First Tornado Death Confirmed: 2014 Has Longest Fatality-Free Start in 99 Years
By Nick Wiltgen
Published: August 6, 2014
Even as we pushed deep into the heart of spring tornado season, 2014 spared Americans the agony and grief of tornado-related deaths for an unusually long time. Unfortunately, the long safe start ended Sunday when an 11-month-old baby died of injuries sustained in a tornado two days earlier, on April 25, in eastern North Carolina.
(MORE: Baby Killed in N.C. Twister)
Nevertheless, the year's long early safe streak put 2014 in rare territory, historically.
The modern era of tornado records began in 1950 with the advent of the storm database maintained by NOAA's Storm Prediction Center. This year has now gone on longer than any other calendar year in that era without a tornado fatality.
The previous record belonged to 2002, when the year's first killer tornado struck April 21 -- an F3 that killed a man in a mobile home in a rural area of Wayne County, Illinois.
Another recent year's long quiet streak ended rather violently. Sunday, April 20 marked the 10th anniversary of 2004's first killer tornado, also an F3 in Illinois. Eight people died on April 20, 2004 when a twister smashed into Utica, Ill., causing a tavern to collapse. The twister was part of an outbreak of 30 tornadoes notable because human and computer forecasts made only hours earlier indicated the atmosphere would not be unstable enough for tornadic activity.
(MORE: WeatherReady Tornado Safety Tips)
When compiling historical tornado lists, one way to compare records is to look at four different eras, reflecting the evolution of tornado documentation as described in tornado historian Tom Grazulis' compendium, Significant Tornadoes 1680-1991:
- The modern era, 1950-present. In his book, Grazulis notes that "serious efforts" to document all tornadoes began in 1953, which was the first full year of tornado watches issued by the U.S. Weather Bureau, now the National Weather Service. The bureau began collecting thorough data in an attempt to determine how well the watches were verifying (i.e., how many watches contained tornadoes).
- Since the "middle period"; 1916-present. Grazulis points out that the government began keeping an official count of tornadoes in 1916, but the effort was not evenly executed in every state.
- Since the "early period"; 1880-present. The efforts of John Park Finley, considered America's first tornado climatologist and first forecaster of severe thunderstorms, resulted in a great advance in the collection of tornado reports beginning in 1880. Grazulis notes, however, that the historical record from 1880-1915 is likely incomplete owing to a relative lack of small-town newspapers in what was then the predominantly poor and rural South, as compared to a more robust newspaper and storm reporting network in the Plains.
- Since the end of the Civil War; 1866-present. Very few tornadoes were reported or recorded in the chaos of the Civil War, so attempting to craft a list any farther back in time than 1866 is futile.
Even including what are likely incomplete historical records from the mid 19th to early 20th centuries, 2014 ranks among the top 10 years with the longest fatality-free start. It's likely that some of those older years in the record had undocumented tornado deaths, which would move 2014 even higher in the rankings if we had perfect knowledge of what happened back then.
Before 2014, we have to go back 99 years to find a calendar year when the first documented tornado death came later in the year – that was 1915, when the first recorded death came on May 5.
Why Did This Year Start Relatively Safe?
Part of the reason for this year's safe start is the lack of strong tornadoes. It is likely not a coincidence that there were no EF3 or stronger tornadoes on the Enhanced Fujita Scale in 2014 until one hit North Carolina on April 25, and that's also a record-long wait in the modern era since 1950. Tornadoes in the higher Fujita categories do a disproportionate amount of all damage and cause a large majority of all tornado deaths, historically speaking.
(MORE: Longest Wait For an EF3 in Modern Times)
It is likely also true that modern technology -- with powerful Doppler radar systems and instant communication -- have helped to keep this year's relatively weaker tornadoes from turning deadly.
While we are in impressive company when looking at calendar years – resetting the count at January 1, so to speak -- we got nowhere near the longest streak of consecutive days without a killer tornado.
That record was just broken in 2012-13, when a string of 219 consecutive days passed without a killer tornado. That streak ended with the Adairsville, Ga., tornado on Jan. 30, 2013. Like the other streak-ending twisters mentioned above, it rated a 3 -- in this case, an EF3.
Depending on how you count, there were 126 consecutive days without a tornado death through and including April 26, 2014 -- or 124 consecutive days without a killer tornado through April 24, 2014.
(MORE: Latest TOR:CON tornado forecast from Dr. Greg Forbes)