7 March 2019

Thoughts on the Lee County Alabama Tornado: Worthless Sirens and Unsafe Mobile Homes

Posted by Dan Satterfield

Image from NWS Birmingham Al.

I’m hearing the same familiar refrain after the Lee County Alabama tornado last week. Newspaper reports saying there was little warning while residents say they never heard the sirens.

Sirens Are So Last Century

Let’s get the sirens out of the way first. They are not (and never were) designed to be heard indoors. We are talking 1930’s technology, and while some days it may not seem like it, we are living in 2019. People have smart-phones that make Star Trek communicators look old fashioned, and every one of them will alert you to severe weather warnings. Weather sirens are so last century and frankly are a total waste of tax money except in a few specific locations. There are better and more cost-effective ways to alert people to severe weather danger.

Would You Believe,

that TV stations were inundated with complaints about interrupting programming and these continued even after it became clear that a deadly tornado had struck? There were even complaints for days after about missed programs. I’ve been doing TV weathercasts for 39 years and one thing I quickly learned is that these folks are are a very loud minority.

Fact: TV stations will continue to interrupt for tornado warnings. Our policy at WBOC here in Maryland is we interrupt for the duration no matter what when a Tornado Warning is issued. That even includes our own newscasts and most every TV stations have similar policies, In short, you are wasting your time complaining and my friend Dennis Mersereau (a superb science writer) has an excellent piece in Forbes that goes into greater detail on why.

Plenty of Warning

The Storm Prediction Center issued an outlook 24 hours in advance of the tornado that was dead on. They issued a Watch more than 2 hours before the storm and they deserve credit for what I would almost label an eerily accurate forecast. Most residents had at least 9 minutes under a Tornado Warning before the monster cloud with 170 mph winds developed at 2 PM CST last Sunday.

The Tornado Watch was issued by the SPC at 11:40 AM CST. That is over 2 hours before the tornado formed. Read the wording below:

It’s clear that residents had plenty of warning that deadly weather was possible, but 23 died and 90 were injured along the 23-mile path of the EF 4 tornado. Why such a high death toll with all that warning?

Mobile Homes 

I have yet to see a breakdown of the deaths by location, but I can almost guarantee you that most will be in mobile homes. You can survive an Ef 4 tornado in a house if you take good cover, but even an EF 3 will destroy a mobile home. An EF 2 will almost destroy one in many cases. Houses are far safer places to be, and I have a friend who is one of the few people who survived (barely) a direct hit by an EF 5 in a brick home. She was very lucky because most homes will be pulverized by an EF 5.

Harold Brooks (my go-to expert on these kinds of things ) at the National Severe Storms Lab. did a study in the 1990s on the relative risk of death in mobile homes and found that you are 22.6 times more likely to be killed in a mobile home than elsewhere in a tornado. You can read the study here. You can also look at a summary of the deaths over the past ten years (by location) on the SPC website. Note that while only a small percentage of people live in mobile homes they account for an equal number or more of deaths compared to homes.

How Do We Fix This?

For many people in this country, a mobile home is their only affordable option and you can be safe in one if you follow one sensible rule:

Leave for a safe place when a Tornado Watch is issued.

The problem is that few people do, and even fewer know how much greater their risk of death is if they stay. Try passing any type of law informing mobile home buyers of this risk and you will run into a wall of opposition from the manufactured housing lobby.

TV stations often get heat from mobile home advertisers when we meteorologists point out on air that you should leave a mobile home during a tornado watch. I was once forbidden (for nearly a year) while working in Alabama- to read on air the words “abandon mobile homes” that are on every NOAA tornado warning. I was also told to remove it from weather crawls because of complaints from mobile home advertisers.

So good luck passing any kind of regulation to better inform mobile home residents. I’ll believe it when I see it. In the meantime, we will continue to have an inordinate number of deaths in these trailers, and all we can do is keep telling people that you need to leave when severe weather threatens. In most cases, this will only be for a few hours each year, but few will do so. Everyone thinks it will never happen to them until it does.

In the meantime, sirens are not the answer, while the warning from NOAA is a superb example of how incredibly good severe weather prediction has become. It’s a whole new world but many are still living in the old one. We have to fix our mobile home tornado problem, and looking at the faces of those beautiful young kids who lost their lives last Sunday is reason enough.