'07 Tornado Season Is Deadliest in Eight Years
The residents of Greensburg, Kan., were allowed to return to their town Monday, and were given a few hours to salvage what they could.
They aren't likely to find much. The tornado that tore through Greensburg on Friday night destroyed up to 95 percent of the town, and, with two bodies found Monday, has so far claimed 10 lives. It also smashed tornado records, standing out as an unusually bad twister in an unusually bad year. But experts say it's tricky to determine how unusual a tornado is and that trends so far give little information about what the residents of the Great Plains can expect in the rest of May and June, which typically produce the brunt of tornado activity.
At 1.7 miles wide, with winds estimated at 205 mph, the tornado was the first F-5the highest categoryclassified since May 1999. But that distinction is suspect, says Dan McCarthy, a meteorologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Storm Prediction Center. The system for categorizing tornadoes is largely based on the degree of damage they cause, and twisters of equivalent size and wind speed that miss populated areas most likely would not get the highest categorization.
Even if the strength of the twister was not as anomalous as it seems, its 10 deaths raise to 73 the number of people who have died so far this year in tornadoes, the most since 1999. Making matters worse, several months of expected peak tornado activity still lie ahead.
Twisters were unusually frequent in February and March, and May is off to a big start, says Harold Brooks, a meteorologist at the NOAA's National Severe Storms Laboratory. But 2006 also had unusually high tornado activity early in the year, belying a relatively calm May and June. Though those months typically have the highest numbers of tornadoes, they tend to be weaker and less fatal than those earlier in the year.
"We may well be most of the way through the death year," Brooks says.
Since 1990, yearly tornado deaths have ranged from a low of 25 in 1996 to a high of 130 in 1998. No year in recent decades has come close to a 16-hour period in April 1974, when the so-called "super outbreak" of 148 tornadoes carved up 13 states, causing 330 deaths.
But the number of lives lost is a bad indicator of the frequency of tornadoes, since many areas where twisters are common are sparsely populated. Had the Greensburg tornado formed a few miles away from the town in any direction, there may well have been no casualties at all, Brooks says.
If anything, McCarthy says, the death count from the tornado suggests the strength of the current warning system. Though the storm demolished nearly every building except the town's grain elevator, only 10 of the town's 1,500 residents were killed.