December 11, 2021

After A Historic December Tornado Outbreak, Please Get A Weather Radio

A significant and likely historic tornado outbreak unfolded across portions of the central United States late Friday night, with multiple intense, long-track tornadoes touching down across the Mississippi and Ohio River valleys. One of the tornadoes was particularly devastating, killing dozens of people and cutting a path that might have measured more than 200 miles long.

This was a well-predicted and well-warned event.

Forecasters highlighted the potential for significant severe thunderstorms across the hardest-hit areas several days in advance. The Storm Prediction Center issued an enhanced risk for severe weather a day in advance, and upgraded to a moderate risk—a four out of five on the scale measuring the risk for severe weather—the morning before the tornadoes.
Most of the communities hit by the tornadoes had long lead times. Tornadic debris signatures were clear as day on radar for the most significant tornadoes, allowing forecasters to issue tornado warnings and tornado emergencies well in advance of the storms' arrival.

Despite the forecasts and the warnings, we still experienced an unthinkable human toll during Friday night's storms. The latest reports indicate that more than 100 people may have died in the tornadoes, which would make this the deadliest tornado event since late May 2011, which included the devastating tornado that struck Joplin, Missouri.

Last night's tornado outbreak included three nightmare scenarios wrapped into one. We dealt with:

1) strong tornadoes hitting populated areas;
2) strong tornadoes touching down at night when people are asleep;
3) strong tornadoes during the "off-season," just two weeks before Christmas.

Any one of those situations is heart-stopping by itself. But it's a recipe for disaster when you combine all three into one horrific night.

Steep tornado-related casualties were common in the days before Doppler weather radar and large-scale warning systems. A tragedy like last night's tornado outbreak is so viscerally jarring today specifically because that kind of early-day casualty rate is so rare now.

The best warnings and the best forecasts weren't able to save dozens of lives last night. There are lots of reasons why it happened. Meteorologists and social scientists will have to study this event long and hard to figure out what went wrong and what they can do better in the future to help stave off another mass-casualty event like this.

But there's one thing you can do right now that mitigates your risk of getting hurt or worse if you find yourself under the threat of tornadoes any day or any time of the year: please get a weather radio and check your cell phone's emergency alert settings.

Smartphones are the most common way we receive tornado warnings these days. Modern technology geotargets warnings to your location, sending you a noisy push alert the moment your location is placed within a tornado warning polygon. Wireless emergency alerts have been credited with saving countless lives over the past decade. 

The only problem is that people tend to switch these alerts off after one or two ill-timed notifications, usually for routine tests or child abduction alerts. Please take a minute today to go into your smartphone's settings and ensure these alerts are activated for tornado warnings. It could very well wake you up and save your life when you're least expecting it.

What if your device's battery dies, you don't have good reception, or you simply can't hear your phone while you're asleep or in the other room? That's when a NOAA Weather Radio can come in handy.

NOAA Weather Radios are like smoke detectors for the weather. You can program these devices to sound a loud tone and automatically read a warning out loud when your county goes under a severe weather watch or warning. They can provide you ample warning when severe weather is on the way even if your electricity and internet go out.

We live in the smart home era. You can switch on your coffee pot using your voice while you're sitting on the toilet. Something like a weather radio may seem like outdated technology. But...who cares? They work! They work.

It's best to have multiple layers of protection when it comes to something as serious as severe weather. Weather radios are a great tool to have in your home just in case you miss a warning on your cell phone and you're not aware of threatening weather heading in your direction.

Last night's storms were a horrific tragedy. It's going to take a long time to figure out what went wrong and how forecasters and communicators can improve their products and their reach in the future to prevent more tragedies like this one. Take the opportunity today to ensure that you and your family are protected from severe weather no matter what time or what day it strikes.

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I graduated from the University of South Alabama in 2014 with a degree in political science and a minor in meteorology. I contribute to The Weather Network as a digital writer, and I've written for Forbes, the Washington Post's Capital Weather Gang, Popular Science, Mental Floss, and Gawker's The Vane. My latest book, The Skies Above, is now available. My first book, The Extreme Weather Survival Manual, arrived in October 2015.


  1. My heart breaks for all those personally effected by this disaster. I think it would be a good idea if all public use buildings in strong wind areas were required by code enforcement, city/county, to turn breakrooms and bathrooms into official storm shelters open to the public when necessary.

  2. Add to the causes the factory supervisors who threatened workers with termination if they tried to leave and shelter somewhere safer. It's heartbreaking that there are people who were reached by the alerts and were pressured not to act on them. (Don't know that that angle was necessarily known at the original time of publication.)