Tornado warning: Twisters are hitting more frequently and dealing more deaths in the South

·13 min read

Joshua Farmer huddled in a church closet in Ohatchee, Alabama, on March 25 and waited to die.

"Legitimately, I thought that was it," Farmer said of that moment in the path of a tornado bearing 140 mph winds. "I thought I was finished."

The EF3 tornado ripped off the roof and some of the walls of the 142-year-old Ragan Chapel United Methodist Church where he was caretaker.

“But I survived it somehow, and I walked out of there," he said. "I walked away untouched.”

Farmer was one of the lucky ones. Six others died.

Experts say tornadoes such as that one are occurring with more frequency in Alabama and elsewhere in the South. And overall, especially recently, tornadoes just haven't behaved the way they used to. They occur in big outbreaks more often and happen earlier and later in the year.

The steeple of the Ragan Chapel United Methodist Church on Ragan Chapel Road in Ohatchee, Ala., is seen on the ground after on Friday, March 26, 2021, after a tornado destroyed the building.
The steeple of the Ragan Chapel United Methodist Church on Ragan Chapel Road in Ohatchee, Ala., is seen on the ground after on Friday, March 26, 2021, after a tornado destroyed the building.
The steeple of the Ragan Chapel United Methodist Church on Ragan Chapel Road in Ohatchee, Ala
The steeple of the Ragan Chapel United Methodist Church on Ragan Chapel Road in Ohatchee, Ala

The meteorological monsters are occurring slightly less often in some of the traditionally tornado-prone states in the Great Plains known as "Tornado Alley."

“Basically, over the last 50 years, if you live in a place like Dallas, your chance of a tornado there has gradually gone down," said Victor Gensini, an associate professor in the department of geographic and atmospheric science at Northern Illinois University. "But if you’re in a place like Birmingham, Alabama, or Memphis, Tennessee, your threat has gone way up."

The threat is still very high across the Plains and the central U.S., said Gensini, who has studied tornadoes ever since one struck his hometown of Granville, Illinois, when he was a senior in high school.

“It’s not that Texas and Oklahoma don't get tornadoes,” he said. "They’re still the No. 1 location in terms of tornado frequency, but the trend in many locations is down over the past 40 years.”

In Alabama and Kentucky, though, between 2000 and 2020, the annual average of reported tornadoes more than doubled from the annual average of the prior 20-year period, according to a USA TODAY Network analysis of federal tornado data.

That average rose by more than 50% in Arkansas, Mississippi, Missouri, Tennessee and Virginia.

Technology led to more tornado reports, but it doesn’t account for all

Annual tornado averages over the same time period also increased in Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas and South Carolina.

Using annual averages over 20-year periods provides a longer-term perspective and helps account for unusual fluctuations from year to year.

A caveat, however: Scientists can’t pinpoint precisely how much of the increase is coming from additional tornadoes and how much is due to an increase in the reporting of tornadoes due to improved forecasting technology, more development and more people with cellphones who are reporting the storms.

For example, scientists point to the widespread use of Doppler radar, an increase in storm spotting and chasing, and the way the 1996 movie "Twister" and other storm-chasing weather shows have captured people's attention.

Recent trends indicate there are about 1,200 tornadoes a year nationally, give or take a few hundred, according to the Storm Prediction Center, an agency within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration tasked with forecasting the risk of severe thunderstorms and tornadoes.

Any increase in overall tornado reports nationally is almost entirely in weak twisters of the EF0 and EF1 variety, with winds no greater than 110 mph.

No nationwide increasing trend is seen in the total number of tornadoes rated at least EF2, with winds of at least 111 mph.

Still, the tornado threat is increasing in the South — an area that experts say is more vulnerable to tornado deaths and injuries.

"A population that’s already vulnerable to these events is becoming more at risk," Gensini said.

As for why that's happening, experts say that's not yet clear.

The tornado conveyor often begins when dry winds coming in from high over the Rockies meet moisture-rich, low-level winds blowing up from the Gulf of Mexico. The interaction provides the wind shear that is an essential ingredient for tornado formation, said Harold Brooks, a senior research scientist at NOAA's National Severe Storms Laboratory.

Tornadoes also need lift and instability, Brooks said.

When all those ingredients come together, the resulting tornadoes and the severe thunderstorms that produce them cause an average of $5.4 billion of damage each year across the U.S.

Hurricane-spawned tornadoes also are a threat across the South, and the season that started June 1 is expected to be another active one for hurricanes.

Not every landfalling hurricane produces a tornado, but others cause major outbreaks. Hurricane Ivan in 2004, for example, produced 118 tornadoes when it made landfall just west of Gulf Shores, Alabama.

Much of the tornado activity in a hurricane depends on how much of the hurricane moves over land and how thunderstorms in its outer bands interact with conditions over land, said Shawn Milrad, an assistant professor of meteorology at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. The increased friction the storms encounter over land can slow surface winds and increase vertical shear, he said, making favorable conditions for tornadoes.

That's what happened when Ivan's dangerous right-front quadrant moved ashore in 2004. It generated more than 120 tornadoes from Florida to Pennsylvania.

Robin Black walks past a doorway as she sifts through the rubble of her home after a tornado ripped through the area, Thursday, April 23, 2020, in Onalaska, Texas.
Robin Black walks past a doorway as she sifts through the rubble of her home after a tornado ripped through the area, Thursday, April 23, 2020, in Onalaska, Texas.

Several factors work to increase tornado casualties in the South

A host of factors increase deaths and casualties in the South, said Gensini and others, including:

  • Harder-to-see tornadoes that are wrapped in rain and not the photogenic funnels many people would envision.

  • An expanding population.

  • More mobile homes, and more aging mobile homes.

  • And, more nighttime tornadoes.

The biggest increases in where people are injured or killed have been in Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky and Georgia, Gensini said.

As of the beginning of June, data from the Storm Prediction Center showed 12 tornado-related fatalities reported this year — seven in Alabama, three in North Carolina and one each in Texas and Louisiana.

Of the combined 117 U.S. tornado deaths in 2019 and 2020, 113 were in Southern states. That includes 30 in Alabama, 27 in Tennessee, 14 in Mississippi while there were six fatalities each in Oklahoma and Texas.

In the area where the increased tornado frequency expands to the east, the population increases dramatically, especially east of the Mississippi River, Gensini said.

So does the number of mobile homes. Of the combined fatalities in 2019 and 2020, nearly 60% occurred in mobile homes.

Bill Wallace gets help from rescue workers who freed him from his Barrett Drive home that collapsed on him and his wife Shirley trapping them under rubble.
Bill Wallace gets help from rescue workers who freed him from his Barrett Drive home that collapsed on him and his wife Shirley trapping them under rubble.

Two of those deaths were Nina Acevedo's brother Taylor Holbert, 29, and his girlfriend, Brooke Ivey, 27. They were killed on April 22, 2020, when an EF3 tornado struck Onalaska, Texas.

It forever altered the life of Acevedo's son, Keagen Laake.

The tornado struck the manufactured home owned by Acevedo and Holbert's mother, who wasn't home at the time. The four younger members of the family were together in the lakefront home when a tornado warning flashed over their phones. They looked out the back door and couldn't see anything, Acevedo said. But, she remembered thinking the water looked "weird."

They never saw it, but the tornado was hurtling toward them from the other direction.

Just after the family moved into the bathroom, they heard what sounded like hailstones. Then the house swayed to one side. Acevedo held on to her son and told him to stay down, and then she fainted.

From there, her son told her afterward, the walls went out — and so did the four of them. When she woke up, Acevedo said, she was inside the vortex.

"All I saw was a lot of light sand and a bunch of little white pieces of stuff," she said.

She felt something hit her hard, and when she woke up again she was face-down on the ground choking in dirt. To one side her son screamed for her, and to the other, her brother called out asking if they were OK. But none of them was OK.

With multiple broken bones, Acevedo said she somehow managed to inch her way over to her son. She said they laid there for hours unable to get up.

Finally someone arrived in a boat and put her son and her brother on makeshift gurneys made of doors and took them to a marina to await rescue.

Holbert died minutes before an ambulance arrived.

Ivey was discovered in the rubble hours later, where their little chorkie named Quin watched over her body.

Keagen was in the hospital for more than two months, recovering from multiple broken bones and other injuries, his mother said.

Almost 14 now, his recovery continues. In early May, doctors amputated his right foot and ankle. He documents his journey on a YouTube channel.

The Onalaska tornado struck at 5:30 p.m.

Tornadoes that arrive at night pose an even greater danger to the public, resulting in more than twice as many fatalities as tornadoes that occur during the day, according to a study from the University of Tennessee.

Tornado outbreaks are increasing, and ‘it’s really hard to explain’

Meanwhile, across the U.S., tornado outbreaks or "swarms" — when 30 tornadoes or more occur in a single day — happen two to three days a year rather than on one day every couple of years.

In the 1970s, the U.S. averaged 150 days per year with at least one tornado, and then every other year, the U.S. would have one day with at least 30 tornadoes, said Brooks at the Severe Storms Laboratory.

“In the last decade, we now average about 90 days per year with at least one tornado, but we average two to three days per year with at least 30 EF1 and greater tornadoes," he said.

That development surprised him when he first started noticing it in 2012.

In 2011, an extraordinary year for tornadoes, 30 or more tornadoes occurred on eight days, including over one four-day stretch in April with 253.

A lot of changes in the tornado data can be explained by changes in reporting practices, Brooks said, "but it’s really hard to explain what we’re seeing in fewer tornado days but more on a single day.”

Three outbreaks occurred in April 2020, including one with the Onalaska tornado and 44 others April 22-23 and a storm system that produced 140 tornadoes across 10 states April 12-13.

On April 12 last year, Linda McHenry and her daughter Celisa gathered with family members to celebrate Easter in Soso, Mississippi. They had just taken the turkey and dressing out of the oven when tornado alarms started going off.

Linda's son took his family to a laundry room, and he and his wife covered their children with a mattress. Celisa, 15 weeks pregnant, and the only family member who'd been able to taste the turkey and dressing, climbed into a tub with her infant son, and her fiance shielded them with his body.

Linda stayed in the living room in front of a picture window, watching.

"It looked like it was further away, and I saw ... this big tunnel, and then it curved and came straight towards us like a freight train," she said.

She intended to run to the bathroom but never made it, Linda recalled as she and her daughter were interviewed this month.

The tornado shattered the window and then ripped the home apart, flipping over her 18-wheeler and carrying her and her family members 50 to 100 feet away, she said.

An extended family member in another home in the neighborhood, Sarah Ward, 81, was killed.

At one point on its 68-mile trip, the tornado was the widest ever recorded in Mississippi — more than 2 miles wide with winds up to 190 mph.

Celisa, who suffered a fractured spine and broken tailbone, said she thinks she blacked out. When she woke up, her 6-month-old son, Abel, was sitting nearby in the debris.

The infant had only a scratch, she said.

In recounting their gratitude, at almost the same moment, both women said, "All praise is due to God."

Linda woke up seriously injured, face-forward on the ground hearing the heart-rending sounds of Celisa screaming. She willed herself up, she said, but after being helped to a spot near a neighboring relative's home, she laid back down on the ground and waited hours for help to arrive.

All her ribs on her left side were broken as well as her sternum, she said. A lung and a kidney were punctured. At one point, a rescue worker felt her pulse and said there was nothing he could do for her, she said. But her daughter-in-law and a first responder stayed by her side until an ambulance could get to her.

Even as their long recovery began, Linda and her family weren't done with tornadoes. After a week in the hospital, a tornado warning went through the hospital, urging everyone to move away from windows. She told the nurse to put her in a chair and put blankets over her head.

"If God didn't take me the first time, he ain't going to take me this time," she remembered telling the nurse.

Just after she returned home about two weeks later, another storm system moved through with more tornado warnings.

Allen Jingst looks at the 18 crosses erected on a small hill in memory of the victims who died in deadly tornadoes in Cookeville, Tenn.
Allen Jingst looks at the 18 crosses erected on a small hill in memory of the victims who died in deadly tornadoes in Cookeville, Tenn.

Is climate change a factor in increased tornado frequency?

Researchers know heavier moisture streaming in over the central U.S. from the warming Gulf of Mexico increases thunderstorms and intense rainfall events.

They don't yet know whether or what impact climate change may be having on the tornadoes, their increasing numbers in many Southern states or the rising number of outbreaks.

“We can’t say right now with a high degree of certainty that climate change is influencing tornadoes in one way or the other,” Gensini said. "The signals point to climate change, though there is still a lot of work to be done."

“What is changing is where tornadoes are occurring — up in the mid-South and down in the Plains,” Gensini said. “And some of the climate models suggest that’s exactly what will happen in the future.”

Twisters are also forming earlier and later than they used to.

“It doesn’t matter what the calendar says," Gensini said. "As long as the ingredients are there, you can have a tornado, even if it says January."

Almost all of the earliest starts to the season and all of the latest on the records since 1954 have occurred since the 1990s, Brooks said.

A growing body of evidence suggests “severe weather activity could start sooner in the year, end later and become more variable, with less consistency, more high-end years and more low-end years,” Gensini said. “So, we have some years where it’s more quiet and some years where it’s gangbusters.

“It’s very clear tornado seasons in the last two years have become a lot more variable and less consistent."

Although scientists don't know with certainty why changes are occurring in tornado activity, they say the information about when, where and how often tornadoes occur will continue to improve with time and technology.

In order to see firm trends with something as volatile as tornadoes, “you need a longer record,” said Paul Markowski, a professor of meteorology at Pennsylvania State University. Given the advances in technology over the past 20 years, he said, “the length of record we need is much longer than we have now.”

Ultimately, regardless of where the trends are rising or falling, Gensini warned, “it just takes one tornado a day to make your day really bad.”

From his first high school encounter, Gensini has been interested in the damage a tornado can wreak, not just physically but psychologically. People's lives become defined by that point, he said.

"It leaves a scar on the landscape, but for many people it leaves a scar in the mind," he said.

And for others, it's worse.

Contributing: Gabriela Szymanowska in Mississippi; Donna Thornton, Kirsten Fiscus and Krista Johnson in Alabama; and The Montgomery Advertiser staff.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Tornado Alley' expansion: How millions in Southern states are at risk

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