Alabama tornadoes: Lessons learned from response efforts

Lee County, Alabama, emergency management director addresses how fire departments can prepare for the increased severity of tornado events

On March 3, 2019, an EF-4 tornado ripped through Lee County, Alabama, killing 23 people and injuring many others. The tornado had winds of 170 mph and a track nearly a mile wide. Twenty-seven minutes later, an EF-2 tornado thundered down virtually the same path.

The Deep South is no stranger to tornadoes. Although many people associate tornadoes with Plains states like Kansas and Oklahoma, Texas has the highest annual number of tornadoes on average, and Florida is fourth for frequency of the storms. No other place on earth experiences more tornadoes than the United States.           

But even though Alabama has always had its share of tornadoes – historically it ranks 11th for frequency among the states – storms in recent years have been more severe, more frequent and more deadly. In 2011, massive tornadoes with winds over 200 mph tore through the state, killing 238 people and injuring over 2000. Since 1950, Alabama has suffered more tornado fatalities than any other state.

First responders walk through a neighborhood heavily damaged by a tornado a day earlier in Beauregard, Ala., Monday, March 4, 2019.
First responders walk through a neighborhood heavily damaged by a tornado a day earlier in Beauregard, Ala., Monday, March 4, 2019. (AP Photo/David Goldman, File)

The impact of climate change

Is climate change affecting the increase in tornadoes in places like Alabama? Researchers consider several factors when analyzing the pattern of storms in recent years. Weather and climate scientists have confidence in the parallels between tornadoes creeping south and east and global climate change but are less convinced that climate change is increasing the number of tornadoes overall. However, changes in climate patterns have been linked to increased severity in storms. And as of April 2019, Alabama had already experienced more tornadoes than it does in an average year.

Regardless of the cause, how can fire departments and emergency response agencies prepare for the increased severity of tornado events? Lee County, Alabama, can share some lessons from its recent experience.

Lee County’s tornado preparation and response

Lee County has an area of 607 square miles, with a population of approximately 160,000, and includes two fully paid fire departments – Auburn and Opelika – and seven combination departments. The last significant tornado event in the county occurred in 2014, when an EF-3 tornado touched down in Salem, resulting in 13 injuries but no fatalities.           

On March 3, 2019, emergency responders in Lee County knew that severe weather was coming. The National Weather Service had been issuing alerts for days as weather systems developed. A tornado watch was issued for the county earlier in the day. But once tornadoes were confirmed and a warning was issued, most people had less than ten minutes to find shelter.

“We are constantly trying to push the information out for people to take those steps ahead of the tornado warning,” said Lee County Emergency Management Director Kathrine Carson. “You’re so limited by the time that warning goes out, for a multitude of reasons."

Those reasons may include the fact that travel is dangerous or impossible at the height of a storm, as well as the reality that many people may not have anywhere to go that they perceive to be safer than where they are. Carson noted that 88 people did take shelter in the basement of a church in Beauregard, the community hardest hit by the tornado. This was a higher number than during other tornado watches. “So maybe the message did reach some people,” she said.

The EF-4 tornado ripped through Lee County, Alabama, killing 23 people and injuring many others.
The EF-4 tornado ripped through Lee County, Alabama, killing 23 people and injuring many others. (Photo/Keith Padgett)

First responders were already en route to the devastation from the first tornado when the second one hit. “It gave us a sick feeling in our stomachs,” Carson reported when the second warning was broadcast. “Where would they go? There were some first responders that were lying flat in a ditch at that point. That’s about all you can do.” Fortunately, no first responders were injured.

With an abundance of information being put out about the storm, why did many people stay where they were, some with tragic consequences? Carson talked about the fact that tornado watches are a fairly common occurrence in that part of the country. People may become complacent about the real risk. Finding a way to emphasize the danger to people, as well as giving them information about specifically what to do, are challenges facing the Lee County Emergency Management Agency. Long-range planning could also include the construction of tornado shelters that are more proximate to the communities at greatest risk. Grant support could help to finance this effort.

More effective communication on multiple levels may be the key to more lives saved in the future. Certainly the warnings that occurred during the event saved lives downwind from where the tornado first struck. “The National Weather Service buildup prior to this event saved lives,” Carson said. “We had more people go to a safer location.” She attributes this in part to the fact that stronger, more urgent language was used to describe the imminent storm. “It got people’s attention.”

Another lesson being carried forward from this event is the importance of speaking the same language among emergency responders. Carson talked about the need to have more precise information from the field: “People say ‘we need everything.’ But for different fire departments, ‘everything’ means different things.”

She also emphasized the need to gather information before a major disaster occurs: “Having been through this, everyone has a better idea what they might need.”

Carson talked about sitting down at least once a year with all leaders of county emergency response agencies to go over specifically what they would need if a disaster of similar magnitude takes place, and how those needs might have changed in the past year.

“It’s not the same”

A storm of this magnitude can be devastating, not only with the immediate injuries and deaths, and the damage to community infrastructure, but also with the long-term recovery and rebuilding efforts.

Carson described a community in Lee County that is still reeling from the events of March 3: “It’s not the same,” she said. “We’re still in long-term recovery. We’ve always known that this could happen. It’s just never happened here before.”

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