Alabama: Most tornado-prone state in 2011

The mention of tornadoes typically reminds people of the Great Plains. States like Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas have traditionally been called “tornado alley” because of the frequency and severity of twisters there. But you might be surprised to find out that Southern states have been seeing just as many tornadoes as the mid-section of our country recently and sometimes more.

Alabama Governor Robert Bentley is working to rebuild parts of his state after it was slammed with raging tornadoes multiple times over the past year. In fact, 177 tornadoes hit Alabama in 2011 making it the state with the highest number of twisters, according to the National Weather Service. The South saw a large increase in tornadoes in 2011. Mississippi was right behind Alabama in second place with 169 tornadoes and North Carolina was fourth with 113. Although tornado season hasn’t quite started yet for most of the country, Alabama is already ranked in the top spot for 2012, with 22 tornado strikes since New Year’s Day.

Coping with severe weather has been a top issue for officials in Alabama. Governor Bentley formed the Tornado Recovery Action Council after tornadoes killed 248 people on April 27, 2011 across the state. Ironically, the recommendations from the council were delivered to the Governor last Monday -- the same day multiple tornadoes ripped through the state, killing two people.

In a 117-page report delivered to the governor, the council came up with 20 recommendations: tougher building codes, more tornado shelters and sales tax holidays for storm preparedness and emergency supplies. Louisiana and Virginia have an existing sales tax holiday to encourage residents to be prepared before severe weather strikes. The report also calls for unannounced casualty drills, continuing campaigns about emergency preparedness and tax incentives for home and business owners to build safe rooms.

So is there any science to this recent rash of tornadoes in the South? Atlanta’s WAGA Fox 5 Chief Meteorologist Ken Cook has been watching the weather patterns from his desk in Atlanta for three decades. He says over the past five years he has noted an increase in storms concentrated mostly in Alabama, Northern Georgia and parts of Southeast Tennessee. It all depends on temperatures in the northern parts of our country and into Canada.

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“The proximity of that warm air here in the South and the cold air that is pushing but not quite making it down to the Gulf of Mexico, it's going to set up a boundary. A cold-warm boundary,” Cook said. “And then when we get these strong, low pressures in the atmosphere, where we've set up that cold-warm boundary. That is where we see the most active weather. The heaviest storms have the greatest tendency for rotation is going to be.”

And this year could be worse. Much of the country has seen unusually warm temperatures, making conditions ripe for a long and violent storm season.

“We really haven't had a cold winter in the South,” he said. “Most times when these strong systems have come along, temperatures have been as if we’re in March. We have 60s or 70s across the area. And anytime we have 60s and 70s in the wintertime, there's always cause to worry because the air is more buoyant. It has a easier tendency to rise, easier tendency to rotate."

Cook applauds officials in Alabama for making public safety a priority in the wake of the deadly tornadoes in that state and agrees that being prepared for what the forecast brings is the only way to deal with unforgiving severe weather.

“Whatever the state can do to get people to take action on their own,” he said. “Whether it be a weather radio that is alerted in the middle of the night or get on some type of telephone system that calls you - like a reverse 911 - that calls the people in that area. That would be a really good system.”