Weather scientists are retracing the footprints of this week's monstrous tornadoes the way detectives would investigate a crime scene: talking to witnesses, watching surveillance video and taking the measurements of trees ripped from the ground.
The result will be a meteorological autopsy report on the disaster, revealing how many twisters developed and how powerful they were.
"First priority is finding the dead and taking care of the injured and getting utilities back up," said John Snow, dean emeritus of the College of Atmospheric and Geographic Sciences at University of Oklahoma. "But in parallel to that, we want to get as much data and find as much data as we can."
Researchers have to be on the scene fast — usually within days — to keep the evidence as fresh as possible, Snow said.
In one of its first official assessments of the tornadoes' strength, the National Weather Service on Friday gave the worst possible rating, EF-5, to one that raked Smithville, Miss. That tornado — a 205 mph monster that left at least 13 people dead — was expected to be joined by "many more" of Wednesday's tornadoes that will receive the same rating, meteorologist Jim LaDue said.
With at least 328 confirmed dead throughout the region, Wednesday's outbreak surpassed a series of tornadoes in 1974 to become the deadliest day for twisters since 1932.