Fury in the air

Tornadoes: Deadliest twister in a decade emphasizes need to pay heed to early warnings.

May 06, 1999

A FIRE chief captured the thoughts of many Americans in describing the devastation of Monday's tornadoes in Oklahoma City: "It looks like the Murrah Building, but instead of nine stories tall, it's spread out over a large area."

The toll in Oklahoma and around Wichita, Kan. -- at least 43 dead and an estimated 4,500 homes and businesses leveled -- was staggering. The destruction was even more anguishing because it bit into Oklahoma's capital, still healing psychologically from the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building four years ago.

The last U.S. twister so costly, in 1985, killed 90. This century's worst such storm, in 1925, took 689 lives. Most of this violent weather occurs in the Great Plains' "Tornado Alley," a 100-mile swath from Texas to Iowa. Maryland typically experiences only three or four of the nation's 800 tornadoes each year.

The ravaged communities had warnings for several hours before the storm, but the path and speed of tornadoes are erratic. Monday's swarm of funnel clouds crawled for four hours; most last only minutes.

Advances in radar and computer simulations help limit loss of life -- but only if people pay heed and seek shelter, not in places with wide-span roofs such as auditoriums or cafeterias but in smaller, windowless spaces like bathrooms.

In the mid-Atlantic region, more accustomed to hurricanes, we've seen too many reports of beach-goers more concerned about saving their vacations than their lives in the face of a serious storm threat. Perhaps they were numbed from TV weather forecasters playing to their fears whenever a storm or snowflake is predicted.

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