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Slowest U.S. tornado year since 1988

A tornado churns south of Dimmit, Texas, in this 1995 file photo.  

NORMAN, Oklahoma (CNN) -- The year 2002 is shaping up to be the slowest, safest year for tornado activity in the United States since 1988, with fewer than half the average number of twisters, and fewer than one-fourth the average number of tornado deaths.

As of July 24, the National Weather Service's unofficial count showed 451 twisters nationwide in 2002; half the average for the last 10 years.

So far this year, 11 people have been killed by twisters. Typically, 46 people lose their lives to tornadoes by late July.

Researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration speculate this year's relatively quiet tornado season may be a positive side-effect of the drought now gripping much of the United States.

The drought has impeded the creation of tall storm clouds -- a key to tornado formation -- over much of the country, said Dan McCarthy, a meteorologist with NOAA's Storm Prediction Center. A late winter cold snap may have helped as well, he said, pushing the jet stream far to the north and slowing the turbulent weather needed to make tornadoes.

The end of July is generally considered to be the unofficial end of tornado season, but tornadoes have been reported in every month of the year, according to data from the Storm Prediction Center.

The early portion of this year's tornado season featured a remarkable absence of killer twisters, with no fatal storms reported until April 21 -- the latest date in half a century for a year's first tornado death.

Tornadoes and tornado-related deaths tend to drop off dramatically in the second half of the year. A typical full year will see 57 U.S. deaths, 1,200 reported injuries, and $400 million in property damage. The death toll has dropped steadily in recent years due to improved storm warning systems, but the 2002 numbers are very unusual, said McCarthy.

The worst tornado outbreak in U.S. history took place on April 3 and 4, 1974, when 148 twisters struck in 13 states, killing 330 people. The single most deadly tornado tore through Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana on March 18, 1925, killing 695 people and destroying 15,000 homes.


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