Tennessee Reels from Tornado Onslaught

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Tennessee and other states have been hit by an unusually high number of tornadoes this spring. At least 10 people died in Friday's storms, with suburbs northeast of Nashville suffering some of the worst damage.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Coming up, why intelligence reform may not be so intelligent. But first, ten people are dead after tornadoes ripped through suburban Nashville last night. The storms came just days after two dozen people were killed by tornadoes in the northwestern part of the state. This year the United States has seen a dramatic increase in the number of tornadoes, more than 280 have touched down over the last three months. That's four times as many as hit during the same period the last three years. NPR's Audie Cornish has been following the story and joins us from Nashville. Audie, thanks for being with us.

AUDIE CORNISH reporting:

Thank you.

SIMON: And can you tell us what the area there is like now?

CORNISH: Emergency responders are going out and beginning and search and rescue. And unlike last week's storms which hit more rural areas, this was a highly populated suburban area just north of Nashville, which means that you're seeing a lot more businesses that are struck, you're seeing very large homes and subdivisions ripped apart and the roofs sucked out, all the sort of trademark damages from tornadoes happening in this area, which is very different from the sort of large tracts of rural land where you saw homes and mobile homes and trees splintered for miles in last week's damage.

SIMON: At the same time, since suburban communities have been struck, do they sometimes have greater resources and preparedness to deal with this?

CORNISH: In this particular case, yes, because some of these counties were actually taking part in a large-scale emergency drill that was planned for this weekend. It was one of the largest in the country since Hurricane Katrina, and so there were many emergency responders that were already mobilized in these areas. Unlike last weekend in the rural counties where the fire department itself was struck in one county and the police department was hit, these are the responders that are often times responsible for sending up the warning sirens.

So in this case you had a much faster reaction and you had responders who were able to get to people much more quickly than they could in rural areas where you had to get backhoes and all kinds of equipment out just to clear the trees to get to the homes to help people to get them to the ambulance. In this case, you had hospitals that were prepared. They took in more than 60 people with injuries and you had emergency responders that were on the scene much faster, because people were hearing the warnings all day.

SIMON: Audie, we mentioned the number, the increase in the number of tornadoes this year. Do meteorologists have a clue?

CORNISH: They don't, because you can't really predict a tornado season the way you might look long range at a hurricane season, sort of taking in the ocean temperature and things like that. We've had a couple of mild years, the last couple of years for tornadoes, and meteorologists say it's seasonal. This year is going to be a tough year most likely, and one of the things that a meteorologist told me, I found very interesting, is that unlike the plain states, tornadoes in the South are hidden in rain columns, which means you're looking at thunderstorms and watching to see if the thunderstorms are starting to turn and go in the direction a wind column.

And in the plain states you can, it's flatter, it's drier. You can see the tornado coming often times from miles away. In the South they're buried in these thunderstorms and so you're looking for these little hints of a tornado starting to develop. And I'm new to the area and for me it's been interesting sort of figuring out what are the signs, the hail stones, the skies getting gray.

But that is probably one of the things that is accounting for some of the damage in the areas, that for Tennessee, although people are used to tornadoes, it's still a very difficult thing to know exactly when and where it's going to touch down, and then it's upon you.

SIMON: NPR's Audie Cornish in Nashville. Thanks very much.

CORNISH: Thank you.

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