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Take Note of the Big Apple Tornado

Andrew Freedman @ 12:00 AM

The EF-2 tornado that eschewed the Staten Island Ferry in favor of a nine-mile roof-tearing tour of Staten Island and Brooklyn last week was a myth buster. It offered a stark reminder that tornadoes can and do occur in urban areas, which is in contrast to popular belief that holds that city buildings dissipate tornadoes as they approach. In addition, the tornado hit New York City early in the morning, which is a rarity in general and particularly so in the Northeast.

Jason Samenow's Forecast

Forecast Confidence: HighToday: Mostly sunny and hot. Highs 88-92.
Tonight: Mostly clear. Lows 63-68 (suburbs-city).
Monday: Partly sunny and hot. Highs 89-93.

Miraculously no one was killed by the NYC tornado, but residents of New York and other metropolitan areas should understand the implications of the event. It demonstrates that urban tornadoes can cause more damage than tornadoes in rural areas simply because there is more stuff to damage, thus making urban tornadoes more expensive and potentially life threatening. In addition, cities contain unique warning challenges because of the lack of warning siren coverage and urban residents' reliance on multiple communications technologies, such as Internet news sources and Blackberries instead of local television newscasts.

I highly doubt that many Brooklyn residents were listening to NOAA Weather Radio at 6:30 in the morning on Wednesday, for example.

Along with Robert Henson, who graciously filled in for me with his insightful columns during the past two weeks, I presented a study on urban tornadoes at a 2002 American Meteorological Society Broadcast Meteorology Conference.

The study was inspired by a well-known D.C. area event: the deadly College Park tornado on September 24, 2001. That F3 tornado briefly touched down in an earlier incarnation near the Pentagon, before passing in funnel form over the White House and touching down again to the northeast of the Capitol where it unfortunately pummeled the University of Maryland campus, killing two young women.

The College Park tornado occurred during the evening rush hour when it was difficult to warn many office workers of the danger, and like the New York event, it hit an area that doesn't think of itself as a tornado-prone region.

America's tornado history contains numerous examples of tornadoes hitting urban areas, although the nightmare scenario of a monster EF-4 or 5 slamming into a city center has thankfully not occurred in modern times. Cities such as Oklahoma City, Miami, Fort Worth, Nashville and Salt Lake City have experienced significant tornadoes within city limits recently. Yet many people still believe the myth that tall buildings protect them from the dangerous whirlwinds.

Why this myth persists is a perplexing question. I suspect it's due in part to wishful thinking (The odds must be tiny, right?) as well as a belief in the superiority of human structures over Mother Nature, which has never been a durable worldview. I learned that lesson while building ill-fated sand castles at the beach when I was four-years-old.

Some cities not on the recent hit list present inviting targets for tornadoes, such as Chicago, St. Louis and Kansas City. As previously mentioned in Undercast, disaster almost struck Chicago on Friday, September 22, 2006 when three supercell thunderstorms approached the city from the Southwest during evening rush hour, causing frantic emergency managers to sound long dormant tornado warning sirens. In the end no significant tornadoes touched down, which dumbfounded forecasters who had been staring at multiple frightening hook echoes on their radar screens.

Experts have postulated that a slight deficiency in low-level moisture may have been all that saved the region from tornadoes that day. Tornadoes have hit within Chicago's city limits before, most notably in 1967, when an F4 tornado hit the south side of the city, killing 33 and injuring 500.

The task for emergency managers, media, and the meteorological community is to prepare urban residents for the possibility of tornadoes. While they are unlikely, they can and do occur in cities just as they do in rural areas, and when they hit there will not be much time to react. In New York, for example, the tornado actually preceded the Weather Service's tornado warning by six minutes.

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