Despite advanced tech, why are people still being blindsided by tornadoes like the one in Mississippi?

By the time Marilyn Tighman knew that she needed to take cover, the windows in her Rolling Fork home had already smashed and trees outside had cracked in half or uprooted.

She was in her hallway when a rare and deadly tornado barreled through the small west Mississippi town Friday evening, bringing 170 mph winds and golf ball-sized hail.

The three-quarter mile-wide F4 tornado killed over two dozen people during its 60 mile path, making it one of the deadliest to hit the state. Fewer than 0.5% of the 67,000 tornadoes recorded since 1950 have created a path that long, according to National Weather Service data.

A second tornado touched down in Silver City, Miss., and traveled for around 30 miles.

Most don’t make it more than a mile.

Despite its rare size and strength, the Rolling Fork tornado surprised Tighman and others in the community.

“It escalated in speed and size so quickly no one in the community really knew what was coming their way,” said Tighman’s daughter, Laura Allmon. “Mom said if the tornado sirens were going, the wind and debris were so loud she wouldn’t have heard it.”

Other residents claim the sirens were silent.

But are people taking notice of warnings?

When tornadoes appear, warning systems like cell phone alerts and localized sirens usually give people just minutes to either get out of their homes or hunker down in a safe place. The National Weather Service has spent decades improving those systems, hoping to buy people a few extra minutes to find safety.

So, why in an era of advanced meteorology and communication technology, are people still being blindsided by tornadoes?

”Taking severe weather warnings seriously is one of the many challenges we are looking at,” said Kim Klockaw, a meteorologist and behavioral scientist at the University of Oklahoma and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Severe Storms Laboratory. “How do people make that connection that the warning they receive really means that a tornado is very likely to hit?”

There is currently very little data about what people on the ground do with forecasts or if they perceive smaller tornadoes as a deadly threat, according to Klockaw. Awareness because of huge, once-in-a-generation tornado outbreaks is well-known and spoken about across communities. For example, the tornado outbreak of 2011 produced over 350 tornadoes in three days, killing over 320 people is well known in the South.

People know about that. But do they know about the other 800 smaller tornadoes that touchdown on average each year?

“We’re still warning for [smaller tornadoes] the same way as stronger storms,” said Klockaw. “Societal awareness tends to be pretty good after major tornado events but the question we want to know is are people understanding the differences and do they pay attention across the full spectrum of events that happen?”

Part of Klockaw’s research is about trying to help people understand when there is a high chance of a tornado, rather than just a blanket warning that could cover a dozen states and be hundreds of miles away from your location. After enough false alarms and duds, those blanket warnings can create danger apathy.

That’s when people stop taking notice.

One of the technologies that the NWS hopes will help people take notice and make better choices is called probabilistic hazard information.

“With that we’re trying to tell people over the next hour how likely it is that their community could actually be in the path of a storm that produces a tornado,” she said. “That gives people something between a watch and a warning.”

Warnings happen just a couple of minutes before the tornado hits. Watches are usually hours ahead of time and what people have traditionally received. The NWS hopes it will force people to take the warning more seriously while also giving them enough time to get their families together, make a plan and get somewhere else.

In the case of the Mississippi tornado that ripped through Rolling Fork, the NWS issued a rare “tornado emergency” that there was a strong possibility of one in the Lower Mississippi Valley.

“Our new technologies were telling us there was a high probability with the Mississippi storms,” said Klockaw of the rare warning. “Experiments have shown that when people are given that kind of additional context, they are much more likely to take protective action in times when they really need to. That helps them to discriminate a little better and they trust that system more.”

How effective that system was during the Rolling Fork tornado won’t be known until all the data is collected.

Forecasts and warning times

Sirens and radio have historically been useful for people in rural communities. TV weather forecasts gave viewers a visual representation of what to expect, even though meteorologists couldn’t always predict exactly where a tornado might hit. TV warnings remain one of the most popular ways to warn people, according to Klockaw, while radio remains one of the most effective.

But in recent decades, cell phones have become highly effective, provided your phone is set up for such warnings. Not all are.

But regardless of the technology, a warning has to come with enough time.

NOAA claims that its average warning times, also known as lead times, are around 13 minutes. However, their own data shows that between 2016 and 2020, warning times varied between 8-10 minutes. A 2007 study noted that lead times of under 15 minutes increased fatalities by more than 600% on average.

Accurate forecasting has also proven difficult.

While meteorologists are much better at forecasting tornado conditions, they can’t always pinpoint the exact thunderstorm that will produce it. Some storms that seem dangerous may not produce tornadoes, while others will.

“The differences between them could be due to small differences in meteorological variables, such as temperature,” said Chris Nowotarski, an atmospheric scientist at Texas A&M University. “Even changes in the land surface conditions – fields, forested regions or urban environments – could affect whether a tornado forms. These small changes in the storm environment can have large impacts on the processes within storms that can make or break a tornado.”

While it’s conceivable that people in Rolling Fork simply didn’t think the tornado would hit them, there are other reasons why people die during tornadoes today.

Mobile homes, for example, are 15-20 times more likely to be destroyed by a tornado than a conventional home. In Rolling Fork, a trailer park of about 30 homes was blown away by the tornado. Seven or eight people died.

A fifth of the housing stock in Sharkey County, where Rolling Fork is the county seat, are mobile homes, according to census data. On average, a total of 72% of all tornado-related fatalities are in homes and 54% of those fatalities are in mobile homes, according to NWS data.

For people wishing to help those in Rolling Fork and surrounding communities affected by the tornado, PBS has put together a comprehensive list of charitable organizations, including the Salvation Army, the Red Cross, and South Delta Animal Rescue.

Christopher Harress

Christopher Harress |

Climate change reporter on the east and Gulf coasts.

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