Tornado Alley: It could be anywhere

    2:26 PM, May 21, 2013   |    comments
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    (Photo: Valerie Mosley, News-Leader)

    UNDATED (USAToday) -- The twister that smashed the city of Moore, Okla., gave the nation a vivid glimpse of life in Tornado Alley, a vaguely defined region between the Rockies and the Mississippi that claims grim pride in being "the severe weather capital of the world.''

    But where once most Americans could watch the danger and drama of a big, killer twister with a certain detachment, changes in weather, demographics and culture have all but obliterated such a comfortable remove.

    Literally and figuratively, Tornado Alley now could be almost anywhere; the alley is more like a field that seems to spread by the year.

    That funnel cloud in The Wizard of Oz (actually a 35-foot tapered stocking) was remote and exotic. But the Oklahoma disaster is a reminder that Tornado Alley is less a geographic description than a state of mind, as twisters seem to range farther afield and extreme weather in general turns up in unexpected places -- a deadly tornado in western Massachusetts (June 2011), an earthquake in central Virginia (August 2011), storm surge on Wall Street (October 2012).

    There are explanations for our increased concern about tornadoes and all kinds of very bad weather. Climate change seems to portend meteorological extremes; cable TV news and social media focus national attention; meteorologists are much better able to detect, track and measure tornadoes; and the population is larger and more dispersed -- a larger target.

    Conversely, when twisters set down in western Oklahoma or parts of the Texas panhandle, Richard Mize noted last year in The Oklahoman of Oklahoma City, "chances are all they'll scare is a bunch of cows and all they'll hit is some oil tank batteries. ''

    The implied restrictiveness of "Tornado Alley" -- the term was coined by two Air Force meteorologists in 1952 -- was comforting to those not in it.

    But many of the once-specific regional weather identities -- West Coast earthquakes, Mountain West wildfires, Midwest blizzards and floods, East and Gulf Coast hurricanes -- seem increasingly obsolete.

    In this new world, a natural weather disaster is more terrifying to Americans everywhere because they know it can happen here -- we're all Dorothy and Toto, running for the storm cellar with cruel, vengeful nature bearing down on us.

    But Tornado Alley has no monopoly on tornadoes. In fact, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association data analyzed by the Santa Ana, Calif., firm CoreLogic, only three of the 10 states with the highest number of tornado touchdowns from 1980 to 2009 fell within in it. Only one alley state, Kansas, was in the top five.

    And meteorologist Grady Dixon of Mississippi State University has shown a greater likelihood of tornadoes hitting "Dixie Alley" in the Southeast than Tornado Alley.

    But Tornado Alley remains the symbolic heart of America's fascination with tornadoes, a place where the dark funnel cloud is an integral part of local history and culture.

    The region wears its name like a badge of honor. Delta Sigma Pi, the academic business fraternity, has a "Tornado Alley Region.'' Last December, the Science Museum of Oklahoma in Oklahoma City had a "Tornado Alley Day.'' In the IMAX film Tornado Alley, one character admiringly calls a monster twister "one of the visual wonders of the world.''

    It's certainly one of the most startling. Unlike a blizzard, flood or hurricane, whose drama rests in its long approach and uncertain course and outcome, a tornado descends suddenly from above, often offering warning of minutes rather than days. In Moore, many people had only about 15 minutes' warning.

    Here, generations know the green-black color of the sky, the eerie silence before and after the twister hits, the sound of the funnel itself, which all agree to be a remarkable imitation of a very large freight train.

    And they understand the almost personal malevolence of a big twister, like the monster that hit Moore in 1999 and drove a board into the concrete casing of a 100-foot Christian cross.

    There are lighter memories. Writing Sunday in the Tulsa World, columnist Jay Cronley recalled trying to carry his dog, who was afraid of the basement, into the same as a big storm approached. The beast, he reports, "stretched out all four legs and wedged his feet against the walls, like something out of a Roadrunner cartoon, stopping us cold.''

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