Thursday, June 2, 2011

When Rare Events Happen -- Tornadoes in Massachusetts!

As my UMass colleague in Engineering and an expert on tornadoes, Dr. Stephen Frasier, said yesterday, as tornadoes swept Massachusetts, beginning with the western part, where we live, what happened was a pretty big system and was uncharacteristic. The terror and shock that many felt were definitely real during a surreal evening.

I was home, having left my office at UMass Amherst, and we were getting ready to pick up our daughter from Deerfield, about 12 miles from Amherst, where she has final exams this week. Propitiously, I checked one of our local news channels online only to see in big bold letters that there was a tornado warning for our area. Needless to say, we who live in western MA, pride ourselves on getting through grueling winters with blizzards and when tornadoes strike elsewhere say that, in New England, we don't have to deal directly with such extreme events -- until yesterday.

The weather reports late yesterday afternoon continued to warn us of extreme weather -- storms with lightning, high winds, and tornadoes over the next couple of hours and many TV programs were preempted.

I was reminded of Nassim Taleb's book, The Black Swan, on rare events. Taleb had held a faculty appointment in my department a few years back and worked with my Finance colleagues.

We called our daughter (thank goodness for cell phones in emergencies, cancer risks notwithstanding) and told her that she would be picked up a bit later. Ultimately, she made it home and then, after dinner, drove herself to skating (she is a competitive figure skater, among other sports that she truly loves) while her parents were glued to the TV (itself quite the rare event). A tornado had, indeed, struck the city of Springfield and West Springfield, about 4:30PM (and to add to the anxiety, only 24 hours before, my husband and daughter had been precisely in that general area getting her fitted for new figure skates). The black funnel cloud was shown on TV and then the images of the devastation and the people wandering around in shock, with trees downed, cars smashed, and our major medical center, Bay State, in "disaster" mode with emergency vehicles trying to reach people. There were power outages, gas leaks, and many workers were stuck in their offices and unable to get home plus a big truck was overturned on a major bridge and traffic was at a standstill.

As my daughter drove herself home from skating at the Mullins Center at UMass at around 8PM she noted that the sky had turned yellow and the sun had a pink aura. The sky in our neighboring towns of Hadley and Northampton had turned a greenish black.

The tornadoes continued eastward.

As for emergency notification, the UMass Amherst campus had sounded its emergency warning sirens throughout the late afternoon and my doctoral students had stayed in their lab, which is, luckily, in the basement (but it is gorgeous) of the Isenberg School. Since there was so much lightning our wired computers at home were off so we did not read the email warnings until the horrific evening was over.

Dr. Frasier, whom I have blogged about, since my husband worked with him and his radar research group while on sabbatical at UMass, does fantastic work with his research group in tracking tornadoes. However, typically, the tornadoes that they chase are hundreds of miles away from Massachusetts, in places where there is a ready occurrence of them, such as in Oklahoma. Also, Frasier said that he wasn't chasing tornadoes yesterday because it's typically too difficult because of the number of trees in the Amherst area.

You may view videos of our terrifying evening here.

When my daughter got back safely from skating she also was glued to the TV news and said that the images reminded her of Katrina.

Even The New York Times is reporting on the deaths and devastation and our Governor, Deval Patrick, has declared a state of emergency.

We have all acquired a greater sense and a much deeper appreciation of the power of nature after our experiences yesterday and understand, more than ever, what our fellow citizens in Tuscaloosa and Joplin have experienced.

More on the science behind forecasting tornadoes and networks of radars can be found here.

Even our senator, John Kerry, is calling what transpired a once in a hundred years weather event.

However, and, amazingly, although the Mass Mutual Center in Springfield was one of the evacuation centers, one of its rooms still was the venue for the Minnechaug High School prom yesterday (and my daughter confirmed that she had been receiving text messages yesterday evening that a friend of hers, through skating, was already there and had been driven by her parents).