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Tornado Outbreak Likely Deadliest Since 1974

tornadoes in dixie alley
An infrared satellite image of the severe storm system that has been hammering what scientists call Dixie Alley. Image captured on April 26. (Image credit: NASA Environmental Visualization Laboratory)

Update 3:05 p.m. EDT: The death toll from the southern storms is now at least 250, reported the Associated Press.

Killer tornadoes during the first four months of this year have already claimed more lives than all of last year, possibly making this the deadliest tornado outbreak since the Super Outbreak of 1974, according to the nation's Storm Prediction Center in Norman, Okla.

The death toll had surpassed last year’s before deadly storms pounded the South last night (April 27), devastating Tuscaloosa, Ala. Earlier this week, a one-two tornado punch in Arkansas pushed this year's death toll to 51, topping the 45 killed last year.

Last night, nearly 100 reported tornadoes may have claimed another 100 lives in Dixie Alley, a historic tornado outbreak in what could be a record-breaking month for twisters.

"Never, in 32 years forecasting, have I seen as many violent tornadoes indicated on radar at one time as I did today," wrote Alabama meteorologist Dan Satterfield on his American Geophysical Union blog.

Southern tornadoes are so deadly because they are hard to see, such as last night's reported nighttime tornadoes in North Georgia and the rain-cloaked tornadoes in Tuscaloosa and Birmingham, Ala. Mobile homes, which are easily flipped or crushed, are common in the region, potentially adding to the high death toll. [In Images: The Tornado Damage Scale]

Last night's outbreak will likely be deadliest since the 1974 "Super Outbreak" that killed 330 people on April 3 and 4 of that year. Violent storms have reportedly killed 123 in Alabama, and dozens more in Georgia and Mississippi, CNN reported. Storm survey teams will confirm if those people were killed by tornadoes.

Forecasters had been nervous that yesterday's outbreak would be intense, said Grady Dixon, a climatologist and meteorologist at Mississippi State University in Starkville.

"That event did not catch anyone by surprise, but I think everyone is still stunned to see the results," Dixon told OurAmazingPlanet.

Deadly Dixie

A Dixie Alley tornado does not need to be big to be deadly.

Unlike the flat, grass-covered plains of Tornado Alley, tornadoes are hard to see in Dixie Alley. Trees and hilly terrain obscure funnel clouds, a problem made even worse by the region's high rate of nighttime tornadoes.

Often, tornadoes can be cloaked in rain, hiding even the most massive twisters.

To make matters worse, Dixie Alley is home to many manufactured houses and mobile homes that have weak walls and poor or non-existent foundations. Before last night, more than half of this year's tornado-related deaths had occurred in mobile homes.

Historic outbreaks

Before yesterday's storms, the biggest outbreak this year was in North Carolina, where tornadoes killed 24 people , all from a single April outbreak. That was the deadliest outbreak since the "Super Tuesday" storms of February 2008, when 57 people died in Dixie Alley.

In 2008, during a season among the all-time highest for number of tornadoes, 126 people were killed. This year's tornado season has already topped that total. As staggering as these death tolls are, they've been dramatically reduced in recent years due to better forecasting and warnings.

Mike Smith, chief executive officer of Weather Data Services, a part of AccuWeather, believes that at least 100 lives were saved by the warnings before a massive EF-4 tornado — the strongest of the year so far — struck near St. Louis on Good Friday (April 22). Some of the tornadoes from the outbreak yesterday are speculated to also be EF-4s.

Reach OurAmazingPlanet staff writer Brett Israel at bisrael@techmedianetwork.com. Follow him on Twitter @btisrael.

Brett Israel was a staff writer for Live Science with a focus on environmental issues. He holds a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and molecular biology from The University of Georgia, a master’s degree in journalism from New York University, and has studied doctorate-level biochemistry at Emory University.