Anyone who lives in Tupelo, Mississippi knows tornadoes impact the area every year. 2014 was a clear reminder of the lethal power of nature in the region.
The tornado outbreak of April 2014 also affected other central states, lasting for three days and impacting faraway states like New York and New Jersey with flash flood warnings. Thankfully, with today’s technology, the Storm Prediction Center was able to warn residents about this outbreak a full six days before the tornadoes hit the ground. Even after many people’s prudent actions and time to organize, the tornadoes still leveled many areas.
The tornado that hit Tupelo during this outbreak took seven lives and leveled much of North Gloster Street, which is one of Tupelo’s main thoroughfares. Beloved restaurants, local businesses, hotels, and homes in this area were greatly affected.
Mississippi’s rural population is at high risk during tornado season because the South’s biggest tornadoes hit during the winter months, when days are shorter. The high amount of trailer homes puts the population at risk since this type of housing isn’t anchored, has no basement, and is easily threatened even by weak tornadoes.
But 2014 wasn’t the first time a dangerous tornado hit Tupelo or the state of Mississippi. The famous tornado of 1936 almost leveled the city and took many lives as well. 48 blocks of the city were destroyed according to records available today; only the city’s business district was one of the few areas left intact after the destruction.
Vicksburg, MS also suffered a tragedy in 1953 when a tornado touched down. A monument to commemorate the victims stands today.
And, of course, The Candlestick Park disaster of 1966 still resonates with many people in Jackson, MS.
So why are there so many large tornadoes that affect Mississippi in general?
It is estimated that 66% of tornadoes that affect Mississippi arrive at night. Still, Tennessee gets a higher percentage of tornadoes at night with a whopping 73%. Unlike Tornado Alley in the midwest and plains states, there is no definitive tornado season in the South. Folks who live in Tornado Alley know that April-June are present a higher risk of tornadoes in their states. In the South, it’s common for tornadoes to appear even in the summer or other off seasons. 2008’s Super Tuesday Outbreak is a perfect example of this unusually risky weather pattern.
Mississippi—and the South’s—tornadoes are also more dangerous because they’re faster and the tornado funnels tend to be wrapped in rain. Weather patterns in the spring and fall allow for faster jet streams, which makes for a faster tornado. This gives weather reporters less time to forecast a tornado and warn residents. Usually when a warning is issued, residents must be ready to find a safe place to weather the storm immediately. Residents often do not, then, have the time to react to the warning and find a safe place, which contributes to high casualties and injuries.
And there is the extra danger of a rain-wrapped funnel: being near the Gulf of Mexico creates a more humid environment that does not exist in the midwestern Tornado Alley. This causes heavy rains that could hide a tornado and make onlookers believe they’re simply looking at a heavy storm, while a tornado could actually be within that system. The presence of low humidity also means that clouds in the South are lower when a tornado hits, making it harder to identify a tornado for what it really is. The drier climate in Tornado Alley makes it easier to identify a tornado than in the South.
The South also has the most mobile homes east of the Rocky Mountains. These homes are often of low quality and greatly increase risks for people who live in them. Even permanent homes tend to lack a basement or storm shelter. In contrast, Tornado Alley homes tend to have basements or storm shelters. This is important because some tornadoes are only survivable if you’re underground in one of these structures.
The South, especially Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee have higher deaths per capita during tornado season than other areas in the country. Technology can have a place in saving lives: having a NOAA radio programmed to receive weather notices will go a long way in giving ample notice. Investing in a tornado shelter or safe room is, however, the best ways to prevent injuries or death.
In a region that receives so much tornado activity, an above ground or underground shelter can go a long way in helping residents survive the—almost year round—tornado season in the South.