The Associated Press is the latest news organization to compare an event to one of the most gruesome days in the history of civilization, with its science story today claiming the energy in the tornado in Oklahoma City this week “dwarfed” the atomic blast in Hiroshima.
Several meteorologists contacted by The Associated Press used real time measurements, some made by Schumacher, to calculate the energy released during the storm’s 40-minute life span. Their estimates ranged from 8 times to more than 600 times the power of the Hiroshima bomb, with more experts at the high end. Their calculations were based on energy measured in the air and then multiplied over the size and duration of the storm.
We heard the same sort of comparison a few months ago when a meteor exploded over Siberia. In those stories, we were told the meteor was more powerful than 30 atomic bombs.
While scientifically correct, perhaps, it’s a weak comparison for the purposes of journalism. Rather than add important context, it removes it. For one thing, it’s comparing energy released but not the impact of the energy released. And, clearly, comparing something to the atomic bomb is meant to create the impression that the tornado was a bigger force in total than the atomic bomb.
The calculations cited include the duration of the tornado’s 40-minute lifespan. The explosion over Hiroshima was over in a matter of seconds.
At last check, twenty-four people died in this week’s tornado, a tragic number by any comparison. But is it really honest to suggest any comparison to a weapon that may have killed an estimated 90,000 to 130,000 people — 75,000 immediately and perhaps as many over the following years?
Such a comparison dishonors and diminishes the suffering of people like Michihiko Hachiya, whose 1955 Hiroshima diary was nothing we’ve ever witnessed before or since on such a scale.
In time I came to an open space where the houses had been removed to make a fire lane. Through the dim light I could make out ahead of me the hazy outlines of the Communications Bureau’s big concrete building, and beyond it the hospital. My spirits rose because I knew that now someone would find me; and if I should die, at least my body would be found. I paused to rest. Gradually things around me came into focus. There were the shadowy forms of people, some of whom looked like walking ghosts. Others moved as though in pain, like scarecrows, their arms held out from their bodies with forearms and hands dangling. These people puzzled me until I suddenly realized that they had been burned and were holding their arms out to prevent the painful friction of raw surfaces rubbing together. A naked woman carrying a naked baby came into view. I averted my gaze. Perhaps they had been in the bath. But then I saw a naked man, and it occurred to me that, like myself, some strange thing had deprived them of their clothes. An old woman lay near me with an expression of suffering on her face; but she made no sound. Indeed, one thing was common to everyone I saw – complete silence.
Whatever problems facing Oklahoma City, an increase in leukemia because of the tornado isn’t one of them. Neither is a significant impact on the mental development of children not yet born.
What happened in Oklahoma City was real and tragic and on a scale that takes your breath away. But no component of the tragedy in any fashion dwarfs what happened in Hiroshima.