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Deaths in the 3 May 1999 Oklahoma City Tornado from a Historical Perspective (Dr. Harold Brooks)

Deaths in the 3 May 1999 Oklahoma City Tornado from a Historical Perspective (Dr. Harold Brooks)

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Published by: National Press Foundation on Apr 08, 2011
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17W E A T H E R A N D F O R E C A S T I N G
2002 American Meteorological Society
Deaths in the 3 May 1999 Oklahoma City Tornado from a Historical Perspective
E. B
A. D
NOAA/National Severe Storms Laboratory, Norman, Oklahoma
(Manuscript received 5 February 2001, in final form 6 July 2001)ABSTRACTThe 3 May 1999 Oklahoma City tornado was the deadliest in the United States in over 20 years, with 36direct fatalities. To understand how this event fits into the historical context, the record of tornado deaths in theUnited States has been examined. Almost 20 000 deaths have been reported associated with more than 3600tornadoes in the United States since 1680. A cursory examination of the record shows a break in 1875. Priorto then, it is likely that many killer tornadoes failed to be reported. When the death toll is normalized bypopulation, a near-constant rate of death is apparent until about 1925, when a sharp fall begins. The rate wasabout 1.8 people per million population in 1925 and was less than 0.12 people per million by 2000. The decreasein fatalities has resulted from two primary causes: a decrease in the number of killer tornadoes and a decreasein the number of fatalities in the most deadly tornadoes. Current death rates for mobile home residents, however,are still nearly what the overall national rate was prior to 1925 and are about 20 times the rate of site-builthome residents. The increase in the fraction of the U.S. population living in mobile homes has importantimplications for future reductions in the death toll.
1. Introduction
Tornadoes are a hazard to life and property every-where, including in the United States. A recent analysisof historical changes in damage associated with majortornadoes has shown that, if the damage amounts areadjusted for wealth of the country, there is no clearlong-term trend in the damage caused by the most damagingtornadoes (Brooks and Doswell 2001). In this follow-up work, we examine the question of changes in therecord of tornado deaths in the United States, focusingprimarily on the annual number of deaths, killer tor-nadoes, and fatalities per tornado. As is the case withthe damage dataset, there are issues involved in the useof the data that must be addressed. After discussingthose issues, we will look at the long-term record in aneffort to determine changes through time. We will closeby considering possible future trends in tornado fatal-ities.These considerations provide a background for un-derstanding the fatalities in the 3 May 1999 tornadooutbreak. The particular tornado that hit the metropol-itan Oklahoma City area directly killed 36 people, themost in the United States since the 10 April 1979 Wich-
* Current affiliation: Cooperative Institute for Mesoscale Meteo-rological Studies, The University of Oklahoma, Norman, Oklahoma.
Corresponding author address:
Harold E. Brooks, NOAA/NSSL,1313 Halley Circle, Norman, OK 73069.E-mail: brooks@nssl.noaa.gov
ita Falls, Texas, tornado killed 42 (see Table 1 for arecord of the most fatalities in a single U.S. tornadogoing backward in time from the end of 2000). The totalnumber of direct fatalities in the outbreak was 46, themost in the United States since the Ohio–Pennsylvaniaoutbreak of 31 May 1985 killed 76. Of the 36 fatalitiesin the Oklahoma City tornado, 11 occurred in mobilehomes, and 18 of the 46 deaths caused by tornadoes inthe outbreak were mobile home residents. As we willdiscuss later, the problem of mobile home safety is thebiggest obstacle to reduction of tornado deaths in theUnited States.
2. The dataset and concerns
The primary dataset to be used is that of Grazulis(1993, hereinafter G93, 1995), listing tornadoes withfatalities up through 1995. From 1996 to 2000, the re-cords are those collected by the National Oceanic andAtmospheric Administration Storm Prediction Center(SPC 2001). According to G93, the first death from atornado in the United States was recorded in 1680 inCambridge, Massachusetts. Tornado fatalities were re-ported infrequently over the following two centuries,and tornadoes with at least 10 fatalities were reportedvery rarely. From 1680 to 1874, only four tornadoesthat caused at least 10 deaths were recorded. In contrast,seven were recorded in the decade that followed. As aresult, the primary emphasis of this paper is on theperiod of 1875–2000. Along with the apparent break inthe number of tornadoes with at least 10 fatalities, an-
1. Most fatalities in a single tornado in the United Statesgoing back in time from the end of 2000. Location is most prominentsite or sites hit by tornado.Date Location Deaths16 Dec 20003 May 199910 Apr 197921 Feb 197125 May 19559 Jun 19538 Jun 19539 Apr 19476 Apr 19365 Apr 193618 Mar 1925Englewood, ALOklahoma City, OKWichita Falls, TXCary–Pugh City, MSBlackwell, OK–Udall, KSWorcester, MAFlint, MIWoodward, OKGainesville, GATupelo, MSTristate (MO–IL–IN)113642588094115181203216695F
. 1. Killer tornadoes per year in the United States, 1800–2000.
other reason for concentrating on the period beginningin 1875 is clear when the number of killer tornadoes
per year is considered (Fig. 1). In 1875, a large increasein the number of reports in the record occurred, with30 killer tornadoes in that year alone. The sudden in-crease in reports is likely due to the work of John Park Finley (Galway 1985), who began his work in collectingtornado reports in the late 1870s.It seems plausible, given the abrupt change in thenumber of killer tornadoes, that many killer tornadoesprior to 1875 went unreported. Given the rapid changein demographics in the United States in the nineteenthcentury, it is extremely difficult to estimate the amountof underreporting. Even since then, it is likely that somekiller tornadoes have gone unreported, although under-reporting is probably less of a problem since 1875.The number of deaths caused by individual tornadoesis not always known well, particularly for earlier tor-nadoes. G93 reports that possible deaths of slaves in the1840 Natchez, Mississippi, tornado are not recorded,nor are deaths on boats in the Mississippi River in the1896 Saint Louis–East Saint Louis tornado. The latterevent also provides evidence of conflicting numbers of deaths from different sources. G93 lists the number of deaths in Saint Louis as 137 and East Saint Louis as118, consistent with Curzon (1896), who published abook on the tornado within 2 weeks of the event. The
East Saint Louis Journal
newspaper (Cook and Reed2001) listed 128 deaths in East Saint Louis 4 days afterthe tornado, and Williams (1999) lists 140 dead in SaintLouis, giving a total of 268. We will use the G93 num-bers throughout, with the caution that the exact numberof deaths in many events cannot be known.Another problem involves determining preciselywhich deaths are tornado related. In the case of the 3May 1999 Oklahoma City tornado, 36 people werekilled directly by the tornado (e.g., hit by debris orthrown long distances), but several others could beviewed as indirect deaths. For instance, at least twopeople died of heart attacks in the vicinity of the damage
A killer tornado is any tornado that causes one or more fatalities.
path, a third died in a fall trying to get into a stormshelter outside of the tornado’s exact path, and anotherdied when candles, lit after his electricalpowerhadgoneoff because of the tornado, caught his residence on fire(Brown et al. 2002). The traditional National WeatherService procedure has been to consider only the directfatalities, but determining that information, particularlyearly in the record, is impossible. There is no way toknow how many of the deaths within the record areindirect, so there is a possible problemofinhomogeneityin the dataset.
3. General features of the record
The number of deaths per year caused by tornadoeshas generally been much less in the last quarter of thetwentieth century than it was previously (Fig. 2). Inparticular, the number of deaths in the ‘‘big years’’ hasdropped dramatically. From 1975 to 2000, only twicedid as many as 100 tornado deaths occur in a year (1984and 1998). In contrast, that number occurred 54 timesfrom 1875 to 1974, including every year from 1916through 1927. The 1910s through the middle 1930s, infact, represent a period of very high fatalities, as shownby the smoothed curve in Fig. 2. From 1912 to 1936,the mean annual death toll was 260, almost 5 times asmany as in 1976–2000, when the mean was 54. Themedians for the two periods were 179 and 44, respec-tively, indicating that the means are somewhat unrep-resentative, having been influenced by a few extremeevents on the high end.The decrease in death toll is even more apparentwhenthe rate of death is normalized by the population of theUnited States, available from the U.S. Census Bureau
(Fig. 3). Prior to 1925, the smoothed rate was relatively
All population figures in this paper were taken from U.S. CensusBureau Web site (http://www.census.gov/). The population figuresused for Fig. 3 were the 1 July annual estimates from 1900 to 1999(http://www.census.gov/population/estimates/nation/popclock-est.txt). Prior to 1900, population was assumed to increase linearlybetween the decennial censuses. For 2000, the change from 1998 to1999 was added to the 1999 figures.
17W E A T H E R A N D F O R E C A S T I N GF
. 2. Deaths per year in tornadoes in the United States, 1875–2000. The light line with dots shows raw values. The heavy lineshows the smoothed values. The smoother consists of finding themedian of three consecutive values and then applying a running meanover five medians.F
. 3. Death rate per million people per year in the United States,1875–2000. The thin line with dots is the raw rate, the curved thick line is the death rate, filtered by three-point median and five-pointrunning mean filter, and the straight solid lines are least squares fitsto the filtered death rate for 1875–1925 and 1925–2000. Dashed linesare estimates of 10th and 90th percentile death rates from 1925 to2000.
constant, showing a slight increase from about 1.6 to1.8 per million. Since that time, however, the rate hasdecreased substantially, to a little over 0.11 per million,roughly 1/15th of the long-term average prior to 1925.Many factors, including the beginnings of tornado fore-casting, improved communications, spotter networks,and changes in construction, likely have been involvedin this decrease [see Doswell et al. (1999) for morediscussion]. There is no simple way to deconvolve thepossible contributions from all those factors, so we donot assign a relative importance to any of them in par-ticular. To put the change into perspective, however, adeath rate of 1.8 per million people per year would haveresulted in approximately 500 deaths in 2000, as com-pared with the actual number of 40. Another way of looking at this change is to consider the impact on thedeath toll associated with the Oklahoma City tornado.A crude estimate of the death rate prior to the changesthat occurred in 1925 can be obtained via multiplyingthe death toll by the change in the rate. Such an estimateapplied to Oklahoma City gives a death toll of 540,implying that the efforts (intentional or unintentional)to improve tornado safety saved over 500 lives on 3May 1999. Large caveats obviously must be associatedwith such an estimate, but it is of the same order as theestimate of 700 deaths based on the changes in the his-torical ratio of deaths to amount of damage in tornadoes(Doswell et al. 1999; Brooks and Doswell 2001).A long-term decrease in the tornado death rate alsomeans that the notion of an ‘‘average’’ tornado deathtoll is somewhat difficult to define. Taking a standardclimatological period of 30 years makes little sense,given the presence of such a strong trend. A more rea-sonable approach might be to look at the expected valueof the trend at whatever point on the time series is of interest. In 2000, with the value of 0.12 per million anda population of almost 280 million, the expected deathtoll would be about 34, one-half of the 30-yr mean valueof 68. The decrease in the death toll also has changedthe perception of what is a big year for tornado deaths.Lines estimating the 90th percentile death rate from1925 to 2000 have been constructed to be parallel tothe mean value (Fig. 3). Multiplying the values of the90th percentile by the population in 1925 and 2000 givesestimated values of 475 and 80 deaths per year at thosetwo times. From this perspective, the 1998 nationaldeath toll of 130 was just as far above the expectednumber of deaths as the 1925 national death toll of 794(most of which came from the single ‘‘Tri-state’’ tor-nado). In fact, the 10th percentile value in 1925 is 61,so that a rare
death toll 75 years ago is almost asbig as a rare
death toll now.We cannot identify theunderlying socialandscientificreasons behind the decline in tornado deaths, but wecan at least attempt to describe from a statistical per-spective how the decrease has occurred. First, the num-ber of killer tornadoes is, in general, less than it was75 yr ago (see Fig. 1). The median number of killertornadoes per year from 1976 to 2000 was 17 and themaximum was 33. In contrast, the median from 1912to 1936 was 39 and the minimum was 17.Arguably more important than the number of killertornadoes, the number of deaths from individual ‘‘high-death’’ tornadoes has decreased. This fact can be seenin at least two different ways. First, we can define ahigh-death tornado and examine how that definitionchanges with time. For direct comparison to the 3 May1999 tornado, we could first consider the frequency of tornadoes associated with at least 36 deaths. Recall thatthe Oklahoma City tornado was the first tornado in over20 years to have such a large death toll. In the 1920sand 1930s, 20 such tornadoes occurred. What was oncean annual occurrence had not occurred for 20 years priorto 3 May 1999.The use of the Oklahoma City death toll to set anarbitrary threshold for high death tolls is not completely

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