Tornadoes in the South
Out of the whirlwind
The South cleans up after the deadliest storms in 86 years
May 5th 2011 | JEFFERSON COUNTY, ALABAMA | from the print edition
PLEASANT RIDGE BAPTIST CHURCH, set on a busy commercial street in Hueytown, a dozen miles south-west of Birmingham, was open for business. So was the Dairy Queen across the street, and the nearby Publix grocery store. Traffic was thick on Hueytown Road. But the church’s business was not strictly ecclesiastical. It was also serving as a Red Cross shelter for those left homeless just a few miles away. Church members were collecting donations of clothes, water and toiletries. And at the Publix, signs at the checkout counters told shoppers they could help their neighbours with donations added to the cost of their groceries.
Such is the nature of tornadoes: even large ones rain intense destruction on relatively small areas. The one that ran from Tuscaloosa north-east to Birmingham was immense, 1.5 miles across and 80 miles long, with winds exceeding 165 miles per hour. Parts of Alabama were utterly ruined, but most of the state was untouched. More than 300 tornadoes tore through the region between April 25th and 28th, an unprecedented number. They killed around 340 people in seven states, with the bulk of the deaths in Alabama. Not since 1925 have more people been killed by tornadoes in a single day, and not since Hurricane Katrina has there been a deadlier natural disaster in America.
Craig Fugate, who heads the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), says that comparing the tornadoes to Katrina is “comparing apples to oranges…each disaster is different, and you respond to the disaster you’re dealing with.” As a matter of meteorology, Mr Fugate has a point. Katrina affected an area roughly the size of Great Britain and made landfall six days after it formed. Tornadoes are smaller; they form and die more quickly. Gregory Carbin, the warning-co-ordination meteorologist at the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Centre, says that last week’s storms were of a once-in-a-century severity, and afforded some of those hit as little as 20 minutes’ warning.
As a political matter, however, the comparison is hard to avoid. FEMA came under withering criticism for its slow and poorly co-ordinated response to Katrina, particularly to the flooding of New Orleans. Its performance this time was swifter and surer. The agency had emergency response teams in place in Hoover and Tuscaloosa by April 29th, working in co-ordination with Alabama’s emergency operations centre around 55 miles south of Birmingham. Barack Obama declared major disasters in Alabama on April 28th, in Mississippi on the 29th, Georgia on the 30th and Tennessee and Arkansas after that, making federal funds available to individuals, state and local governments.
By Monday several cabinet members as well as the president had visited Alabama. FEMA expects to move into a joint field office, housing all federal responders, by week’s end; it too will remain open as long as necessary.
Just what that means is unclear: rebuilding may take years. It will also be expensive in a region that can ill afford it: Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and Mississippi were all projecting budget shortfalls for next year already. Clean-up costs alone in Jefferson County, home to Alabama’s largest city, may exceed $400m. The only consoling news, says Mr Carbin, is that “we know what happened is pretty rare.” Unfortunately, while an unusually large number of tornadoes struck this April, on average May is the more active month.