Tornadoes, like many weather patterns, are chaotic and difficult to predict; however, one measurable aspect of tornadoes is their frequency. In Mississippi, tornadoes are happening more and more often.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Mississippi experiences on average 43 tornadoes per year. In recent years, a spike in tornado activity has been recorded. In 2008, a record of 108 tornadoes was set, yet it only took just over a decade for that record to be broken in 2019. The number of tornadoes recorded was 147 in that year alone.
The trend is not limited to Mississippi. Most of the Southeast is experiencing the same trends. Risk wise, more tornadoes means more opportunity for these tornadoes to cause destruction and death. According to the Insurance Information Institute, Mississippi is currently ranked as the third most-dangerous state for tornadoes. This seems contradictory since Oklahoma, known for its tornado alley, is the most active but less risky than others.
Steve Quarles is the director of Emergency Management and Homeland Security for Lafayette County in Northern Mississippi, and he believes the higher risk of tornado-related injuries and deaths is due to Mississippi’s geography as well as its location.
“Mississippi is a different landscape than places like Oklahoma,” he said. “It’s more hilly, there are actually more trees, so the landscape oftentimes prevents you from seeing a tornado as it comes.” More trees also means more damage when whole trees or limbs are blown into homes or other structures.
Quarles noted that the timing of Mississippi’s tornadoes lends to their potential for casualties as well. The typical pattern is for updrafts to increase as a day heats, and for intense storm systems to approach the state from the west and northwest.
“More of our tornadoes are happening at night, in comparison with tornado alley, so people don’t have that long-term visibility like they do there,” Quarles said. “That shortens the window that you know something is about to hit you.”
Quarles said local governments are becoming weather-aware. Measures to mitigate the amount of lives lost to violent tornadoes include outdoor sirens and telephone alert systems in which residents may enroll to receive warnings.
“The best means to protect people is the earlier you can notify them to take shelter offers the best chance,” he said.
Because public awareness is the frontline strategy, Quarles said both the sirens and ‘Code Red’ phone alerts are needed. “You want multiple ways to receive notifications because if cell towers or electricity is damaged, you might not have service to get that warning, so a weather radio would be helpful, too” he said.