- Associated Press - Saturday, May 28, 2011

WASHINGTON (AP) — Storm science has greatly improved tornado warnings in recent years. But if that’s led anyone into a sense of security, that feeling has taken a beating in recent weeks.

Super Outbreak 2011, on April 25-28, killed more than 300 people in the South and Midwest. Less than a month later, a devastating tornado took more than 100 lives around Joplin, Mo.

This despite warnings of as much as 20 minutes, thanks to improved weather radar installed across the country in the 1990s. Before that, tornado warnings often weren’t issued until a twister was sighted on the ground.

Scientists see a variety of factors that helped make this year’s twisters deadlier — from La Nina to public complacency, from global warming to urban sprawl.

“We thought for the longest time physical science could get us by … that we could design out of disaster,” said meteorology professor Walker Ashley of Northern Illinois University. Now scientists are finding they need to take human nature into account.

What is clear is that certain factors add to the risk of death. The most vulnerable folks are those living in mobile homes and houses without basements. For a variety of reasons, a lot of homes don’t have basements.

Twisters occurring on weekends — like the Joplin tornado — and at night tend to be greater killers because they catch people at home. At night, twisters are harder to see and sleeping people may not hear a warning.

Those less likely to be killed in a storm tend to be more educated and to have a plan in place beforehand.

In Sedalia, Mo., 30-year-old Sean McCabe had the right idea when the tornado struck, heading to the basement. He said the storm shoved him down the final flight of steps. He had scrapes and cuts on his hands, wrists, back and feet. Blood was visible in the house, and much of the roof of the house was gone.

“I saw little debris and then I saw big debris, and I’m like OK, let’s go,” said McCabe.

Having a plan was a lifesaver for Tuscaloosa’s LaRocca Nursing Home in Alabama. As the storm howled, four dozen residents massed in the hallways as trees crashed down and a cloud of dust rained upon them. When the dust settled, the staff realized their drills had paid off. Not one patient was killed, and the worst injury among them was a bruise.

Hundreds have not been so lucky, with more than 500 deaths and counting so far this year, a toll not seen in more than a half-century.

The National Weather Service said 58 tornadoes touched down in Alabama on April 27, killing 238 people in that state alone and injuring thousands. Scores died in other states from twisters spawned by the same storm system. Put together, emergency management officials say the twisters left a path of destruction 10 miles wide and 610 miles long, or about as far as a drive from Birmingham to Columbus, Ohio.

Statewide, Alabama officials estimate there was enough debris to stack a football field a mile high with rubble.

Contributing to the massive loss of life is the growth of urban areas, suggested Marshall Shepherd, a professor of atmospheric science at the University of Georgia.

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