Mississippi ranks near the top for tornado fatalities

In April, Mississippi set a record for the most tornadoes ever recorded in one month - 67.

South Mississippi is part of an area of the country nicknamed Dixie Alley. Unlike Tornado Alley across the nation's plains, Dixie Alley has a far greater number of tornado-related deaths. In fact, statistics show that Mississippi has seen 762 tornadoes between March and May since 1950.

Twelve people lost their lives, and the season brought 17 strong or violent tornadoes. That's why Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant has declared the week of Feb. 13-17 as Severe Weather Awareness Week. The week is dedicated to the education of residents on the ever-present risk of severe weather and how to better prepare for the upcoming season.

"The spring, it just seems like as you start warming it up, and juicing it up as we call it, there certainly remains potential for a lot of severe weather," said Warning Coordination Meteorologist with the National Weather Service Steve Wilkinson. "The question is, will it be a lot of marginal severe weather, or will you have really high-end events."

The winter of 2011-2012 was an unusual one for south Mississippi. Temperatures sat well-above average, with 33 days of above-average highs since the first of 2012. That lack of winter brought a greater risk of severe weather across the south as Gulf of Mexico water temperatures soared well above average, and officials at the National Weather Service office in Jackson worry those temperatures could carry into the spring.

"We have our severe weather between November and April, and during that time of year the winds in the atmosphere, way up there, even down toward a few thousand feet up are very strong, warns Wilkinson. "So when you combine those strong winds, that are sometimes changing speed and direction with height, combining it with the warmth and moisture, that's just an ingredient for tornadoes."

Wilkinson said those tornadoes combined with unique conditions in the Deep South contribute to the number of deaths in the region.

"What you really look at are societal factors. Unfortunately, tornadoes occur a lot more at night in this part of the county, then they do say in the plains," said Wilkinson.

Another important factor to consider is the number of manufactured homes across the state, many of which can't withstand the winds of even the weakest tornadoes.

"We have a lot more trees around here so people that may be skeptical about the warnings. They look up and all of a sudden it's right upon them, and they didn't see it because of the trees and the little bit of terrain in the area. Tornadoes often move 50-60 mph's around here and that really doesn't give you much time to react," said Wilkinson.

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