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Tornado Disaster -- Alabama, March 27, 1994

On Sunday, March 27, 1994, a series of severe thunderstorms and tornadoes moved across Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. These storms accounted for injuries to at least 422 persons, including 47 fatalities. Twenty-three fatalities were associated with a tornado that cut a path across St. Clair, Calhoun, and Cherokee counties in northeastern Alabama from 10:55 a.m. to 11:39 a.m. (Figure_1). This tornado damaged or destroyed three churches while services were being conducted. This report provides a summary of the injuries and deaths associated with this tornado based on information from death certificates from coroners' offices in the three counties and from emergency department and inpatient medical records from eight area hospitals.

Of 144 persons who sustained nonfatal injuries and sought hospital-based medical care, 87 (60%) were treated and released; primary diagnoses included contusions/ abrasions (39 {45%}), lacerations (27 {31%}), fractures (six {7%}), and other trauma (15 {17%}). Fifty-seven (40%) persons were hospitalized; primary diagnoses included fractures (23 {40%}), multiple trauma (12 {21%}), head trauma (10 {18%}), and other trauma (12 {21%}).

Twenty of the 23 deaths occurred when the tornado destroyed a church in southern Cherokee County (Table_1). Two persons were killed while inside automobiles, and one died outdoors at a boat ramp. The mean age of the decedents was 35 years (range: 2-79 years). The immediate cause of death for 22 persons was severe head trauma with multiple injuries; for one person, the cause was hemorrhagic shock with multiple trauma.

The National Weather Service issued severe thunderstorm warnings for eastern Jefferson and St. Clair counties at 10:24 a.m. and issued a tornado warning for Etowah and Calhoun counties at 10:49 a.m. The tornado warnings broadcast over radio and television advised persons to seek immediate shelter. At 10:53 a.m., local television and radio stations broadcast a tornado warning for St. Clair County. At 10:55 a.m., the tornado struck southwest of Ragland in St. Clair County. At 11:27 a.m., a revised tornado warning was issued for northern Calhoun, southeastern Etowah, and southern Cherokee counties. At 11:39 a.m., the church in Cherokee County, approximately 32 miles northeast of the tornado's initial point of impact, was destroyed.

The tornado's path was one fourth to one half mile wide and approximately 50 miles long. Because of its extremely rapid development and rapid ground speed (60 mph), this tornado was sighted only 5 minutes before it touched down, despite use of Doppler radar.

Reported by: R Curley, Jacksonville Hospital, Jacksonville; L Ramsey, Northeast Alabama Regional Medical Center, L Burdette, Stringfellow Memorial Hospital, JL Bennett, Calhoun County Emergency Management Agency, P Hulsey, Calhoun County Coroner, Anniston; L Doeg, Cherokee Baptist Medical Center, L Tucker, Cherokee County Coroner, Centre; D Norrell, Baptist Medical Center- De Kalb, Fort Payne; D Brittian, Gadsden Regional Medical Center, C Turner, Riverview Regional Medical Center, Gadsden; S Evans, St. Clair Regional Hospital, J Wyatt, St. Clair County Coroner, Pell City; TR Nielsen, L Burell, Public Health Area IV, Anniston; CH Woernle, MD, State Epidemiologist, Alabama Dept of Public Health. B Peters, National Weather Svc, Huntsville, Alabama. Disaster Assessment and Epidemiology Section, Health Studies Br, Div of Environmental Hazards and Health Effects, National Center for Environmental Health; Chronic Disease Prevention Br, Div of Nutrition, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, CDC.

Editorial Note

Editorial Note: Tornadoes are one of the most lethal and violent of all natural disasters; in the United States during 1953-1992, tornadoes accounted for 3653 fatalities (1). Tornadoes have occurred in every state and during every month of the year (2). The Fujita Tornado Scale (F0-F6) ranks tornadoes according to their speed, path length, and path width. The March 27 tornado was ranked as a Fujita level 4, which is among the top 3% of the most violent tornadoes.

Local implementation of prevention and control measures in conjunction with tornado "watches" and "warnings" issued by the National Weather Service (3,4) include the establishment of local observer networks, installation of warning systems (e.g., alarms or sirens), and education of the public about when and where to take shelter (4). Previous investigations have suggested an increased risk for injury or death among persons who are inside mobile homes or vehicles when tornadoes strike (3-6). The findings in Alabama suggest that persons inside some public buildings also may be at risk. The findings also emphasize the role of local observer networks in providing timely warnings to communities in the projected path of a tornado. Additional measures include alarms, sirens, or warning devices that are not dependent on radio or television broadcast and can be activated when National Weather Service tornado warnings are issued or when local public safety authorities note the approach of severe weather.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recommends the following prevention measures for persons in areas in which tornado warnings have been issued: 1) persons in permanent homes should go to a basement, hallway, closet, or interior room and cover themselves with pillows, blankets, or mattresses; 2) persons in mobile homes should seek shelter in a permanent structure (mobile home tiedowns are ineffective at wind speeds above 50 mph); 3) in rural areas, persons in vehicles should leave their vehicles and lie flat in the nearest gully or ditch; and 4) in urban areas, persons in vehicles should leave their vehicles and seek shelter in a permanent structure, and persons in buildings without basements should go to a small interior room or hallway (4).

References

  1. National Climatic Data Center. Storm data and unusual weather phenomena, with late reports and corrections. Asheville, North Carolina: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Climatic Data Center, 1992;34(12):90.

  2. Fujita TT. U.S. tornadoes, part one: 70-year statistics. Chicago: The University of Chicago, Department of Geophysical Sciences, 1987:103.

  3. CDC. Tornado disaster -- Kansas, 1991. MMWR 1992;41:181-3.

  4. Sanderson LM. Tornadoes. In: Gregg MB, ed. The public health consequences of disasters, 1989. Atlanta: US Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, CDC, 1989:39-49.

  5. CDC. Tornado disaster -- Illinois, 1990. MMWR 1991;40:33-6.

  6. Glass RI, Craven RB, Bregman DJ, et al. Injuries from the Wichita Falls tornado: implications for prevention. Science 1980;207:734-8.




Figure_1

Figure_1
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Table_1
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TABLE 1. Location persons at time of tornado-associated injuries and deaths --
Alabama, March 27, 1994
================================================================================
                      Treated
                   and released    Hospitalized     Died       Total
                   ------------    ------------   ---------  ---------
Category            No.    (%)      No.    (%)    No.  (%)   No.  (%)
----------------------------------------------------------------------
Single family home  10     (12)      5     ( 9)    0         15   ( 9)
Mobile home          5     ( 6)      0             0          5   ( 3)
Public building *   29     (33)     34     (60)   20   (87)  83   (50)
Vehicle             11     (13)      4     ( 7)    2   ( 9)  17   (10)
Outdoors             3     ( 3)      2     ( 3)    1   ( 4)   6   ( 4)
Not recorded        29     (33)     12     (21)    0         41   (25)

Total               87    (100)     57    (100)   23  (100) 167  (100)
----------------------------------------------------------------------
* i.e., church.
================================================================================

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