‘Dixie Alley’ has high frequency of killer tornadoes

Seventy-three years ago, on October 26, 1941, an F-4 tornado roared through residential Hamburg, killing 14 and injuring 200, 25 critically. After an abnormally warm and humid late October day, the tornado hit at a few minutes before midnight with no warning to sleeping residents.

October is a good time to remember that severe weather is almost as likely to occur in the fall months as in the spring, particularly in Southeast Arkansas. The last tornado fatality in Drew County occurred on Oct. 17, 1980, and the last tornado fatality in Chicot County happened on Oct. 22, 1979. The last tornado related injury in Lincoln County occurred Oct. 17, 2007. The last death resulting from a tornado in Southeast Arkansas occurred when an F-3 tornado struck Wilmot, killing three residents, shortly after 1 a.m. November 24, 2001.

killer tornadoes
Image Credit: Walker Ashley, Northern Illinois University

Although “Tornado Alley”, Texas, Oklahoma, and the Plains states, have more frequent tornadoes, “Dixie Alley” or the Mid-South states have a higher relative frequency of killer tornadoes.

According to Northern Illinois University meteorologist Walker Ashley, “The country’s most vulnerable region for tornado-related fatalities and killer tornado events basically stretches from Little Rock to Memphis to Tupelo to Birmingham.”

Walker’s and others’ studies have focused on specific vulnerabilities, citing, as expected, a high density of mobile homes in Arkansas, Mississippi, Tennessee and Alabama, and heavily forested terrain that prevent the public and spotters from visually seeing the tornado. These studies have also identified fall-winter and nocturnal tornadoes as a major contributing factor to higher fatality rates. Whereas the public has a heightened awareness of severe storm and tornado potential in the traditional spring “tornado season,” complacency exists to the same threat in the fall and winter months.

Nocturnal Tornadoes
Image Credit: Walker Ashley, Northern Illinois University

Night time or nocturnal tornadoes which occur more frequently during the fall and winter months are 2.5 times more likely to result in fatalities as are tornadoes that occur during the day.

Arkansas is second following Tennessee in the relative percentage of tornadoes occurring at night. The major contributing factor for the elevated fatality risk is that while sleeping, most people are not alert to warnings issued by the National Weather Service.

Severe weather warnings have greatly improved over the past few years following the introduction of Doppler weather radar, but even the best warnings are not effective if people do not hear them and react to them.

The simplest, most effective, and the cheapest (many models cost less than 25 dollars) remedy to lower the fatality rate for nocturnal tornadoes is for every home to have at least one NOAA Weather Radio Receiver. The radio receiver turns itself on and sounds a loud alarm when a watch or warning is issued to the listener’s area. Even if a person is asleep or otherwise occupied, they will be alerted immediately to weather danger as the NWS operates twenty-five transmitters in Arkansas.

It is likely that several more episodes of severe weather could threaten Southeast Arkansas before the year’s end. During this month, Arkansas has already experienced three rounds of severe weather. Although, according to the NWS Little Rock, this has been a below average year for the number of tornadoes, twenty with nine occurring in October, it has been a deadly year in Arkansas with seventeen tornado deaths, four deaths from thunderstorm winds, and one death from lightning.

Further reading:

Fall severe weather information

2014 Storms

NOAA Weather Radio

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