Episode Two – The Tornadoes of 2011

English Transcript

Próximamente transcripción en español

Production team: Elizabeth Smith, Pat Hyland, and Ross Forsyth
Logo design and English transcription: Kathryn Geauer
Spanish trancription: Joseph Trujillo

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Pat Hyland: From the National Weather Museum and Science Center in Norman, Oklahoma, this is “When Did the Storm Begin,” a podcast bringing the history of weather to the forefront. My name is Pat Hyland, Vice Chair for the National Weather Museum and Science Center. Today’s episode: “The Tornadoes of 2011.” 

The United States is no stranger to severe weather, averaging approximately 1000 tornadoes per year nationwide; that’s roughly 80 to 90 percent of the world’s tornadoes. When the right ingredients come together—including wind shear, lift, instability, and moisture—the atmosphere can cook up some pretty significant storms. That recipe has to be especially right when we have tornado outbreaks, and more notably for super outbreaks. The tornadoes of 2011 is the largest, costliest, and one of the deadliest outbreaks on record. Who better to discuss the tornadoes of 2011 than an individual with an encyclopedic knowledge of severe weather, dates, and events, a true severe weather historian. Today we are joined by Don Burgess, OU-CIMMS and NOAA-NSSL research meteorologist, to discuss the tornadoes of 2011. Interviewing Don Burgess once again are a couple of our board members: Ross Forsyth and Dr. Elizabeth Smith. 

Dr. Elizabeth Smith: Can you briefly tell us who you are and why you are an expert on tornadoes? 

Don Burgess: Well, my name is Don Burgess. I live in Norman, Oklahoma. I am retired from the National Severe Storms Laboratory and I’m working part time for the University of Oklahoma these days, trying to keep my hand in meteorology a little bit. And I think I am, if I’m considered an expert it’s because I’m just an old guy. I have been around when lot of these innovations and new things and exciting new things in meteorology have come about. And because of my interaction over the years, some of it’s rubbed off on me.

ES: What was significant about the year 2011 in terms of tornadoes? 

DB: Well, 2011 was a big tornado year. As a matter of fact, it was the second biggest of all times. We had 1703 tornadoes in 2011, and that’s the most ever except for 2004 when we had 1800 tornadoes. So, definitely a big year. Also, not just a lot of tornadoes but a lot of severe tornadoes. A lot of violent tornadoes. We had 553 deaths in 2011, and that’s the average number for 10 years in the modern era. We typically have about 50, and in 2011 we had 553, and that 553 is the second-most all time, and it’s second to 1925, the year we had the tri-state tornado.

ES: 2011 was an active year. There was a significant outbreak during the year. Can you tell us a little bit about it? 

DB: Yes. This outbreak occurred on the 27th of April in the southeast United States, and there were 216 tornadoes that occurred over nine states. And overall, there were 316 fatalities, a very large number. The states that were most affected were Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Georgia. And that event, that single day, produced over 4 billion dollars in damage. And for the year of 2011, we had 26 billion dollars of damage, but we had 4 billion of it on just the one day.

ES: How does this event compare to other outbreaks?

DB: Well, it’s generally recognized as the second largest outbreak that we’ve had. It’s comparable to what’s called the super outbreak from 1974, the one that Ted Fujita among other things is famous for documenting the 1974 outbreak and giving it that name of the super outbreak. They had comparable amounts of tornadoes. Those two outbreaks also had comparable amounts of death and damage. The thing that distinguishes the two outbreaks is that in 1974 we had 63 strong and violent tornadoes, but in the 2011 outbreak, of those 216 tornadoes in one day, only 35 of them were strong and violent. So, there were worse tornadoes in 1974, and therefore we consider it the worst outbreak. Also, this 2011 [sic] outbreak was composed of really two events: there was the morning event, and it didn’t have as many significant violent tornadoes, it had some, but it had a lot of high winds, squall line and high winds. That was important because the power outages that it produced had a negative effect on being able to issue warnings when the afternoon part of the outbreak occurred. That’s the part with the big supercells and the part that had most of the worst tornadoes associated with it. 

ES: You’ve mentioned that the number of deaths in 2011 was significant, but of course death is not the only measure of human impact associated with storms like these. Can you talk a little bit about other human impacts associated with this event?

DB: Sure. And I will go back to the tallies for a minute because that 1974 outbreak had 319 and the 2011 outbreak had 316. Those are our two high points for these outbreaks. The dollar loss in the 2011 outbreak, 4.5 billion. Very high, but it’s about the same as the inflation-adjusted 4.6 billion dollar loss from the 1974 [sic] event. So, they’re still a lot alike. 2011 outbreak was considered I think the worst in just the southeast United States. The 1974 outbreak included the southeast, the mideast, and the midwest. 

ES: What are some differences between individual tornado events and tornado outbreaks?  

DB: The difference between individual events and outbreaks, between having just one bad tornado and having a number of bad tornadoes deals with the environment, deals with the ingredients that produce the bad tornadoes. Typically, they don’t occur over wide areas. They only occur in small areas, and so we just have the isolated bad tornado. But when we have these ingredients—and I’m talking about instability and wind shear—we have those ingredients over broad areas of the country, say across the midwest or across all the southeast US, or across a large portion of the plains, and we can get significant tornado outbreaks across wide areas. 

ES: Did we learn any important lessons from the 2011 outbreak?  

DB: Yes. The one thing, as we’ve talked about, the power outages that occurred in the morning and then the problems that were associated with that in the afternoon, it was clearly seen and documented in the surveys afterwards that all critical facilities need to have  back-up power, and if they don’t, then the system’s not going to function like we know it should. If the police departments and the fire stations and the emergency management people can’t communicate, which they can’t do without power, and they can’t activate the sirens and the other functions, then there’s going to be problems, even if the weather service can produce good warnings. And the weather service was not completely good in this event. There were instances of weather service offices that didn’t have back-up power or the back-up power failed, and there were also instances where either the radars at remote locations or the communication lines to those radars at remote locations failed. So the whole system was stressed by this event. In general, the warnings were good, but not every warning got out to the people who needed it, and that may have had something to do with the loss of life. Then the second thing, and this is a recurring theme, our building practices just aren’t as good as they need to be. Too often, the homes that people live in and these critical facilities that I talked about aren’t as well built as they need to be. And in association with that, we need more shelters for people. Those can be shelters that are in a place for a community, but probably even better than that are shelters people have in their own homes. Those can be underground shelters or those can be aboveground shelters, but in the 2011 outbreak in the southeast US, not a lot of shelters were found that could help people. 

ES: Thanks for talking with us about the 2011 outbreak. I learned something new and I bet our listeners will too. Switching gears a little bit, we’d like to learn some about you and your path in meteorology. So, how did you get into meteorology?

DB: I was born into meteorology, that’s what I tell people. I am a born weather freak, and I lived the first almost 20 years of my life thinking I was the only person in the world like me. When I got up in the morning, the first thing I wanted to do was look out the window to see what the weather was, what was going on. And when our family got a television, I was about eight and a half years old when we did, but when our family got a television, I would come in from the playground or outside playing with my friends to watch the TV weather. That was my favorites television program was the TV weather. 

PH: Alright, I got to interrupt this real quick because this is wild. When I was eight years old, I saved up all my allowance so that I could buy a TV for my room so that I could watch the weather channel all the time. So to hear Don say the same exact thing at his age, it’s pretty cool. I guess that makes me a weather freak now. Okay, back to you, Don. 

DB: And that’s another story altogether about what TV weather used to be like. But I was a weather freak. My parents humored me. When I was young, fairly young, maybe 10, 12 years old, they started letting me go and sit up on the roof of our house in the evenings, we lived in Stillwater, Oklahoma, at the time, so I could watch the thunderstorms, get a better view of the thunderstorms in the distance out on the prairies around Stillwater, and so I was always into weather. And it was not until I got to the University of Oklahoma that I discovered that there were other weather freaks in the world and we were a separate society and we are fanatic about what we do and I have enjoyed being around my fellow weather freak brethren all these years. 

ES: Since you thought you were the only person so strongly into weather, what was it you were planning to do once you went off to college before you met all these others weather folks? 

DB: I was always going to be in meteorology, but when I graduated high school, I only had one problem hindering my meteorology career: that was a lack of money. So, I first went to what was then Central State College, now the University of Central Oklahoma, for my first two years to get the background coursework and then I started in OU in the fall of 1967. And I had a little make up to do because there were more requirements than I could get at Central State. But it was then, in the fall of 1967, that I encounter all these other weather freaks. But I was always interested, I always had the goal of being a meteorologist. 

This weather freak history that I just told you about is something that I mention to students when I have the chance to talk to them. Over time, particularly since we’ve been at the National Weather Center, but some before, I’ve had the chance to talk to students. And when I go out around the country and maybe give a talk, there are people that come up and I talk to people who are interested in being meteorologists. And I tell them that the main ingredient, the main thing they need to do if they want to be a meteorologist is they need to be very interested in the weather. If they are, I think all the rest of it is manageable. I was scared of the math and of the science, I think a lot of these students that I encounter are scared of math and the science, but I tell them I wasn’t a super smart person, I was just willing to work hard because I liked meteorology a lot, and if they like it a lot they can do the same thing. Some of us get the passion maybe when we’re born, but others get the passion when we’re 10 or 12, or they could be an event. My friend Les Lemon, unfortunately recently passed away, I remember about him, I don’t think he was born into meteorology, but they had a very severe tornado in Kansas City in 1957, and it struck the house where he lived, and that changed his life. And he from then on was a weather freak. 

Ross Forsyth: What’s like, is there a stand-out moment in your career, one memory, whether it’s out late at night or doing research and seeing a field experiment or is there anything that sticks out above the others as a picturesque moment of your career in meteorology? 

DB: The biggest moment I would consider would be the beginnings of the Norman Doppler and the first data that we got, we had no real-time displays when we first got data, and we didn’t see it for a few months because we had to go to Houston, Texas, to process the data. Doug maybe have got into all of this, but we had to go to Houston to process the data because in the early 1970s we didn’t have any computers in Oklahoma, even at the University of Oklahoma or anywhere else, that could process something as dense as the timeseries data. We didn’t have any real-time processors, pulse pair processors or anything like that. So, we collected time series data but none of the computers in the State of Oklahoma could take the timeseries data and do the Fourier transforms to get the velocity data without going to NASA in Houston. So the first time we got data and saw it, which was a while after we collected it, I mean I can’t tell you how exciting that was because I had looked at some older Doppler data, which was kind of junky, you know, an old three-centimeter Doppler that NSSL inherited, and it was no good. And this new data was fabulous. So, that was certainly a high point, just seeing that new data. And then a second high point would be when we first saw signatures for tornadoes. First we saw a mesocyclone signature in 1972, we started in late ‘71, in ‘72 we saw mesocyclone signature, a very good one with a tornado, Davis, Oklahoma, and then in 1973, we saw another signature that we didn’t know what it was at first, and we had to do some things to figure it out. And that turned out to be the tornadic vortex signature, the TVS, the gate to gate-to-gate shear that a Doppler radar can see at shorter or moderate ranges when there is a big tornado. Of course we’ve gone so far beyond that now, but those very exciting times when we saw those things. And third, I have to include a personal thing. I think for all of us that are kind of weather freaks and may want to look at storms and chase tornadoes, you know, seeing your first tornado is a very exciting moment. And for me, that was April the 22nd, 1971, not with NSSL, that was with my fellow OU students from the old engineering lab, that’s where meteorology was, in the School of Engineering in those days, and we took off and went out not very far and didn’t know what the heck we were doing, but we lucked out and saw a tornado on April 22nd, 1971. So that was a very exciting thing too.

ES: You’ve described a long and exciting career in weather. What would you say is the biggest advancement or breakthrough in meteorology that you’ve seen during your career? 

DB: Well, I came along in the analog era. I started at the National Severe Storms Laboratory in 1970. We did not have any computers. I saw my first electronic calculator when I went to work at NSSL in 1970 and they had just gotten it. And I’m not talking about a big computer, I’m talking about just a small, what we consider now a small calculator. Although a small calculator then, something that’s now handheld now, was big enough that it took a whole desk when I first saw it, Texas Instrument calculator. So, what to me has revelized [sic] meteorology is going from the slide rule and analog, that’s where I came from, to the digital world we have now where we have all of the computing power. And not only do we have it in mainframe computers like we used to have, but now we have it right on everybody’s desktop. And even here at home while I’m stuck at home in the COVID pandemic world I have access to all kinds of computer output and radar data and satellite data and every kind of weather data in the world so I can go around and play with making my own weather forecasts just like the forecasters do. Course mine probably aren’t as good, but I can play the game because there’s so much available to us in this digital world.

ES: It’s been great talking with you today, Don. Thanks so much for joining us on When Did the Storm Begin, and for all of your contributions to meteorology over the years. Remember, tornadoes can happen anytime, anywhere. Visit ready dot gov [ready.gov] to make sure you have a tornado safety plan today.

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PH: Have an idea for our next episode? Share your ideas and questions for us at info, that’s i-n-f-o, at National Weather Museum dot com [info@nationalweathermuseum.com], or find us on social media. The National Weather Museum and Science Center is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that operates with the generous support of people like you. Help us continue to preserve the history and highlight the future of weather research by donating or becoming a member today. Find out more at www.nationalweathermuseum.com

Next time on “When Did the Storm Begin” we interview Dr. Vanna Chmielewski for an enlightening discussion on lightning. 

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