Despite all the charming things about living in the South, it has some seriously baffling severe weather. Hurricanes seem to ravage the Gulf and Atlantic coasts each year. Tornadoes tear across the more inland sections of our very own “tornado alley.” Many of you reading this have never been proximally touched by a tornado or its wake, but more and more of you, unfortunately, have. As we approach the 10-year anniversary of one of the South’s most horrific weather events in recent history, let’s dig deeper into why, when, and where these devastating systems occur and how we can be prepared for them. There’s no better person to weigh in on this topic than the national treasure that is James Spann.
James has been live on ABC 33/40 in Birmingham during the South’s most devastating and deadly storms like the 2011 super tornado outbreak, which claimed more than 300 lives. “Personally, I have never been ‘in’ a tornado. I am paid to stand in front of a green wall at the TV station for long hours during tornado outbreaks … I don’t get out in the field,” he says. “But, my home was actually hit by an EF-3 this year on March 25. One of the scariest moments of my life, but I knew my wife was in our shelter, and I kept going.” Hundreds of thousands of Alabama residents trust James to deliver the weather, but his prolific knowledge extends to everyone who could be in the line of a tornado. And that is all of us.
What’s a tornado?
The NOAA, or National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (parent agency to the National Weather Service), states, “a tornado is a narrow, violently rotating column of air that extends from a thunderstorm to the ground. Because wind is invisible, it is hard to see a tornado unless it forms a condensation funnel made up of water droplets, dust and debris. Tornadoes can be among the most violent phenomena of all atmospheric storms we experience.” Tornadoes are rated on the Enhanced Fujita, or EF, scale in intensity from EF-0 to EF-5 based on their wind speed and degree of damage. The United States experiences more than 1,200 tornadoes a year, a tiny fraction of those being the violent EF-4 and EF-5 ones that wreak the most havoc.
Where do tornadoes occur in the United States?
The United States has the most tornadoes of any country in the world, as well as the strongest and most violent ones. There is a separate Southeastern “alley” of tornado-prone states like Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and Tennessee. This corridor is different from the more well-known “Tornado Alley,” which includes the mostly flat Plains states of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Nebraska. While there are still more tornadoes in Tornado Alley, tornadoes in the South tend to be deadlier than those in the Plains because of many factors like “longer, larger tornado paths, expanding population, more mobile homes and more nighttime tornadoes,” according to USA Today.
So, why do we have so many horrible tornadoes in the South?
“We have always had just as many tornadoes as the ‘traditional’ Tornado Alley in the Great Plains. We simply don’t get the national publicity,” James says. “Our tornadoes are hard to see. They’re often rain-wrapped and at night. All of the really cool chaser videos are typically from states like Kansas and Oklahoma, where they don’t have hills, trees, and the HP [Heavy Precipitation] supercell storms we have here.” SB TIP: The term “supercell” storm refers to a persistent and lengthy rotating thunderstorm.
If you feel like the South has been experiencing more tornadoes in recent years, you’re correct. Research from two of James’s friends, Harold Brooks and Victor Gensini, suggests there could be a shift in our direction. A study found that over the past 40 years, tornado frequency has increased over a large swath of the Midwest and Southeast, and decreased in portions of the central and southern Great Plains, the region traditionally associated with “Tornado Alley.”
The researchers saw notable increases in tornado reports and tornado environments in parts of Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Tennessee and Kentucky. Some argue that the uptick is simply because there are more people living in these areas to spot the tornadoes, but the researchers beg to differ. They believe there is a climate shift happening, but they just don’t know exactly what is causing it yet.
When do tornadoes occur?
It’s important to remember that tornadoes occur year-round in the U.S., but most happen in the spring and summer months alongside thunderstorms that happen when cooler air mixes with warm. They are difficult to predict in the South because we cannot see them as easily as in the flat Plains. They can happen any time of day or night, but most tornadoes occur between 4 p.m. and 9 p.m.
Do not rely on the siren alone.
What should Southerners do to prepare for tornadoes?
“First off, you have to get the warning. EVERY home needs an NOAA Weather Radio as the primary way of getting a warning, with your cellphone as an alternate way,” James says. “If you are in a polygon,* respect it. Small room (closet, bathroom, hall), on the lowest floor of the house and away from windows. Everyone needs a helmet on, including adults. We also want people to have portable air horns and hard-soled shoes on. Inside a mobile home or a car are the two worst places you could be. You’ve got to get out.”
*In the past, severe thunderstorms, tornadoes, and flash flood warnings were issued for entire counties, but in 2007, the National Weather Service began issuing warnings in the shape of a polygon. The intent is to alert more specific locations and groups of people about impending severe weather, and this is where James’s motto “respect the polygon” comes from.
Know the difference between a tornado watch and a tornado warning.
A tornado watch is issued by the NOAA Storm Prediction Center meteorologists, who watch the weather 24/7 across the entire country looking for weather conditions that are favorable for tornadoes. These are broadcast at least 12 hours before the event is likely to take place. A watch can cover parts of a state or several states. If a watch is in effect, prepare for severe weather and stay tuned to NOAA Weather Radio. Warnings, however, are issued when severe weather is imminent or already occurring.
Local NOAA National Weather Service Forecast Office meteorologists, who watch the weather 24/7 over a designated area, are the ones who issue a tornado warning. This means a tornado has been verified by spotters or radar and there is a serious threat to life and property if you’re in its path. A tornado warning indicates that you should ACT NOW to find safe shelter. A warning can cover parts of counties or several counties in the path of danger.
James says that most of these watch alerts end up producing little to no serious weather, so people become numb to them. This is a huge problem that he has devoted his career to helping fix, especially in light of the 2011 event that killed hundreds in Alabama alone.
What happened in April of 2011?
Prior to the spring of 2011, the record number of tornadoes in a single month was 542, set in May 2004, and the record for the month of April was only 267. The 2011 Tornado Super Outbreak contained 362 confirmed tornadoes. “A powerful low-pressure system combined with moist and unstable atmospheric conditions to produce this now-infamous tornado outbreak. Between April 25 and 28, the outbreak violently struck the southeastern United States, resulting in roughly $11 billion in damages and leaving an estimated 321 people dead,” states the NOAA.
Alabama got hit the worst.
The most ferocious destruction of the 2011 outbreak occurred in Alabama. Birmingham and Tuscaloosa were obliterated beyond recognization. “Alone, the state accounted for 69 of the tornadoes and fell victim to the event’s costliest tornado,” the NOAA states. At its worst, this EF-4 tornado was 1.5 miles — more than 26 football fields — wide, and its winds reached 190 mph. It tore across 80.3 miles. “It was a tragedy that extended far beyond the larger cities,” James says. Of the many interviews floating around that James Spann did concerning the 2011 incident, a documentary crew created this remarkable video about the town of Phil Campbell.
What can we do to learn more?
“Always follow your local National Weather Service office on social media platforms,” James says. “Find a good local meteorologist you trust and follow them as well.” You can follow James Spann on Twitter @spann, on Instagram @spannwx, and on TikTok @spannwx. He also has a book coming out later this month called All You Can Do Is Pray, which is about April 27, 2011. It will be available here when it is released.
If the experts are right, the South might be in for more of these terrible twisters as time goes on. It’s more important than ever to pay attention to warnings and watches, respect your polygon, be prepared, and be ready to help your neighbor … like we always do in the South.
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