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Posted at 11:46 AM ET, 02/12/2013

Riveting, terrifying chase video of violent Hattiesburg, MS tornado; no deaths a miracle

I’ve viewed a lot of tornado videos over the years, but footage of the fierce twister that ripped through Hattiesburg, Mississippi Sunday is the most dramatic and close-up I’ve seen.

Video from YouTube, posted by TornadoVideos.net

(The commentary at times is a little much, so feel free to make liberal use of the mute button)

The EF-4 tornado injured at least 82 people but in­cred­ibly resulted in zero fatalities.

Steve Wilkinson, the warning coordination meteorologist for the National Weather Service (NWS) forecast office in Jackson, MS which serves Hattiesburg, called the lack of deaths “amazing.” He said warning lead times were 18 and 30 minutes in Lamar and Forrest counties (which run through the city), which is above the national average of 13 minutes. He added his office called a “tornado emergency” - the highest level of alert reserved for confirmed tornadoes on the ground in highly populated areas.

Wilkinson credited “outstanding” emergency management operations in Lamar and Forrest counties: both participate in the NWS’ “Storm Ready” voluntary program - which prepares communities for tornadoes.

Mike Smith, Senior Vice President for AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions, noted the remarkable disparity between the zero deaths in Hattiesburg and 161 in the Joplin tornado of 2011 in a post at the StormTrack.org Forum. He believes the toll was far greater in Joplin compared to Hattiesburg (cities of similar population sizes) because the Joplin tornado was rain-wrapped (not visible) and stronger (EF-5 vs EF-4), and because the warnings issued in Joplin were confusing - not to mention there had been false alarms preceding the storm. Here’s the key excerpt from Smith’s post:

Things went the way they were supposed to [Sunday in Hattiesburg]. Things didn’t go well at all in Joplin.

Consider some similarities: Hattiesburg population: 47,000. Joplin, 55,000.

The tornadoes were the same time of day: Hattiesburg, 5:15pm. Joplin, 5:41pm. Both on Sunday.

Both towns have tornado sirens.

Joplin tornado F-5; Hattiesburg [HAT], F-4.

Part of the differences 161 versus zero was the HAT tornado was F-4. Considering that wind force is to the fourth power, there is much more force in a 5 than a 4. But, I don’t believe that is the whole reason.

Here is what went wrong in Joplin [JLN]:

* Tornado was rain-wrapped and invisible (not the case in HAT). Invisible made people completely dependent on the warning system.

* The 24-consecutive tornado warnings for JLN prior to May 22, 2011, were false alarms. People were “trained” not to take TORs seriously.

* Tornado sirens activated in JLN from 5:11 to 5:14pm for a tornado warning that did not include Joplin. When people turned on radio/TV they heard, “this tornado warning does not include Joplin.” They went about their business (and, they didn’t think much of tornado warnings to begin with).

* Tornado warning for JLN issued at 5:17 due tornado forming over Riverton, KS. Because it was forecast to move northeast sirens were not reactivated in JLN. The sirens were silent as tornado moved toward the city. And, without the sirens, people went about their business since they were assured the original warning wasn’t for JLN.

* At 5:34, NWS got the location and movement correct.

* 5:36, report of funnel cloud “over Galena.” This was well west of JLN when tornado was just west of city (but invisible from city).

* At 5:38, the tornado was reported “6 mi. NE of Galena, moving northeast.” This was well north of JLN and would miss the city.

* Broadcasters are reporting locations all over the place rather than “tornado moving into city, take cover!” Take a look at this video (begins 5:37pm): The broadcasters are talking about “funnel over Galena” in a normal tone of voice. They have no idea a tornado is on their tower cam (confirmed this in interviews for my book) because they have been led to believe the tornado was going to miss the city. Their tower cam can see the tornado because it is NNE of the tornado. JLN is east and there is a dense curtain of rain between the town and the TOR.

* Sirens weren’t turned on again until tornado was doing damage. Turned off again after only 3 minutes just as tornado crossed into city.

Smith documents all that went wrong (and right) in Joplin in his book, When the Sirens Were Silent, which I reviewed last spring.

Although NWS’ Wilkinson was impressed by Hattiesburg level of preparedness for the tornado, he stressed buildings that served as protection would probably not have withstood a twister of the intensity of the one that hit Joplin.

“If it had been an EF-5, there would’ve been a lot of fatalities,” he said.

By  |  11:46 AM ET, 02/12/2013

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