(*Actually, lightning also has the propensity to strike the same places over and over again, too, proving that not all old wive’s tales are true.)
Everybody raised along the routine tracks of massive killer tornadoes in Jefferson County, Alabama, knew without needing to ask, that deadly F4 and F5’s follow the same general paths each time there is an outbreak. Thus the following map of the deadliest four Jefferson County tornadoes over the last fifty years, printed in yesterday’s (May 22, 2011) Birmingham News only confirmed what we already knew:
The map appears to have only two tracks, though it depicts four monsters That’s because each of the two tracks depict the paths of two tornadoes that aren’t discernibly different, except would be on the ground. The tornado in 1977 passing through Pratt City and Smithfield obliterated different blocks and streets than did the recent one. The edge of destruction carries only as far as the width of the tornado, and the paths are similar, but not exact, as one would expect in a maelstrom as violent as an F4/5 tornado.
One of the scientists interviewed for the article, Mathew Biddle from the University of Oklahoma, flatly denied there was any topographic cause to the similarity in the tornadoes’ paths, saying that poverty rates and the extent of manufactured housing determine where tornadoes are deadliest. Utter nonsense.
None of the deadly tornadoes hit the poorest sections of Jefferson County, and none destroyed trailer parks along the way. Pratt City, the least wealthy of the areas in the county that routinely gets hit, is a lower-middle-class black neighborhood of sturdy homes. But when an F4/5 comes calling, even the grandest mansions aren’t safe.
I lived in Forestdale in 1977, an area just to the northwest of Pratt City/Smithfield. I remember well the day the tornado hit. I was getting off the school bus after a particularly hot and humid ride home when all hell broke loose from the sky. I ran to the house and whipped inside just in time to see the view out the windows make it appear as though the house were at the bottom of a turbulent sea. We later found out that the tornado had passed overhead, but didn’t touch down. It blew a few shingles off our roof, but when it touched down about a mile away, it completely and utterly destroyed everything in its path.
I was living in Maytown, a tiny community just to the east of Pleasant Grove when the 1998 tornado hit. Again I was spared, but only barely. Bits of homes and belongings littered our yard the next day, but the wind where we were never blew hard enough to blow the garbage cans over. Driving into the city to work the next morning was like driving through a bombed-out war zone.
When the latest storms came slashing, the TV weatherman said they were headed directly for my little community just south of downtown Birmingham, where we had moved shortly after the 1998 tornado hit Pleasant Grove. I couldn’t believe it. Massive killer tornadoes never, ever hit south of Birmingham, and not because “over the mountain”, as areas south of Birmingham are called, is where the rich folks live. It’s probably due to the mountain itself steering tornadoes away to the north and east. Red Mountain, its ridgeline forming the southern boundary of Jones Valley in which Birmingham sits, is so named because of the iron buried beneath and upon it. The discovery of iron ore in and on Red Mountain (along with surrounding coal fields everyone already knew was there) is what caused Birmingham to “magically” grow from non-existence during the Civil War to a bustling, busy metropolis only a half-century later. And well, the storms didn’t hit south of the mountain, as expected. They passed along the same track as before, destroying parts of Pratt City (a former coal-mining company town) and then passing north of Birmingham proper. The weatherman got the severity right but the direction of travel wrong. He should have more closely paid mind to history.
Indeed, folks from around here know that killer tornadoes have favorite paths, and have known it for years. It doesn’t mean that piddly F1/2’s can’t hit anywhere. They can. But they don’t cause widespread death and destruction like F4/5’s. And these massive killers in Jefferson County don’t kill because the people are poor or are living in trailers. They kill because anything that gets in their way is prone to destruction and death. And their way is altogether too familiar and predictable, as the map attests.
(My heart goes out to Joplin, Missouri today, which was apparently struck by a massive, killer tornado last night. God speed in your recovery.)