A woman carries her child through a field near the collapsed Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, Oklahoma. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
Many heroes asserted themselves in Oklahoma yesterday, from the first responders digging through the rubble for survivors, to the teachers who shielded children from the massive tornado that touched down as the school day was ending.
While perhaps not as heralded, certainly the experts at the National Weather Service deserve some credit for saving lives as well. One of the best ways to prevent high body counts when tornadoes barrel through populated areas is to warn residents ahead of time—which is the job of the NWS. They did it well yesterday, issuing early warnings allowed countless people to seek shelter before mayhem arrived.
But the NWS has, in recent years, suffered under serious budget restraints placed on it by deficit hawks in Congress and the White House. Far from the public view, the NWS is starting to come apart at the seams—and the full effects of the sequester haven’t even been felt yet. So what if, next time, the NWS isn’t able to do its job as well?
The tornado in Oklahoma yesterday provides a good case study for both the crucial import of the NWS’s work and the very small margin for error. Tornadoes present a particular challenge because, while the conditions that create them are easily identifiable—warm, moist air from the gulf colliding with warm, dry continental air and cold, dry air from the Rockies—the tornadoes themselves are incredibly unpredictable. Scientists still are not sure why some thunderstorms produce them and others do not.
The tornado simply appears, almost out of nowhere. In Oklahoma, it was well over a mile wide, with furious 200 mile per hour winds shredding most everything in its path, which, it quickly became apparent, would include a densely populated suburb. This is what it looked like:
This is a terrifying experience for most involved, but not an uncommon one in America—in fact, 75 percent of all tornadoes occur here. This map from the Smithsonian shows fifty-six years of tornado strikes and the path they took:
When a tornado appears, the National Weather Service sounds the alarm. In Oklahoma on Monday, the alert came sixteen minutes before the tornado actually touched the ground, which is three minutes more than the thirteen-minute average warning the NWS provides. It triggered emergency broadcast alerts throughout the region and blaring air-raid sirens that allowed hundreds of thousands of people to seek shelter.