Dixie Tornado Outbreak: Early Thoughts

I am confident that today will go down as one of the biggest historical tornado outbreaks in the Deep South and Tennessee Valley. How big? Too soon to say. All the tornado reports so far are preliminary and certainly too high in number. I know this because there already have been multiple reports of the same tornadoes in Mississippi and Alabama from different vantages, and different parts of the paths.

Tornado REPORTS are not the same as actual tornadoes. This happens with all major events. So it’s too soon to compare tornado to any past event, because the actual numbers are not known yet, and likely won’t be for several days, at least.

It’s also pointless and much too early at this time to get into specific death tolls and numbers. We know there were numerous casualties, and we know lots of aid is needed. Aim your prayerful donations that way, and we’ll learn specific casualty and damage information in due time. Do you want to help people affected by all this? Go straight here.

Some amazing footage and videos are pouring in from the AL tornadoes already. Here’s a still shot from ABC of the Tuscaloosa tornado, and another.

These videos from Tuscaloosa, 21 years and a day later, remind me so much of Earl Evans’ 1991 Andover KS footage that it’s astounding, complete with accessory vortices whipsawing all around the main circulation, frighteningly furious tentacles of tornadic horror reconstituted in the atmospheric witches’ brew, two decades and a day after the last time we saw something so much like this.

Looking S and SE at Tuscaloosa tornado from Crimson Tide Productions via Vimeo.

This Tuscaloosa TV meteorologist was duly impressed.

Who says tornadoes don’t go through mountainous and rugged terrain? I’m very impressed with this footage from near Empire, AL:

Please watch this Tuscaloosa video in full-screen mode:

This chap remained at a safe distance and did a good job of steady filming (for awhile anyway!):

This chap did not. His rather shaky but still impressive video gives you an idea of how fast the translational motion was with the tornado, as well as the rotational and vertical motions in the vortex itself. Folks, he should not have been where he was! His relative position was similar to the guy who shot the McConnell Air Force Base stage of the Andover tornado in 1991. He is so fortunate not to have had a tree or part of a building go through his windshield.

This tornado, as far as physical appearance and observable morphology, was almost an identical twin of 26 April 1991 in Andover KS. Unfortunately, I expect similar results in an even more densely populated area. It’s too early to say what the actual damage rating will be, since that depends on (of course) actual damage, and one should not rate tornadoes based only on appearance. I’ll testify, however, that those accessory vortices of the sort I’ve *only* seen with certifiably violent tornadoes.

I also made a couple of screen grabs of a rain-wrapped wedge going through northern Birmingham with power flashes, but should not reproduce them here out of copyright considerations. If I find legit links online, I’ll post them.

What more can forecasters do? HIGH risk tornado probabilities as early as last night, Particularly Dangerous Situation tornado watch (here’s an earlier PDS watch for MS), hard-hitting warnings with “tornado emergency”wording in some cases.

Still…when you have violent, huge tornadoes moving through urban areas, they will cause casualties. It will be time to pray for the afflicted if you’re religious, and to offer up some aid whether you are or not.

Are we truly experiencing the nadir in tornado fatalities that Harold Brooks and Chuck Doswell have advertised, or is there still more that can be done to get the message into the heads of the people in the paths? Sometimes, as we saw with 3 May 99, folks do exactly what they’re told, and still die. Was that the case today?

Meteorologically, not much to say for now except that this is precisely what happens when you superimpose extreme deep-layer shear and gigantic hodographs with top-end SRH on a 70+ dewpoint warm sector, then drop discrete supercells into that preset cauldron of ideal ingredients. Years and years of tornado-environment research led to the understanding of the threat on days like this so they can be predicted. It all has come together and was forecast as such. The atmospheric-science side of the Integrated Warning System did its job, and did it well.

As inhumanely ugly as the damage and casualty reports will be, come light of dawn, there are countless ways it could have been far worse. That’s a sobering thought. Perhaps the main emphasis of study of this event should be more from a preparedness and societal angle than atmospheric (though I’m sure there are new aspects to learn and papers to be written meteorologically also).


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