The tornado disaster in Moore, Okla., last week bore some striking similarities to the tornado tragedy that befell Joplin, Mo., in May 2011. Both tornadoes had winds greater than 200 mph. The population of Moore is 55,000; Joplin's was 50,000. Both tornadoes hit in the daylight in late May.
And yet, the death tolls were markedly different. In Joplin, 161 people were killed. In Moore, 24 people died.
Meteorologist Mike Smith compared the two disasters last week and, using Joplin as a benchmark, determined that the death toll in Moore should have been higher. So what made the difference?
As Smith observed in the Washington Post, the warning process didn't go well in the Joplin disaster. The National Weather Service got the location and movement of the Joplin tornado wrong in its warnings. Sirens blared inconsistently. And the rain-wrapped tornado was at times hard to identify. (Smith wrote an entire book about the Joplin disaster called "When the Sirens Went Silent.")
Not so in Moore. One big lifesaver was the television coverage. All of the TV stations in town covered the tornado as it approached, broadcasting live video of the twister taken by storm chasers and helicopters. Even the Weather Channel showed a live feed from an Oklahoma City station's chopper.
Moore resident Terimy Miller was at home with her three sons as the twister approached. She heard a local weatherman on TV advise those without underground shelters to vacate their homes. She ushered her sons into their car and fled. The four of them survived, CNN reported. Their house did not. The TV coverage helped.
My friend James Spann, the lead meteorologist at ABC 33/40 in Birmingham, Ala., agrees. A veteran of more than 30 years in the business, Spann covered the April 2011 tornado outbreak in Alabama that produced 62 tornadoes and killed 247 people. He was impressed by the TV news coverage in Oklahoma.
"I thought the Oklahoma City meteorologists were professional and strong communicators prior to the tornado moving through Moore," he told me. "There was no panic and they all kept their composure. In my book, they are heroes and to be congratulated on a job well done."
After numerous tornado outbreaks nationwide in 2011, meteorologists began teaming up with social scientists to better understand the tornado warning process. One important result, Spann said, is that we have a better understanding of how people respond to different kinds of TV reports.
"The live chopper video was excellent," he said. "We know that people react much better to live video of a tornado as compared to radar images."
Many television stations nationwide don't employ helicopters in their severe weather coverage, whether for budgetary reasons or because tornadoes in the Southeast are obscured by rain. "We generally can't fly helicopters here in Alabama due to the high precipitation nature of our storms," Spann said.
Instead, stations have added more roof-mounted sky-cams. Still, there is a need for more. "We must all do a better job of getting cameras on tornadoes, since we know the reaction will be stronger and more immediate," Spann said. "Of course, we know that isn't always possible due to terrain, rain-wrapped tornadoes, and the ones that come at night."
Another issue is that many people in tornado-prone areas have become desensitized to tornado warnings. There have been too many false alarms. The more often people believe they are in danger and no tornado materializes, the less likely the are to respond to a warning in the future. But here, too, things are improving.
"The good news," Spann said, "is that most National Weather Service offices in tornado-prone areas have worked hard to lower the false alarm ratio over the past two years."
The Moore tornado death toll could have been much higher. The warning process worked well. But our work isn't done. More improvements need to be made so we can reach our ultimate goal when a powerful tornado strikes: not a single life lost.
Meteorologist Renny Vandewege has worked as a television meteorologist at WTOK in Meridian, MS, and KCTV in Kansas City, Mo. He's an instructor of broadcast meteorology at Mississippi State University. He covered Hurricane Katrina, and as a storm chaser, he has witnessed more than 40 tornadoes.
PHOTOS ON SKYE: Massive Tornado Devastation in Moore, Oklahoma