By Dr. Kandis Y. Wyatt, PMP
Faculty Member, Transportation and Logistics
What’s going on with the weather these days? Growing up, I remember tornadoes occurring in the early spring. Most of these storms developed over open farmland, so they weren’t considered a major concern.
However, the Plainfield tornado in 1990 totally changed my limited perception of tornadoes, how quickly they can develop and the utter devastation that they can cause. This particular tornado occurred just miles from my home.
To date, the Plainfield tornado is the only F5 tornado recorded during the month of August. F5 stands for the strongest level of the Fujita scale, which measures a tornado’s intensity based on wind speed and damage. This violent storm had a damage path of 16.1 miles and was the first-ever tornado to receive over a F3 rating.
Fast forward to 2021, and tornadoes continue to have a devastating impact on the United States. In fact, these storms are getting stronger and have a more damaging impact on homeowners and businesses.
This December Has Seen Two Unprecedented Tornado Outbreaks
There have been two tornado outbreaks in less than a week this December, which is unprecedented. These outbreaks affected Kentucky, Tennessee, Illinois, Iowa, Arkansas and Missouri. In addition, Minnesota reported its first-ever tornado in December.
President Biden visited Kentucky on December 15 to view the devastation caused by what is considered the largest tornado outbreak in the last decade. Around 88 people ranging in age from two to 98 were killed, and nearly 250 people were reported missing.
Tornadoes from this supercell ranged from F2 to F4 on the Fujita scale. Preliminary estimates indicate some of these tornadoes were on the ground for up to 120+ continuous miles. The wind speed of these storms was in excess of 190 mph, strong enough to collapse buildings and lift vehicles off the ground.
How The Midwest Tornadoes Formed
Tornadoes occur when you have strong thunderstorms, copious plumes of moisture and colliding weather systems. Record warm temperatures in the Midwest in early December aided in creating the conditions for severe tornadoes as a strong cold front moved east across the continental U.S.
Rotating storms with strong circulation help to develop strong columns of wind, which quickly generated the Midwest tornadoes. The rapid rise of warm air also contributed to their development.
Tornado Alley Typically Sees the Highest Number of Tornadoes
Even though tornadoes have been reported in all 50 states, Tornado Alley is a geographic area where these storms statistically occur more often. This area – consisting of Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Nebraska, Iowa and Illinois – is more prone to tornado development, and there is a stronger focus on community awareness and preparedness.
The tornadoes typically occur in the upper Midwest states (Nebraska, Iowa and Illinois) in the early spring. Other tornadoes form in the southern plain states (Texas, Oklahoma and Missouri) from May to June.
However, the recent tornado outbreak across Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, Illinois and Indiana has prompted the question: if tornadoes can occur in any state at any time, should we rethink the concept of Tornado Alley? Should we stop focusing on one area of the country for tornado awareness and preparedness, but rather extend our focus on educating the public in other states about tornado perils and advancements in tornado research?
Educating More People about Tornado Hazards
Extending tornado education to all areas of our country could be beneficial in ensuring better community preparation for these storms. If tornadoes can occur anywhere at any time, then all citizens everywhere need to be properly educated about this type of severe weather and how to react when tornadoes come to their community.
This education could include teaching the difference between a tornado watch (weather is pending) and a tornado warning (a tornado is imminent). Community residents could also be taught the best place to take cover and what to do if you are in your vehicle during a tornado.
Safety is a primary concern because individuals need to be able to protect themselves in severe weather situations. When there is a tornado, seeking shelter on the lowest floor in the interior of a home or business building, away from windows, is the most common type of prevention taught to citizens.
However, many homes in the Midwest don’t have basements. In addition, many communities were not built with storm shelters.
As a result, many buildings and homes lack sufficient strength to sustain strong winds and copious amounts of rain. In addition, COVID-19 concerns have made citizens wary about leaving their homes and venturing to a community center or common facility to seek shelter.
Preparing for a Tornado
When it comes to storm preparedness, it’s not a question of whether a tornado is going to happen, but when it is going to happen. The focus needs to shift from prevention to preparedness.
Ready.gov offers the following suggestions to prepare for a tornado:
- Go to NOAA Weather Radio and your local news or official social media accounts for updated emergency information. Follow the instructions of state, local and tribal officials.
- Go to a safe shelter immediately, such as a safe room, basement, storm cellar or a small interior room on the lowest level of a sturdy building.
- Stay away from windows, doors and outside walls.
- Do not go under an overpass or bridge. Find a flat location, such as a ditch, if you encounter a tornado while outdoors. You’re safer in a low, flat location.
- Watch out for flying debris that can cause injury or death.
- Use your arms to protect your head and neck.
- If you can’t stay at home, make plans to go to a public shelter. Review the CDC’s guidelines for going to a public disaster shelter during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Artificial Intelligence Has Helped with Weather Predictions
Thanks to artificial intelligence (AI) that can better predict storms, communities are better able to prepare for violent weather. The early detection of storms can inform decision makers and potentially save lives.
Machine learning has enabled weather prediction models to provide enhanced resolution, faster processing times, and data input at enhanced rates. Phased array radar also provides lower atmospheric scans that identify tornadic signatures and rotation within storms.
Drones Have Also Proven Helpful After Storms
After a tornado, drones provide imagery that can be used to more comprehensively survey storm damage and locate missing individuals. Due to technological advancements, drones are now more efficient and last longer due to solar technology and stronger batteries.
There are waterproof drones that can withstand wind, precipitation and solar influences that can prevent cameras from clearly seeing surrounding objects. Most importantly, instruments can be attached to the drone to take measurements, record visual information through videos and photos, and relay real-time data.
Although we cannot prevent tornadoes from becoming worse, we can use our technology to detect them more quickly. Technology will allow communities to be better prepared for the havoc these violent storms can wreak.