My first-hand look at the tornado damage in Alabama

Below is a NOAA Announcement generated by Dr. Jane Lubchenco, Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and NOAA Administrator, concerning her recent visit to Alabama.

May 3, 2011

This past weekend I joined a team of NOAA forensic meteorologists on the ground in Tuscaloosa, Ala., to conduct an official assessment of the destruction meted by last week’s massive cluster of tornadoes — a reported 362 between April 25 and 28 — that killed more than 320 people.

The loss of life from the barrage of storms is tragic and staggering; the news stories of survival and rescue describe terrific feats of heroism, selflessness and compassion.

But, nothing compares with seeing the devastation with your own eyes — in some cases, of whole towns devoured — and meeting with victims to fully comprehend the extraordinary power and lethal destruction that tornadoes can inflict on communities. The random nature of tornadoes was obvious; in some spots we visited, buildings and trees with little perceptible damage stood next to structures that were completely obliterated.

The loss of just one life is one too many. Yet, we know that without the National Weather Service’s prediction and warning capabilities, the death toll would have been much, much higher. Many of the tornado survivors with whom I met went out of their way to thank NOAA for saving their lives. They all mentioned the importance of the early alerts and heads-up that these could be very powerful tornadoes, and the specific warnings that signaled “Get to safety, NOW!”

I came away from this trip with an even greater sense of pride in how the wonderful and talented people at NOAA come together in times of national crisis. We owe an enormous debt of gratitude in particular to our colleagues from NOAA’s Storm Prediction Center who sounded the alarm a full five days in advance via severe weather outlooks, and to staff from NWS Weather Forecast offices in Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia who worked around-the-clock issuing life-saving warnings and alerting local emergency managers, community leaders and the public.  

In some instances, NWS staff phoned local community leaders directly to underscore the severity of the threat that loomed in the final moments before the storms roared through. That got their attention and undoubtedly helped save lives.

Our ability to accurately forecast this battery of tornadoes was made possible, in part, by NOAA’s environmental satellites, which provided critical imagery and data to meteorologists. NOAA’s Office of Marine and Aviation Operations has surveyed the disaster area from the air as part of the official damage assessment. We are also working with local, state and federal officials to help investigate, for instance, why some structures survived the tornadoes and others did not. When it comes to severe weather and how we might adapt to it, we still have much to learn.

Unfortunately, this outbreak does not signal the close of tornado season. May is usually the most active month in terms of tornadoes, and vulnerable regions of the country must remain on high alert. If you don’t know what to do in the event of a tornado, I urge you to read this Tornado 101 primer available at: www.noaa.gov/features/03_protecting/tornados101c.html. Please spread the word to family and friends living in or traveling to storm-prone regions.

To read more about NOAA’s response to last week’s tornado outbreak and our continuing role in the aftermath, I encourage you to check out a special webpage created by NOAA’s Communications and External Affairs team that is replete with the latest statistics and timeline information. You can find it on our homepage, www.noaa.gov. You can also view photos of some of the harder-hit areas I toured in Alabama on my Facebook page, www.facebook.com/noaa.lubchenco.

Sincerely,
Jane Lubchenco signature
Dr. Jane

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