When I look at the devastation that struck the Midwest this past Friday (March 2nd) my heart just aches for these people and what they’re going through. I saw my fair share of tornado damage when I lived in Kentucky and I can tell you right now, for as bad as it looks on television, it’s ten times worse in person. The sites, the looks on peoples faces, it is a horrifying feeling.
I moved to Bowling Green, Kentucky in the fall of 2005 and within the first three months of me living out there we had a tornado outbreak. I remember going wall to wall and staying on the air for four hours non stop. The storms were relentless, they just kept coming. At one point we had three tornadoes actually on the ground at the same time within my viewing area alone. The hook echos that I was whitnessing on the radar looked like images that you would see and read about in text books. The damage reports that were coming in to the station that evening were so severe that it was almost difficult to even believe or imagine!
I remember the following day taking the news van and going out to one of the hardest hit areas. The first reaction I had was a jaw dropping, blank stare, how could something like this happen, look. There was a church that was literally cut in half, cars were sitting on top of each other upside down and every tree was stripped bare. It seriously looked like a bomb had hit the town. It was certainly a site that I will never forget.
For as bad as that event was, the tornado outbreak that struck this past Friday was much, much worse. It reminds me of the Super Tornado Outbreak of 1974 with the amount of states that were affected from the Gulf Coast to the Great Lakes. That event will always be remembered for the vast area that was affected, the damage that occurred and the tremendous amount of fatalities.
Preliminary numbers from Friday’s outbreak show close to 100 tornadoes. Nearly a third of them struck the Bluegrass State of Kentucky, and an estimated 17 others hitting the Volunteer State of Tennessee. More then 200 tornado warnings were issued with this event and at one point there were an estimated 19 tornadoes on the ground at the same time. Two of the hardest hit areas were the small towns of Henryville, Indiana which was struck by an EF4 and West Liberty, Kentucky which was hit by an EF3. Here is a link from weather.com that shows the before and after pictures of West Liberty. I can tell you now, there’s nothing left. Roughly 90% of this small town is completely gone. This link shows the destruction out of Henryville. Again, there is nothing left standing. Finally, this link shows the complete March 2-3, 2012 tornado outbreak from USA Today.
The 2012 tornado season has gotten off to a fast start with an estimated 95 tornadoes touching down in January, 33 in February and now 95 more through the first two days of of March. Now this number will begin to edge lower as storm teams from the National Weather Service head out and survey the damage. They will more then likely determine that the same tornado created multiple areas of damage thus lowering the numbers, but you get the idea here. We are on a record setting pace through the beginning of March. An estimated 223 tornadoes have hit the United States so far this year. On average there should only be 65 through March 2nd.
The weather pattern that has kept the country unseasonably warm this winter is also responsible for the wild weather that we’ve been seeing lately. In a La Nina year the severe weather season starts earlier than normal. This is because La Nina’s tend to keep the country mild during the winter season, which in turn keeps the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico mild. Milder water temperatures mean higher dewpoints (atmospheric moisture) and higher instability levels. That air is drawn north into storm systems that run across the country. This fuels thunderstorm development. The storms then begin to rotate because of the winds blowing in opposite directions. The good news here is the tornado season during a La Nina year also ends early. So I would not be surprised one bit if things quiet down quite a bit by the end of April or first week of May. The question is though, how many more of these outbreaks are we going to see within that time span? The average number of tornadoes that strike the United States during the course of the year is roughly 1300. Through the first 62 days of 2012 we’ve already picked up neary a quarter of that!
When we look at a map of tornado alley it’s a rather large area that sits in the Central Plains states. It stretches from Texas northward through Oklahoma, Kansas and into southern Nebraska. It also includes eastern Colorado and eastern New Mexico to the west and western Missouri, western Arkansas and western Louisianna to the east. However, a La Nina shifts tornado alley east into the Ohio and Tennessee Valley’s which is a much more heavily populated area. Therefore, there’s a much greater chance of a tornado producing extensive amounts of damage this year than during a normal tornado season.
– Chris Sowers –