By Brendan Loy
CNN Breaking News:
Severe storms are ripping through parts of the South, leaving at least 31 people dead and damaging an untold number of homes and businesses, authorities said.
At least 25 people have died across Alabama, Emergency Management Director Art Faulkner said.
Video showed a massive funnel cloud darkening the sky in Tuscaloosa. “It literally obliterated blocks and blocks of the city,” Mayor Walter Maddox said.
Even as officials assess the damage, forecasters said more powerful storms are moving east and threatening parts of Georgia and eastern Tennessee.
UPDATE: Videos added. And here’s another clip, showing the Tuscaloosa tornado with Alabama’s Bryant-Denny Stadium in the foreground:
And here’s a first look at the aftermath:
With a massive and powerful mile-wide tornado, looking to be an EF4 or EF5, going through two major cities (Tuscaloosa and Birmingham), causing immediately apparent devastation — plus dozens of other tornadoes across the South in what’s being called one of the worst outbreaks in American history — am I wrong to worry that the final death toll will be in the hundreds?
(A single tornado hasn’t killed more than 100 people in the U.S. since 1953, per Wikipedia. A tornado outbreak hasn’t done so since the Super Outbreak of 1974, which this is already being compared to. That event spawned a single-day record 148 tornadoes, and killed between 315 and 330 people.)
More photos here.
MORNING UPDATE: As of early Thursday, the death toll is now at 173, and certain to rise further. I’m confident it will top 200, which is why I’m saying “hundreds” in my headline. I just wrote this over at my Tumblr blog:
The scale and magnitude of destruction caused by yesterday’s tornadoes is almost more reminiscent of a hurricane than a typical tornado event. I hope the government officials tasked with responding to this disaster, and less importantly the national media, fully grasp this fact. Watching the incredible and horrifying videos from Tuscaloosa and elsewhere, I don’t know how they could miss it. But after Katrina, I never underestimate the ability of the government and media to miss the bloody obvious when it comes to grasping the scope of a natural disaster. In any event, this is unlike anything in my lifetime — the Super Outbreak of April 3, 1974, which spawned the famous Xenia, Ohio tornado, is pretty clearly the only analog in recent decades — and the aftermath will be very, very different from that of a “typical” tornado outbreak. It will require a defcon-1 level response from the authorities, and it’s the sort of thing that ought to swamp all the national media noise about insubstantial fluff issues (birth certificates, royal weddings, etc.) and spur “flood the zone” coverage for days. It’s that big of a deal.
Typically, tornadoes, although very powerful — at their worst, tornadoes’ winds easily exceed those of the strongest hurricanes — only affect a relatively small area of land, cutting a narrow path and lasting for a fairly short period of time. So while they might utterly devastate a small area, the damage they cause is limited by the relatively small amount of territory they affect. This is the fundamental difference between tornadoes and hurricanes, from a damage assessment perspective. It’s also the fundamental reason why tornadoes rarely hit cities: not because cities have some magical tornado-repelling power, but because the vast majority of this country’s land area (especially in the most tornado-prone states) is non-urban, and the odds of a powerful tornado’s small path of destruction happening to intersect with a heavily populated area are fairly low as a result.
But when you get a massive, mile-wide, EF4 or EF5 tornado that lasts for hours and impacts four states, as the Tuscaloosa/Birmingham tornado did, the math changes. And, even as long-lasting, massive, powerful tornadoes go, that one took an exceptionally terrible track. And it happened on a day where there were 100+ other tornadoes, at least several of them also huge and very powerful! Simply incredible.
The death toll should certainly be a clue to the highly unusual nature of yesterday’s disaster. I was about to write “it will almost certainly reach triple digits today,” but now I see, via Jim Cantore, that it’s already at 173, so there you go. The near-certainty of a huge, triple-digit death toll was immediately apparent to me when I saw those videos last night. I hope I’m wrong, but I bet we’ll end up in the 300s, just like the Super Outbreak. This is already, by far, the largest death toll from a U.S. tornado outbreak since that one; there hasn’t been another triple-digit death toll since then. I also wouldn’t be surprised if the Tuscaloosa/Birmingham tornado ends up being the deadliest single U.S. tornado since the 1940s or 1950s.
Just an incredible, terrible disaster for the folks affected. Keep them in your thoughts and prayers today.
UPDATE, 8:54 AM MDT: My confidence that the death toll would top 200 has been sadly vindicated, far more quickly than I expected. We’re already at 231 and counting. I just posted an update over at the late Alan Sullivan’s rare readers’ blog. It includes this:
[P]er Wikipedia, the death toll surpasses that of every U.S. hurricane not named Katrina since 1969, and maybe since 1938 (Camille killed 256 in ‘69; yesterday’s death toll may well exceed that). … [Yet] when I turned on my TV this morning, the first thing I saw was CNN interviewing Reince Prebius about Donald Trump, which is just completely ridiculous. Is it even conceivable that, on the morning after a major hurricane landfall (with a death toll of, say, 30), the cable news networks wouldn’t be doing wall-to-wall coverage? Of course not. Yet here we have something far worse, and it’s being treated like a run-of-the-mill story. What do we have a 24-hour news media for, if they can’t be bothered to prioritize coverage of a catastrophe like this? Perhaps a bunch of Northern media types think “oh gee, a bunch of tornadoes in the South, how original,” and assume the death toll was caused by an abundance of hicks in trailer parks. Whatever the reason, it’s inexcusable.
P.S. Some newspaper front pages from Alabama, via the Newseum:
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