News From Terre Haute, Indiana

May 29, 2011

MARK BENNETT: Tornadoes stand as catastrophic mileposts in history

Mark Bennett
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — Aforce stronger than mankind rivets the attention of humans.

Fear. Awe. Curiosity.

All of the above.

People don’t forget the sight of a tornado. Even the possibility of such a storm — through a radio, television or online weather alert — compels us to gaze up at the darkened sky and wonder what might happen. These violent, rotating columns of air can contain wind speeds of more than 200 mph, causing tragedy and destruction. This spring’s outbreak of tornadoes, already the deadliest in America since 1953, reminds us of our limitations.

With our sophisticated gadgets and weapons, we like to think we can — to some degree, at least — control everything, from the flow of oil to telemarketing phone calls, other nations’ governments, insects and rodents, traffic, and crime. Yet, in less than 10 minutes, a tornado can demonstrate the true fragility of our dominion. Our Smart Phones and smart bombs can’t stop a tornado; we’re helpless, other than to take cover.

It’s no wonder these storms stand as catastrophic mileposts in history. Terre Haute holds a place on that timeline, albeit with an asterisk. On the list of the deadliest U.S. tornadoes compiled by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, No. 13 is the Easter Sunday twister that hit Omaha, Neb., on March 23, 1913, killing 103 people. Later that evening, the same storm roared eastward and produced another tornado that tore through Terre Haute. Seventeen people died in that tornado, and four more perished in a subsequent flood. Three-hundred homes were destroyed. The total damage was estimated at more than $1 million (or around $21 million in current dollars).

It was “the most dreadful week in Vigo County history,” Terre Haute historian Mike McCormick once wrote.

Tornadoes leave a lasting mark.

Such an uncontrollable event also spawn legends and myths. Most longtime Hauteans have heard the theory that the Wabash River’s valley somehow diverts or dissipates tornadoes, thus shielding the city of Terre Haute. Not true, said Harold Brooks, research meteorologist at NOAA’s National Severe Storms Laboratory in Norman, Okla.

“To be polite, it’s a myth,” Brooks said of the river valley’s storm-neutralizing power.

Many communities think they’re protected by hills, waterways or even ancient spirits. For decades, folks in Topeka, Kan., presumed that a 250-foot hill called Burnett’s Mound (believed to be a Native American burial ground) would prevent a tornado from hitting that town. An F5 tornado (the strongest level on the Fujita Scale of severity) debunked that perception when it rolled over the mound and slammed into Topeka, killing 16 people, Brooks explained. Tornadoes have crossed the Appalachian, Rocky and Sierra Nevada mountains, canyons and rivers. The deadliest tornado in American history — the “Tri-State Tornado” of March 18, 1925 — crossed the Mississippi River and claimed 695 lives.

Topography and legends haven’t repelled tornadoes.

“There’s no evidence any of those things are true,” Brooks said by telephone last week from Norman. “Tornadoes have gone up and down the Continental Divide.”

Some parts of the country get hit more often than others, though. That includes a region infamously known as “Tornado Alley.” There are no official borders to this sector, and the criteria used to define “Tornado Alley” varies. What are the “worst” states for tornadoes? It could be those with the most tornadoes over time. Or those with the most deaths per 10,000 square miles. Or the highest number of deadly tornadoes.

By most measures, Indiana — despite our beliefs — falls outside of the “Alley.” The zone primarily consists of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska, while also touching Iowa, Missouri, South Dakota, Colorado and New Mexico, according to NOAA and the National Climate Data Center. Indiana ranks 18th in the average number of tornadoes per year at 22 (based on figures from 1953 to 2005). The Hoosier state rates “pretty susceptible,” and more so in western Indiana.

On average, Terre Haute can expect one F2 tornado to touch down within a 25-mile radius of the city every five years, Brooks said. Last week, with the painful visions of Monday’s deadly Joplin, Mo., tornado fresh in mind, Hauteans no doubt watched last Wednesday night’s severe thunderstorms roll in, wondering, “Is this the one?”

Each twister, small or immense, represents a rare combination of weather elements. A tornado is a narrow, violently rotating column of air extending from the base of a thunderstorm to the ground, according to the NSSL. Some come from “supercell” thunderstorms, and others don’t. The most dangerous are formed by a supercell thunderstorm, which lasts an hour or longer, feeds off an updraft, and becomes highly organized. Only 1 in 5 supercell thunderstorms produce a tornado, the NSSL says.

“Although they’re devastating and destroy lives, they are a natural phenomenon,” said Greg Bierly, associate professor of geography at Indiana State University.

In the past, Bierly has done some storm chasing. That practice, with its inherent risks, allows meteorologists to study the movements and tendencies of tornadoes, and improve public education and awareness of the storms’ dangers. Since 2006, Bierly has directed the university honors program, and that has curtailed his storm-chasing availability. But, as director of the ISU Climate Laboratory, Bierly continues to analyze tornadoes.

“It’s just a remarkable thing,” he said.

The fury of the storms manifested this spring in Joplin, as well as Oklahoma, Arkansas and Kansas. More than 500 lives have been lost so far in 2011 (the sixth-highest annual toll in U.S. history), and June — another traditionally active month — is yet to come. The general advice for surviving a tornado “to get as low as you possibly can, and put as many walls between you and a tornado as you can,” Brooks said.

Though many people’s concepts of tornadoes are based on movies such as “Twister” or “The Wizard of Oz,” reality is far different, Brooks said. He used an example of a woman who once witnessed a train wreck. Most of our mental images of trains depict cars rolling down a track. In the mishap seen by this woman, a derailed train car rolled end over end.

Likewise, tornadoes upend our assumptions of what people can and cannot control.

“There’s always some things that sort of challenge our understanding of how the world works,” Brooks said.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@