Image: Tornadoes are pictured moving through Mississippi, in still image taken from video
Tornadoes are pictured moving through Mississippi, in this still image taken from video on April 27, 2011 and released on April 28. Tornadoes and violent storms ripped through seven Southern states, killing at least 295 people and causing billions of dollars of damage in some of the deadliest twisters in U.S. history. Mandatory Credit REUTERS/Image Courtesy of (UNITED STATES - Tags: ENVIRONMENT DISASTER IMAGES OF THE DAY) MUST COURTESY "TORNADOVIDEOS.NET/DISCOVERY CHANNEL'S STORM CHASERS"/NO USE AFTER 1600 GMT MAY 7, 2011. NO ARCHIVES. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS
updated 4/29/2011 6:25:08 PM ET 2011-04-29T22:25:08

Tornado-related deaths have declined dramatically over the past few decades because of improved forecasts and better warnings, but the massive outbreak on April 27 reported killed 318 people across the Deep South. What happened?

The bottom line: Massive tornadoes hit populated cities head-on. Forecasters had warned of an "insane" storm system for days, so it's unlikely that the tornadoes caught many by surprise. But with few basements in Dixie Alley, not many places were safe in the paths of tornadoes that had nearly 200-mph winds. Even solidly built houses were swept away. Many entire neighborhoods were completely obliterated.

"The truth is, even if you did everything you were supposed to do, unless you were in an underground bunker, you weren't going to survive," James Spann of the ABC affiliate in Birmingham, Ala., told The New York Times.

Vicious twisters
On Wednesday, more than 150 tornadoes were reported in the southeastern United States. Bob Henson, a meteorologist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., said he "wouldn't at all be surprised," to see some of those storms rated as EF-5, the highest rating on the Enhanced Fujita Damage scale, with winds faster than 200 mph.

Already, one tornado that killed 14 people in Smithville, Miss., has been given the top rating, the first EF-5 in the United States in three years.

The deadly combination of strength and location, with the populous cities of Birmingham and Tuscaloosa, Ala., has created one of the highest death tolls in decades.

"Any tornado going through the heart of the city like that is going to cause major damage," Henson told OurAmazingPlanet.

Historic outbreak
The latest outbreak wasn't just a few tornadoes in a few small towns. Preliminary reports suggest that this outbreak could be among the biggest of all time. Tornadoes roared on the ground for hours and traveled miles between cities. One twister may have traveled the 60 miles from Tuscaloosa, Ala., to Birmingham.

"It looks like it was a very long-track tornado and those don't happen that often," Henson said.

That tornado could be responsible for most of Alabama's 228 reported fatalities. When the damage assessments are finished, the deadly outbreak will likely be the deadliest since 1974, when 308 were killed. The deadliest outbreak of all time is believed to be the Tri-State Tornado of March 18, 1925, which killed 695 people in Missouri, Illinois and Indiana.

Those massive death tolls are rare today. Tornado-related deaths have plummeted as forecasts and warnings have become more precise. The 2000 to 2009 average for annual tornado-related fatalities is 62, according to the National Climatic Data Center.

Deadly Dixie
Dixie Alley, the focus of this year's tornado season, is notoriously deadly. Even a small tornado there can be deadly.

Unlike the flat, grass-covered plains of Tornado Alley, tornadoes are hard to see in Dixie Alley. Trees and hilly terrain obscure funnel clouds, a problem made even worse by the region's high rate of nighttime tornadoes, which can hit when people are sleeping.

Often, tornadoes can be cloaked in rain, hiding even the most massive twisters.

To make matters worse, Dixie Alley is home to many manufactured houses and mobile homes that have weak walls and poor — or nonexistent — foundations. Before the April 27 outbreak, more than half of this year's tornado-related deaths had occurred in mobile homes.

Storm surveys are still ongoing, but it's likely that mobile home deaths were common during the most recent tornado outbreak as well.

Reach OurAmazingPlanet staff writer Brett Israel at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . Follow him on Twitter @btisrael.

© 2012 OurAmazingPlanet. All rights reserved. More from OurAmazingPlanet.

Video: April storms break weather records

  1. Closed captioning of: April storms break weather records

    >>> back now from tuscaloosa, alabama. some more of the staggering numbers we have been telling you about. in the month of april, a record 453 tornadoes have been confirmed. this not counting wednesday's line of massive storms and when they tally those up, that will be larger, and remember, may is usually worse than april. our friend, weather channel meteorologist jim cantore who has been covering this has been kind enough to join us. you were here earlier. is it fair to say, at the center of this storm, at the center of hurricanes like katrina, it's the most energy mother nature can produce on the planet?

    >> i think it is. when you look add the biggest tornadoes, ef-4s and ef-5s, which we feel this destruction is, we're talking about those kinds of numbers. that makes up .4% of all the tornadoes. we have about 1,300 a year.

    >> you get stopped everywhere you go every day on the subject of weather, and wherever you go, whfrb you hear people talking, you know what i'm going to say, it didn't used to be like this. what's going on? what are we doing that's causing it? it seems newly virulent and violent all across the country.

    >> when you go back, you look for evidence of something. sometimes the most obvious things don't hit you until they're right there in front of your face. if we have a warmer earth, and the purpose of the jetstream is to help equalize all that, because it's warmer, it's going to have to work harder. that in addition to the fact we have so much snuinstability in april, heat and humidity, cause this monster, monster april.

    >> looking for a way to describe away what happened here.

    >> it's hard to do that.

    >> thank you for your ongoing


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