Even as a series of violent storms were raking the Midwest and South last Wednesday, weather forecasters were warning that another round of storms, potentially more powerful, would be forming to threaten an even wider area in less than 48 hours.
The setup for such an extreme weather event was in place a clash between the cold and warm air producing thunderstorms and the instable atmosphere capable of spawning tornadoes. Although 40 persons lost their lives in last week's storms, the advanced warnings saved many of the affected areas from suffering even more casualties.
Cool, split-second decisions during times of great stress can mean the difference between life and death and there were some stirring examples of it last week. There was the Indiana school official who decided to release students early so they could be with family in their own homes. The district's middle school took a direct hit and was flattened shortly after the students were released.
One bus driver also made a life-and-death decision. He dropped off all but one last rider and with the storm pressing down, he led that last child out of the bus and back into the school for shelter. Seconds later the twister picked up the bus like a toy and then deposited it in a crumpled heap.
Last Friday's tornadic activity was one for the record books. The 80 reported sightings of twisters over an 11-hour stretch marked one of the worst tornado outbreaks in early March on record. That was more tornadoes in one day than typically occur over the entire month.
Although we know how tornadoes form, it's almost impossible to predict when one will develop. One forecaster said that in order to predict a tornado at a specific place and time, sensors are needed not only on the ground but also extending to the upper atmosphere a mile or two above the Earth and placed every 10 miles. That would be just too costly, he explained.
For now, Doppler radar is the best tool we have to warn us about a tornado threat. The same kind of technology that police use to can catch a highway speeder uses light and sound waves to determine wind direction, and can reveal any rotation as a storm intensifies.
Also, the five satellites orbiting 22,000 miles over the Earth take snapshots of cloud formations every few minutes. This information can help detect tornadoes as they are forming.
One weather expert said that just as a doctor reads an X-ray, trained meteorologists study the images for cloud structures which are often associated with tornadoes.
We've certainly have come a long way since the "Tri-State Tornado" this country's most destructive twister ever slammed through Missouri on March 18, 1925. Radio news was still years away from becoming a tool to warn people about severe weather. Thus, this storm churned through the state for five hours, cutting a 300-mile path of destruction and leaving 689 dead, 3,000 injured and thousands more homeless.
Credit today's improved forecasting technology and the cool judgment of heroic individuals with keeping last week's storms from being even more deadly.
By Jim Zbick