‘Monster’ twister claims 20 children’s lives

Act of God: The Oklahoma resident who took this shot was fleeing the tornado in a car © Quinton Myers

Response teams are desperately searching the rubble of an Oklahoma suburb devastated by a tornado of awesome power. But is our fascination with these terrifying storms ghoulish?

The residents of Oklahoma awoke on Monday morning to a menacing sky and urgent warnings from their local media. Sharp winds whipped the hot prairie, and meteorologists issued strict instructions to remain indoors. A tornado was on its way.

In itself, that was not particularly unusual. Oklahoma is at the core of an American region known as ‘Tornado Alley’, which witnesses more of these terrifying storms than anywhere else on Earth. This one state alone averages 62 tornadoes every year.

But this was no ordinary twister. As it tore through the plains, it had gathered in power and volume until it was two miles wide, with wind speeds of over 300 km per hour. Then it headed straight for a suburban area called Moore.

Tornadoes form suddenly in areas where hot and cold fronts collide – in America’s case, tropical currents from the Gulf of Mexico meeting cool currents from the Rocky Mountains. Hot air rises fast and wind rushes in from all sides to fill the gap, creating a powerful rotational wind. As it cools, the swirling air descends back to earth and wreaks destruction on anything it encounters.

This all happens very fast, with little time for the area at risk to be evacuated. The residents of Moore had no choice but to find whatever shelter they could and lock their doors.

One man remembers the moment when his cellar door burst open and exposed him to the tornado’s furious gusts. ‘We thought we were dead,’ he said. Another man rushed to his foster child’s elementary school, and arrived just in time to see it collapse. ‘I had to hold onto the wall to keep myself safe,’ said one young schoolchild, ‘because I didn’t want to fly away.’

The death toll is 24 so far, including at least 20 children from the annihilated school. ‘#PrayForOklahoma’ has been trending on Twitter around the world, while President Barack Obama has declared a national disaster.

But the horror and sympathy are mixed with fascination. Extended photo galleries and grainy home videos of the storm and its wake litter the pages of every news website.

Twisted obsession?

We have always been thrilled by tornadoes: their terrible destructive power makes them one of the most awesome spectacles that nature has to offer. From fantastical and whimsy in The Wizard of Oz to high octane action in Twister, they have been the centerpiece of many a Hollywood film.

Given how horrible the effects of a tornado can be, some people find the fascination morbid and distasteful. Why do we linger so long on these images of devastation? Is it out of genuine concern? Or are we simply looking for a cheap, ghoulish thrill from a disaster that wrecks the lives of others?

You Decide

  1. Which is more useful in a news story about a tornado: a slideshow of 20 photographs, a graphic explaining how tornadoes are formed or a comment piece arguing that the government should have done more to protect the area?
  2. Is there anything wrong with making an action film based on a natural disaster?

Activities

  1. In small groups, imagine you are the editorial team of a newspaper. Design a front page that covers the tornado in Oklahoma, including a headline and a description of the photo you would choose.
  2. Draw a simple diagram explaining how tornadoes form.

Some People Say...

“Nature will always be more powerful than human beings.”

What do you think?

Q & A

How much of a threat are these storms?
It depends on where you live. The majority of tornadoes, for instance, occur in North America, with a smattering in South Asia and South America. If you live in an area where they are common, be careful to heed warnings and advice from meteorologists. But even within the very most threatened region, one spot is only likely to be affected by a tornado four times per century.
So I shouldn’t worry about extreme weather?
Spectacular storms like this are rare. But less dramatic forms of extreme weather – heat waves, cold spells, storms – are becoming more common as the climate changes. In coming decades that could cause havoc for farmers and lead to widespread food shortages, unless we act urgently to minimise global warming.

Word Watch

Meteorologists
People who study weather. ‘Meteoron’ is an Ancient Greek word meaning literally ‘high up thing’, which also gives rise to the word ‘meteor’.
Wind speeds
The speed and power of a tornado is very hard to measure, because the air moves so fast over a small area and because it is impossible to get very close. Meteorologists usually estimate the force of a tornado based on the damage it does to the ground below and rank it from one to five on the Fujita Scale – but this method is often considered very inexact.
Hot air rises
When air heats up, it becomes less dense as the particles move away from one another. This forces it to rise above the cooler air above it, until it begins to cool, at which point it descends again. These ‘convection currents’ are behind all of the world’s weather.
Rotational wind
The direction of the wind is dictated by the spinning of the Earth: northern hemisphere tornadoes rotate clockwise while southern hemisphere ones rotate anticlockwise.

Subjects

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