The Birmingham City Council voted Tuesday to delay a zoning change to accommodate a senior housing facility in Pratt City based on Council President Roderick Royal’s fear that the facility was in, or near, the “known path” of the tornado that hit Pratt City in April 2011.
Royal said he lives four blocks away from the site of the proposed building, and raised issues with the location of the project in an earlier zoning meeting, which he said was in May.
“I told them that I thought this was gut wrenching, and I would not put Fanny Lewis, who is my mother, in a facility in a known tornado path,” Royal said.
“God gives us good sense,” Royal said, then paused. “Well, certainly, he has given us good sense. Now, whether or not we use it is a different issue.”
The site for the seniors facility was selected as part of the Regional and Urban Design Assistance Teams, or R/UDAT, plan, which was developed with input from Pratt City citizens and finalized by a team of architects, economic developers and designers from the American Institute of Architects. The plan, which was developed last fall, was meant to be a long-range vision for the redevelopment of Pratt City. The city of Birmingham purchased the property in order to build the condos.
“My issue is that this is a known path,” Royal said earlier in the meeting, emphasizing the word “known”. He said there’s also another senior citizens’ facility in the area as well.
“Why would you double that kind of thing? To me, you don’t do that. That’s all I’m saying.”
Birmingham Mayor William Bell said the condos were being built with federal dollars, and changing the location of the project could jeopardize federal funding. “We will not be able to change and move that money without federal approval, and the time has expired on those issues pertaining to utilization of federal dollars,” Bell said.
Bell also dismissed Royal’s concern that another tornado might follow the same path as a previous tornado. “We made a commitment to rebuild this entire area, and if you go based on the logic that this is a known tornado path, then all of Birmingham is a known tornado path,” Bell said.
“Council can do what it likes, but we cannot put seniors there,” Royal said earlier in the meeting. “This is too close for comfort.”
Royal said a number of times that he wanted the project to remain in Pratt City, but just not so close to the path of the April 2011 tornado. “I think it’s a poor location,” Royal said. “I’d rather that we put something else there—let’s say an expanded park, or something else.”
On Twitter, Weld asked ABC 33/40 WCFT meteorologist James Spann what he thought about the “known path” issue.
“Is there any evidence that tornadoes are prone to follow the same path they’ve followed in the past?” Weld tweeted to Spann’s Twitter account, @spann. Spann responded that it “seems that way due to population density. Much of Alabama is very rural, and tornadoes often go unnoticed over open country.”
Weld then asked Spann if there is “any reason to not rebuild a building that was destroyed by a tornado?”
“I would not think twice about rebuilding a home or business destroyed by a tornado,” Spann responded.
Royal proposed delaying the zoning change by three weeks so he could approach the Pratt City neighborhood association to discuss moving the site. He then said he’d approach the mayor’s office about the proposed location of the condos.
The council approved Royal’s motion with 8 members voting yes. Councilor Carole Smitherman abstained.
Q: Do you know of any research on topographic features impacting tornado development or direction of travel? I live in the southeast and there appear to be recognizable “tornado alleys” in our area in which several tornadoes have followed the same path over a period of several seasons.
Answered by: Harold Brooks, research meteorologist, NOAA National Severe Storms Laboratory, Norman, Okla.
A: There have some studies that have looked at this question, but little conclusive evidence can be drawn. In general, tornadoes are rare enough events that it takes a very long time to create a large sample. Other factors, such as population density, often are involved with topography to make it difficult to separate effects in the observations. There appear to be areas that are tornado minima, such as the Ozark Mountains, but it is hard to draw definite conclusions. It is likely that topography could change the direction of the inflow into a thunderstorm, for instance, which could affect the storm’s behavior. Recently, Patrick King of Environment Canada has shown evidence that lake breezes off of the Great Lakes appear to influence tornado distributions in Ontario, primarily by influencing where storms form.
Many towns in the central United States that have not been struck by a tornado for many years have a story about some topographic feature, usually a river, or a hill, that “protects” the town from tornadoes. One of the most memorable of these “legends” was that Burnetts Mound protected Topeka, Kansas. On June 8, 1966, a violent tornado passed directly over Burnetts Mound, killing 16 people and causing $100 million in damage in Topeka.