Last Sunday, April 15, 2012, the worst scenario imaginable unfolded in the small, Northwest Oklahoma town of Woodward. A violent, quarter-mile wide tornado traveling at speeds in excess of 50 mph struck the town shortly after midnight with maximum winds near 165 mph. The tornado was only illuminated by the occasional blue-white flash of lightning, or the eerie, green spark of arcing, damaged power lines. Power to portions of Woodward was knocked out prior to the arrival of the twister, along with the disabling of the town's 20 outdoor tornado sirens due to the frequent lightning. Six Oklahomans lost their lives, and 29 more were injured.
Would the loss of life been less if the tornado struck during daylight? Any answers to this question would be pure speculation; however personal experience and recent studies of nocturnal (nighttime) tornadoes may shed light on why tornadoes that occur after midnight and before sunrise are 2.5 times more likely to kill than those occurring during daylight hours.
A 2008 study by Ashley Walke, a Northern Illinois University meteorologist and professor of geography, NIU Geography Chair Andrew Krmenec and Research Associate Rick Schwantes found that from 1950 to 2005, 27 percent of tornadoes in the United States were nocturnal, yet 39 percent of tornado fatalities and 42 percent of killer tornado events occurred at night. To put it another way, about one-quarter of all tornadoes occur during nighttime hours, but almost half of all killer tornadoes occur after dark.
The simple fact is people are more vulnerable to tornadoes at night. It's more difficult for storm spotters to see the tornado. Many people are of the mindset that the threat of tornadoes typically diminishes after sunset, when in certain cases it actually increases – they go to sleep unaware of the situation. When they wake to the sound of the tornado, it's often too late to seek shelter in a more sturdy structure. As mentioned earlier, people may go to sleep relying on the outdoor tornado sirens to wake them up. It's the culmination of these things that make nighttime tornadoes so deadly.
The best way to level the playing field is to stay weather aware! It doesn't matter how excellent our coverage of a tornado may be, if you are asleep with your television off and unaware of the situation you'll never hear our warnings. The power may get knocked out rendering your television useless. Have a battery-powered NOAA Weather Radio, or the News 9 iPhone Weather Radio App that we are currently giving away for free! Our extended weather coverage is now available for live streaming on numerous different mobile platforms. If you don't have a SmartPhone, no problem! News 9 also offers free mobile alerts and emails sent to your cell phone. These are excellent warning systems even if the power remains on.
News 9's Gary England and his weather team will always be there to keep you advised; day and night. Our StormTrackers like Marty Logan, whose heroic efforts and iWitness reports of the Woodward tornado without a doubt saved lives, will always be out in the field on your behalf to track the storms. But the greatest service we can do for Oklahomans, is instill a weather aware mindset in you.