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Deadliest Tornado Outbreak in Six Years Hits the Southeast

So far, 23 people are confirmed dead in Lee County, Alabama, after Sunday’s tornadoes

First responders walk through a neighborhood in Beauregard, Alabama. (David Goldman / AP)
smithsonian.com

On Sunday, at least three dozen twisters tore through Alabama, Florida, Georgia and South Carolina. The death toll so far stands at 23, making it the deadliest tornado outbreak since 2013 when a massive tornado with winds surpassing 200 miles per hour in Moore, Oklahoma, killed 24 people, reports Chris Dolce at Weather.com.

The final death toll is likely to rise as search-and-rescue teams comb impacted areas looking for survivors. Meanwhile, the final count of tornadoes may increase as meteorologists continue reviewing the storm system’s data.

Tornadoes are categorized on the Enhanced Fujita scale by wind speed. The most damaging twister registered as a mile-wide EF4 tornado with winds up to 170 miles per hour left a 24-mile-long path of destruction in Lee County, Alabama. In Georgia, the tornadoes destroyed almost two dozen homes and damaged at least 40 with no reported fatalities.

All 23 reported deaths, including three children aged 10 and under, occurred in Lee County. CNN reports at least 75 people were treated for injuries as of now, that total could increase in the coming days. Currently, the number of people still unaccounted for in the area is in the double digits. The scene looked as if someone “took a giant knife and just scraped the ground,” Lee County sheriff Jay Jones tells Alan Blinder and Matt Stevens at The New York Times.

As of Monday, authorities were still searching a one-square-mile swath of land in Beauregard, an unincorporated town of 8,000 to 10,000 people in Lee County that was hardest hit. Search and rescue personnel are going through the debris of mostly mobile and manufactured homes by hand as well as using drones with infrared sensors to locate anyone trapped in the wreckage.

“This is the worst natural disaster that has ever occurred in Lee County,” Lee County Emergency Management Agency director Kathryn Carson tells CNN. “Most of us cannot remember anything ever creating this much of a loss of life and injuries in our citizens.”

The outbreak is another sign that tornadoes in the Southeast are becoming more frequent and more deadly. Most Americans know about “Tornado Alley,” a swathe of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska and South Dakota where tornadoes occur each year. But in the last decade, tornadoes have increasingly frequented southern states, in an area now dubbed “Dixie Alley,” reports Madison Park at CNN.

A study in the journal Nature released last October by researchers from NOAA’s National Severe Storms Laboratory shows that since 1979, the number of tornadoes in the country has increased, and they are occurring further east. Jeff Berardelli at CBS reports that’s because the “Dry Line,” or the area where the warm, dry desert air of the western states predominates, has moved eastward from its traditional home on the 100th meridian in the last century, likely due to climate change. The air along the Dry Line often mixes with warm, wet air flowing up from the Gulf of Mexico, leading to conditions that produce severe storms and tornadoes.

People on the ground chasing tornadoes have noticed the shift, too. “Following it for the last 12 years, we have noticed more chasers having to chase further into rugged terrain east of the normal Tornado Alley,” Kory Hartman, owner of Severe Studios Storm Chasers, tells Berardelli. “It seems to stay colder and drier in the spring, so you don't see as many early season outbreaks in Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.”

Even though Dixie Alley doesn’t yet have as many twisters as Tornado Alley, major disasters—like what happened in Lee County—are likely to become more common, Victor Gensini, a meteorologist at Northern Illinois University and co-author of the study, tells Park at CNN.

In the flat and often treeless Great Plains, tornadoes can be spotted miles away, but in heavily wooded and hilly areas of the South, the funnels go unnoticed for longer, leaving residents with limited time to bunker down. Tornadoes in the South are also subject to a stronger jet stream, meaning the often move faster than in the Great Plains, sometimes greater than 50 miles per hour. There are demographic considerations, like population density, and architectural differences to factor in as well.

“As you move east from Kansas to Mississippi, Georgia, Tennessee, the population density increases rapidly and we also have an issue in the Southeast of more mobile homes,” Gensini says. “If you get hit in a mobile home from a tornado, you’re much more likely to be killed. You just have a really unique exposure and vulnerability problem.”

While Sunday’s tornado outbreak was a chilling beginning to tornado season, it came nowhere close to the four-day outbreak that occurred in April 2011. That system alone spawned 362 tornadoes over one-third of the continental United States. Alabama saw 69 tornadoes during that storm swell, including a massive EF-4 that killed 65 people, injured 1,000 and caused over $100 million in damage in the cities of Birmingham and Tuscaloosa.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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