When the great “Dixie Tornado Outbreak” of April 2011 ripped through the Deep South, I remember being absolutely appalled that over 300 lives were snuffed out.
How could that happen, I wondered, in this era of sophisticated weather prediction, detection and warning systems? You had to go back to 1936, into the “Dark Ages” (my term) of meteorology, to find a higher death toll in a multi-day outbreak: 419, Tupelo, Mississippi, to Gainesville, Georgia.
But back to 2011. Earlier that year, a violent twister snatched away 158 lives in Joplin, Missouri. Prior to that, the record holder for a single city was Woodward, Oklahoma: 181 deaths in 1947.
This year I watched in horror the video of The Weather Channel’s tornado chase vehicle tumbling, seemingly endlessly, through a field near El Reno, Oklahoma, after being attacked by a real-life monster, an EF-5 twister. Inside the doomed SUV, Mike Bettes, a seasoned chaser and former colleague of mine, believed he was measuring his remaining life span in seconds.
Mike walked away. But four others, three veteran researchers and an amateur chaser, weren’t so lucky that day. All were killed by the same vicious storm that snatched at Mike. Again, the notion struck me: How could this happen? These guys, except maybe for the amateur, were experienced chasers who knew what they were doing.
This week, events in Arizona—-the loss of 19 Hotshot firefighters, the best in the business—-dredged up similar thoughts. How could this happen?
I’m not a firefighter. But I grew up in the land of big timber, the Pacific Northwest, and began my professional career in meteorology as a Weather Bureau (really dating myself) Fire Weather forecaster. Although I didn’t remain in Fire Weather, I’ve always been fascinated by it.
I’ve studied the events surrounding legendary wildfires: the great Tillamook Burn, a blaze in western Oregon in 1933 that “blew up,” incinerating 420 square miles of forest in just 20 hours; the Mann Gulch blow-up in western Montana in 1949 that killed 13 smoke jumpers; and the Storm King Mountain disaster in Colorado in 1994 that claimed 14 firefighters.
Why do such tragedies continue to plague us in this day and age? I honestly don’t know, but it disturbs me. We’ve had so many events to learn from. We have a plethora of capability and technology working in our favor. And yet . . . .
Have there been failures in judgement? Have we grown complacent (i.e., It can’t happen here or It can’t happen to me)? Have we gotten over confident to the point of hubris? Or are such disasters merely inevitable as we live with, poke at, and combat Mother Nature? If nothing else, our growing population has provided the furies of our environment an ever-expanding target list.
Yes, the deadly incidents of the past few years have unnerved me. I don’t know if the tragic death tolls are a trend or an anomaly. Either way I wonder—-and maybe it’s just the novelist in me, viewing the dark side of things—-what it means for hurricanes. Are we primed for a major disaster? Yes, there was Katrina, but that was more a man-made tragedy (levee failure) than a natural one.
Allow me to express my concern this way: Is something worse than Hurricane Audrey looming in our future? Audrey, a violent Gulf Coast hurricane, thundered into southwest Louisiana in 1957 sweeping away over 500 souls. A huge number by modern standards.
Several years ago, I would have thought we’d never see another death toll rivaling Audrey’s, at least a toll directly attributable to surge and wind.
Now—-despite all we’ve learned about hurricanes, despite our improved ability to forecast them, despite modern communications—-I’m not so sure.
The recent calamitous events surrounding tornadoes and wildfires belie any confidence I once harbored that we have truly made things safer for ourselves. That we can deal with, escape or hide from the dangers of the natural world.
Apparently we can’t. And that’s why I’m worried about a hurricane disaster.
IMAGE: Hurricane Audrey’s track, NOAA.