live in tornado areas, continue to build their houses from wood, when brick and concrete would stand up to the tornadoes so much better.

    I hope that the population there will stand together like they did in Queensland with the floods etc., unlike New Orleans where people sat around for days just wondering what to do, and doing nothing. Half of New Orleans hasn't even been touched since Katrina hit them.

    I do feel very sorry for those affected people though, and I hope I never have to go through such an experience.
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    Don't worry Peter, contrary to many of the chasers who have a flagrant disregard for their own safety, to me its one of the key aspects of stormchasing. I would never encourage anyone here trying to imitate what I or others do unless you are aware of the risks, dynamics and situation and how to avoid them. Having spent the amount of years I have learning about meteorology (6.5 years at uni, but I knew a fair bit coming in before I started chasing), and my experience out there chasing storms I would hope I know enough now to keep myself safe, or else I already would have come unstuck. (Have yet to lose a windshield, and thats a fair achievement for a stormchaser over that sort of period). My personal policy is that my partner and I are both aware of the situation to the extent that if either of us don't feel safe we withdraw until we do, do not place ourselves in a vunerable position (Read- You aren't going to see me blindly punching through the core of the storm, trying to stay in front of the tornado, or sitting in the bear cage (have a guess at why its called the bear cage ) of a HP looking for some low contrast tornado to chase me back out. We also have live data most of the time which allows me to have a pretty good appreciation for the situation even if I am blind). Yes, I'll admit that its not exactly a safe thing to do, but neither are many things that people do. The best I can do to ensure my safety is stay aware and have the knowledge I have. If the worst situation arises there is always the option of abandoning the car for shelter (and it does happen). I again emphasise (sorry to harp on but its just safer to say this) "I am a professional meteorologist and fully trained and prepared to deal with the situations arising from storm chasing, and I do not encourage others to emulate or imitate my actions unless they have sufficient knowledge to keep themselves safe."

    The building codes have alot to do with socioeconomic reasons as well as the difficulty of sourcing materials and the fact that even a full brick and mortar house would get flattened by this sort of tornado. I have recently read that along the 132 mile damage path of one of the EF5s, that a corvette was thrown 678 feet from its parked location, and a pickup in the same area has not been found within a mile radius. When that sort of thing is going on a steel reinforced concrete safe room or shelter is the only survivable option. People in Oklahoma City often live there because they are part of the military (OKC is a major army base), people live in some of these states because they are cheap. The probability of a tornado hitting one small area of a city or your home is very low in terms of years of return, so I guess its a calculated risk like living on the Qld coast. One difference to the big easy is that people in the south and through the plains are very much country people, they help each other out.

    Over the 4 day period of the outbreak 190 tornadoes have now been confirmed.
    Last edited by Xebadir; 02-05-2011 at 9:00pm.

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