Wichita A combination of better warning systems and fewer strong tornadoes have brought a sharp drop in deaths during tornadoes so far this year, weather experts said.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association’s Storm Prediction Center said 29 people died in tornadoes across the country through the end of June — about half the average number in the past 30 years.
The death toll includes 13 in Mississippi, six in Ohio, three each in Minnesota and Oklahoma, two in Arkansas and one each in Michigan and Tennessee.
Twenty-one people died in tornadoes last year, but 2008 had 126 deaths from tornadoes — including five in Kansas.
“It’s a comment on how good the warning system is getting,” Mike Smith, president of WeatherData Inc., a Wichita-based subsidiary of AccuWeather, told The Wichita Eagle.
Greg Carbin, warning coordination meteorologist for the Storm Prediction Center, said it has been a mild tornado season, with fewer and less powerful tornadoes.
The low fatality numbers “kind of corresponds to the lack of tornado activity, too,” Carbin said. “We had fewer tornadoes, fewer fatalities, and they’ve been sporadic.”
But Smith said good forecasts and improved warnings systems keep tornado deaths down.
As an example, Smith said, a tornado that hit Mississippi in 1936 without warning officially killed 216 people — although Smith said the death toll likely was well above 400 because the deaths of black people in tornadoes were not counted in the South until the 1950s.
A tornado that hit the same state this April killed 10 people, although it was much bigger and stayed on the ground longer than the 1936 storm.
“That’s an amazing statistic,” Smith said. “There is no question that the warning system is saving lives.”
Only one of this year’s fatalities happened outside of an active tornado watch, Smith said.
“It appears that double-digit deaths” from a single tornado, “which used to be very common, are becoming almost a thing of the past,” he said.
Carbin is not so sure.
He said a large fatality count could still occur at night, or if a strong tornado hit a metropolitan area at rush hour.
“If it happened right about 5 p.m., with traffic backed up and no escape, and a very large, violent tornado moves slowly along the highway, carnage could result,” Carbin said. “We haven’t seen anything like that in many years.”