Mississippi Tornadoes: Unusual Outbreak, or Warning for Spring?

Sixty-one tornadoes reported hitting the Southeast U.S. in a single weekend. Sixty-one. In terms of people killed and damage done -- at least according to the preliminary count -- it appears to be the worst U.S. tornado outbreak in two years, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Ten people were reported killed in Mississippi, the most there from a natural disaster since Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Two more were reported dead in tornado-related accidents in Alabama.

VIDEO: 58 Tornados Rip Through the South
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Does it tell us anything about the tornado season to come? Not necessarily, say meteorologists.

"It's all over the map," said Greg Carbin, lead forecaster at the Storm Prediction Center of the National Weather Service in Norman, Oklahoma. "We can't make a strong connection between what's occurred and what's coming."

So far, the 2010 tornado season has been quiet by historic standards, said Carbin, and even if the preliminary count of tornadoes for this weekend holds up, it will still be below average compared to the last three years.

"Remember that the storms just happened," said Carbin. "We had 30 preliminary reports for what may be one tornado."

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People were cleaning up today in the nine-state region where tornadoes were reported to have touched down, looking at what remained of their homes.

"It was just kind of like the world had come to an end," said Jean Oswalt of Weir, Miss., right in the path of the worst destruction.

"We just prayed the whole way through," said Regina Weeks of Chatawa, Miss., who survived by huddling into a small bathroom with four of her relatives.

"The tub area is the only place in our home where there is a ceiling on top of us," she said. "Only place in house that didn't have ceiling ripped off from on top of us."

Tornado Season Peaking

Today the cold front that caused this weekend's outbreak was sliding off the tip of South Florida, reducing the storm threat for now at least. But forecasters say it only takes a few strong outbreaks to make a season sound especially awful.

April and May are the cruelest months for tornadoes. Powerful cold fronts still swing south from Canada -- the last vestiges of winter weather -- colliding with warm, moist air that wells up from the Gulf of Mexico as spring takes hold. Thunderstorms form along the boundary line, and some spawn funnel clouds.

The weather service says it believes there was one funnel cloud that stayed along the ground for at least 97 miles, from eastern Louisiana across Mississippi. In some places, based on preliminary surveys, it generated winds of 170 mph.

What does this mean for the rest of the spring?

"It's a difficult question," said Carbin. "We all want answers, and unfortunately they don't exist."

He and his colleagues have crunched the numbers and say there is remarkably little correlation between tornado activity in April and May. One month can be quiet, and the next can be off the charts.

Slowly, though, forecasters' ability to predict tornado risks has been getting better.

"We had alerts out, so that people were aware five days ahead of this that there could be trouble," said Carbin. "It's hard to quantify, because you can't add up deaths that didn't happen, but there were perhaps 100 lives saved because our technology has improved and our warnings are better."

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