Looking Back: The United States’ 2011 Tornado Season

Were the technologists wrong?

For many years, and especially after the deployment of Doppler weather radar, technologists and emergency managers have generally assumed that the kind of mass tornado fatalities and injuries that used to occur with some frequency in prior decades were a thing of the past.

The built-in assumption was now that we could see severe weather minutes and hours in advance, and could alert a threatened population through television, radio, a network of warning sirens to take protective measures. More recently, advances such as push notifications (“reverse 911”) for traditional and mobile phones and social media were supposed to have increased the margin of safety.  More accurate and rapid alerting were supposed to make substantial loss of life far less likely, if not impossible.

So what then explains the US Tornado season in 2011?  There were at least  504 confirmed fatalities, which made this the deadliest season in the United States since 1974.  The April 23rd 2011 EF-5 that struck Joplin, MO was the single deadliest tornado in the United States since 1947.

The rescues have long since ended and the debris removed, but the emergency technology community still has to take a hard look at what happened here.  Had this been a fundamental failure of monitoring and alerting technology?  Were people unaware of the danger that was upon them?  Or are there other reasons that may explain why so many were injured and killed?

I’m not necessarily talking about the frequency of tornadoes – those will vary and the climate scientists will have to tell us whether the 2011 season had been unusually active or of an unusual severity.

Regardless of the ultimate reasons, we have to throw away the assumption that modern technology has made mass casualties due to tornadoes highly improbable.  We still need answers .  The public still deserves them.

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One thought on “Looking Back: The United States’ 2011 Tornado Season

  1. Great first posts! As for the use of technology in the alerting process, I don’t believe that this trend will stop. Authorities must now realize that they are in an era of message competition and not control. This goes for notifying the public too. What they must take advantage of (and NWS study done after Joplin confirmed this) is the fact that people pay more attention to info they receive from friends and families through social networks than they do to sirens for example. Agencies have got to insert themselves into this network of trust and get their messages amplified that way.

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