That’s, on average, how much time you have to save your life once the weather service pulls the trigger on a tornado warning.
If you’ve planned for this kind of thing ahead of time, 13 minutes is an eternity. Waiting under the stairs in the basement, the hallway closet, the bathtub...waiting for the worst, hoping for the best.Time stands still.
If you haven’t planned for this kind of thing before now...13 minutes is like 13 seconds. In 13minutes, you become a structural engineer, trying to determine the safest hiding place in your house.
Jesus Christ goes from obscenity to friend in13 minutes.
I’ve been there too, man. Scrunched up under the stairs with the Christmas ornaments, thinking about all of the countless times I’ve been hiding in this very same spot, waiting for a tornado that never came. Praying that this is just another drill and not a disaster.
Did you know, despite all that we’ve accomplished with regard to scientific discovery, that we still cannot identify that rogue element of nature—the sadist in the sky—that turns clouds into killers? We don’t have a plausible reason for why a thunderstorm would be so bold as to reach itself down from the sky and into our neighborhoods. It’s an honest-to-God mystery.
So maybe, when the clock strikes zero, you will emerge from your safe place and nothing will be different than it was before. Or maybe you will emerge from your safe place and nothing will ever be the same again.
Our lack of understanding with regard to meteorology is not from want of effort or brainpower. There are folks all over the planet trying desperately to solve this great mystery in the atmosphere. People like David Neal. Maybe you know him? He’s a meteorologist; he was on television for 22 years, a lot of them here in Birmingham. He’s into his wife and kids and cows. He develops cutting-edge radar technology. What he says about weather is gospel.
However, you should know something else about Dave; something more important to this story than any of those credentials. Dave Neal was Bessie Brewster’s last friend.
On April 27, Dave was chasing the storm into Pratt City. Loss of cell phone signal cost him his weather radar. As a result, he lost his only way of knowing how close he was to the beast that was bearing down on west Jefferson County. The precariousness of his situation at that moment cannot be understated. The fringes of that monster tornado were licking the edges of his chase vehicle.Only the grace of God kept him on the ground and safe in his truck.
As soon as the beast finished with Pratt City,Dave drove into the storm’s wake. There, through amaze of broken timber, shattered glass and twisted metal, he came upon Bessie Brewster lying mortally wounded on what used to be someone’s front porch. He and other survivors cried out for help,but it arrived too late. The last person to speak a kind word to her, to comfort her, to hold her hand...was Dave Neal. Hers was the only soul lost in Pratt City that day.
You see, meteorology is a science, and science is often impersonal and cold. But to Dave Neal it’s very personal and identifiable. It bleeds. He’s seen what these storms can do and what they can takeaway from you. And with that in mind, this is what he wants you to know:
A tornado is a column of air that rotate sat anywhere from 65 mph to 200 mph or more. They can and have struck every state in the United States, and they strike most frequently during the change of seasons. Since seasonal shifts in climate are most dramatic in the Southeastern and Midwestern states, where cold air from Canada and warm air from the Gulf of Mexico collide,these areas serve as a prime breeding ground for tornado development.
Four basic ingredients must come together in just the right way for a tornado to happen. First, there must be instability in the atmosphere to create a thunderstorm. This occurs most often along frontal boundaries that separate opposing air masses.
Second, we need the right amount of wind shear at certain elevations in the atmosphere. Wind shear occurs when there is a sudden change in wind patterns over short distances.
If you’ve ever rolled Play-Doh in between the palms of your hands, you have some idea of what wind shear does to air pockets in a thunderstorm. It rolls them up. On a large scale, this creates along, horizontal column of rotating air within a storm cloud. In meteorological terms, this is known as a mesocyclone.
The final two ingredients are the most complex and least understood elements of tornado formation.
A tornado is the manifestation of an enormous atmospheric engine. In order for the engine to fire, a storm must create a dynamic power train system to inhale copious amounts of warm air from the surface, move it up quickly through the middle of the cloud and exhaust it out the top. For that to happen, the air at the top of the storm must be cooler (less dense) than the air at the surface, or else the air at the surface won’t be able to rise and exhaust itself out through the top of the storm.
If all these elements come together precisely,then the storm’s engine will fire. Finger-like in flowbands will stretch out from the main cloud tower to the south, sending warm air from the surface screaming into the tower, bisecting the horizontal column of rotation.
When and how that horizontal column of rotation begins to move vertically through the main storm cloud is a mystery. But when it does,the cloud base lowers and begins rotating. Dopplar radar is the first to detect this phenomenon; noticing that droplets of water moving toward the radar beam are lining up beside droplets moving away from the radar beam. The alarm sounds and we’ve got a tornado warning.
But, even if all of the above comes together perfectly, it’s up to that as-yet-identified element of nature—the sadist—as to whether or not a condensation funnel forms, begins its slow, steady descent to the earth and makes contact with the ground.
Sometimes he’s merciful, sometimes he’s not.
The time Dave Neal has spent in the field chasing these mysterious storms has yielded some insider weather knowledge you need to know:
First, you don’t have to be in the direct path of a tornado to experience storm damage or loss of life. Just being near the thing can be deadly, as extraordinary winds generated around the funnel can toss items hundreds of yards out from the fringe of the storm.
Second, no weather radar you see on TV is truly “live.” It can take several minutes for that imagery to be collected, sent out and broadcast to the general public.“
So, if I’m sitting here pointing at the radar and telling you, ‘Right there’s that storm, it’s sitting at this location!’ By the time I say it, it’s old.It’s not there! So you should always be thinking well ahead during a storm like that. Don’t focus on where it is, focus on where it’s going.”
Finally, weather is cyclical. Though 2011has been a newsworthy year for tornadoes, we are likely not in the throes of a twister apocalypse.
“The last time something like this happened was in 1974,” Dave explains. “Prior to that, there was a similar outbreak in the ‘50s. But because the information superhighway wasn’t in place at the time, we just don’t know how big those out breaks actually were. Today, we’ve got the Internet, photographs and video. Twenty years ago, probably 50 percent of the tornadoes that took place were unreported.”
That explains the steady up-tick in tornado activity since record-keeping on these storms began in 1953. Better radar, better models, the preponderance of cameras...they’ve all made tornado spotting much easier than it used to be.
There are also more of us living in tornado prone areas than there used to be, which likely explains why tornado deaths have spiked in spite of technological improvements in forecasting.
“All of these conditions have to come in line for a super outbreak to occur, and that only happens every 20 or 30 years or so,” Neal explains.“I’m not a climatologist, but I can’t imagine there’s anything [like global warming] that would influence that cycle.”
Will it be another 20 or 30 years before another super outbreak of tornadoes terrorizes our state?One can only hope and pray that we will be spared this hell for at least that long and hopefully longer. Maybe by the time that day comes, more will be known about these storms than we know now.
Perhaps there’s a means with which to pullback the curtain and reveal some sort of weakness pertaining to that godforsaken sadist in the sky.
Maybe 13 minutes will become 20 or 25minutes and all of us will have a little more time to find a hidey-hole to hunker down in. More time to make friends with Jesus.
Maybe we will invent some sort of super strong building material that bends with the wind, but just won’t break.
Maybe folks like Dave Neal will finally figure out all this crazy, complicated stuff and we won’t have to worry about this crap any more. But we’ve got a long way to go before that’s a reality.
“When I was thinking of going into meteorology, it was a hobby to most people,” Dave explains. “But now, it’s an obsession. I love it because you can’t figure it out. You might realize a trend or a pattern, but you will never conquer the weather. There will always be surprises. There will always be extremes.”
Matt Hooper writes about whatever his fabulous brain can conceive. Please send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.