It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the tornadoes and repeated waves of vicious storms containing high winds and blinding downpours that swept through the tristate region on Wednesday were of historic proportions. The death toll in the area - 78 and still rising at this writing - and the mind-boggling destruction of property in many communities are sad testament to the veracity of the statement. If they didn't know it before Wednesday, area residents surely should know now that bad weather can turn extraordinarily deadly in a matter of moments.
The terrible toll of death and destruction here is tragic, but it could have been far worse. Thankfully, it was not. While it is extraordinarily difficult to predict with accuracy precisely where and when any tornado will strike, modern meteorology provides forecasters with tools that allow them to provide advance warning about the likelihood and probable paths of such storms. That certainly was the case with the events of Wednesday.
Warnings were there
There was, in fact, more than adequate long-term warning that horrendous, even deadly, weather could occur here. Last weekend, local and national forecasters began to warn about the high probability of a widespread outbreak of dangerous weather in the region by midweek. Those warnings were dutifully and urgently relayed to the public by various media. By evening and very early Wednesday, the eruption of various storms and their probable paths were tracked on websites like that of the Chattanooga Times Free Press and various other media outlets. The coverage was outstanding, and the warnings and tracking of possible tornadoes within violent storms undoubtedly helped prevent an even higher number of deaths and injuries.
The storms here were part of an immense system that produced many tornadoes and that killed hundreds of people in six states. The area of destruction is so widespread that it will likely be a couple of days yet before a final accounting of lives lost is available. It will take much longer to calculate the amount of property damage. There is general agreement among public safety and insurance industry officials that the latter number will be extraordinarily high. The vast scope of Wednesday's storms and the ferocity of the most destructive cells within them assure that.
More victims likely
The series of storms traversed much of the South. The number of dead in the storm's wake was about 260 by mid-day Thursday, but officials said that number was expected to increase as the monumental task of sorting through massive amounts of debris in intensive search-and-rescue missions continued. While Alabama appeared to be the hardest hit, no locale in the storms' path was spared significant loss of life. In the tristate region, multiple deaths were reported in Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama.
Major property damage was apparent, as well, in a vast area. The Tennessee Valley Authority reported that all of its major transmission lines in Alabama and Mississippi were downed by the storm, leaving millions in the dark. Crews are working to restore power, but there is a possibility that some individuals, especially in rural areas, will have to wait at least a week and possibly more before infrastructure is restored. That's a scenario repeated elsewhere.
The Electric Power Board said Thursday that about 119,000 homes and businesses in its service area were without power at some point during and after the siege of storms. The number had dropped considerably by Wednesday afternoon, but it could take days to restore power to all affected, a company spokesman reported. Wednesday's damage is the worst of its type in the utility's history. Other utility companies in the region faced similar problems. A Dade County, Ga., official reported, for example, that the entire county was without power at one point.
The death delivered and the devastation wrought by the storms are only part of the story related to Wednesday's momentous events. The other part relates to the unselfish acts and to the community spirit provided by individuals and institutions during and after the storms' passage.
Already, there are numerous accounts of individuals who took considerable risk to make sure others were sheltered from the storm. There are reports, too, of individuals who began digging through rubble and debris to search for and assist survivors even as heavy rains and flashes of lightning signaled the storm's presence. The Red Cross, the Salvation Army and numerous other groups quickly appeared to provide comfort, aid and assistance in places where all were needed.
Help will be needed
That work is only beginning. Hundreds of families, if not more, will need assistance in finding shelter and in providing the basics of everyday life. Others will require help in repairing damaged homes and property. In many instances, the work has started. Neighbor is helping neighbor, and numerous civic and church groups are delivering needed supplies to the hard-hit areas. If there is a blessing to be found in Wednesday's events, it is in the outpouring of care, assistance and concern that has been apparent in the aftermath of the storms. That - as well as the knowledge that taking weather warnings seriously and that taking shelter when advised to do so can save lives - are the hard-earned and welcome lessons of a day of death and destruction.