10 Things About Tornadoes

Since I mentioned the communities in South Alabama in a recent post and asked you to take a moment and send a kind thought their way, I’d thought I would talk a little more about what a tornado actually is and does. Some of my readers are from parts of the world where tornadoes are less common than where I live and aren’t as familiar with what that kind of storm entails.

Also, as an update, the communities I told you about have been on the receiving end of such an outpouring of generosity that they have now asked that people stop sending donated items. They have the physical items they need to help the population at the moment, and are now in need of money and extra hands for clean-up and rebuilding.

As for my fellow writers, a lot of people will say that unless it’s pertinent to the story not to write about the weather. But sometimes, it makes a difference. And for worldbuilding purposes in Fantasy and Sci-Fi worlds, you might want to think about what kind of weather would make a difference. Perhaps the spaceship can’t enter the atmosphere in the spot it needs to because of a large lightning storm. Or maybe your wind mage is throwing a hissy fit that could level a town. Sometimes the weather does matter.

Anyway, here are ten things you might not know about tornadoes:

  1. Tornadoes can and do form in every U.S. state and, in fact, have been recorded on every continent except Antartica. While they are more common in some regions than in others, and in some places are quite rare, they can form anywhere.
  2. The most commonly affected place in the United States (and by a small margin, the world) is known as Tornado Alley and encompasses The Great Plains and large portions of the Southeast, though no exact boundaries have ever been defined. This is largely due to both geography and topography, specifically the areas between the Rocky Mountains and the Appalachian Mountains, with weather patterns greatly affected by the jet stream and the Gulf of Mexico.
  3. A common misconception is that tornadoes cannot cross mountain ranges or bodies of water. While it’s not a common occurrence, storm cells have been recorded passing over mountain ranges. And a tornado passing over water is a common enough occurrence that a tornado over water has a special name–a waterspout.
  4. In the current early warning system, a Tornado Watch means the storm conditions in the area are conducive to creating a tornado. A Tornado Warning means a tornado has been spotted on the ground or via radar and you should take cover immediately.
  5. Tornado warning systems have steadily improved over the last seventy years (since the first warning system in 1948), but because of the nature of the type of storm, the longest warning times average about thirteen minutes. Most of the time, people in the affected area have less time than that to get to their safe place.
  6. The tornado warning system has about a seventy percent false alarm rate because it’s better to be safe than sorry when strong funnel clouds start appearing on radar. However, this means that some (large portions) of the population don’t always take tornado warnings as seriously as they should. Also, some people wait to hear their local tornado siren, but it can be easily drowned out by the noise of the storm–or be destroyed by the storm before it has a chance to alert locals.
  7. In a tornado, the safest place to be is underground, preferably in a concrete storm cellar. If no storm cellar is available, the bottom floor of a house or building, in a room with no exterior walls or windows, especially under stairs. In my house, my master bedroom closet is the only room that fits this description–and yes, I’ve dragged my kids and my dog into that closet with flashlights, snacks, a weather radio, blankets, and pillows when the local tornado sirens have sounded.
  8. Tornadoes most commonly have wind speeds less than 110mph and are about 250 feet in diameter. They also only commonly travel a couple of miles before dissipating. The largest tornadoes on record, though, had wind speeds exceeding 300mph, diameters of approximately 2.5 miles, and traveled dozens of miles.
  9. Tornadoes are rated on an EF scale. The EF stands for Enhanced Fujita and is an upgrade from the previous Fujita scale, named for the scientist who created it. The scale ranges from EF0–where a storm will down trees, but probably not cause significant damage to substantial structures–to an EF5–a storm that can rip houses off their foundations and pull large trees out of the ground or snap them in half. It is common for a tornado to have its rating on the EF scale upgraded after assessing the damage it caused.
  10. A single tornado can be a single vortex or a multiple vortex grouping–meaning multiple funnel cloud formations that officially touch down to the ground, but all originate from the same cell.
lightning and tornado hitting village
An example of a single vortex tornado (from pexels.com).

So all you Fantasy writers out there with wind mages in your story, they are not to be underestimated!

Aftermath

Last week the temperatures warmed up and it felt like Spring would come after all. The weekend brought freezing rain, sleet, and tornadoes to the South to reinforce the fact that winter is still upon us. According to the forecast, this rollercoaster ride will continue for another week or so.

My family came through the weekend unscathed. My husband was even able to referee several soccer games at a local tournament before the rain hit, compromising the already saturated fields. At the end of it all, he was tired, but no worse for the wear.

But we live in North Mississippi. Our neighbors in South Alabama were not so lucky. Four tornadoes cut a path across Alabama over the weekend. The one that ravaged Lee County was an EF-4 with winds estimated at 170mph. The death toll continues to rise as search and rescue teams comb through the debris. Tonight, snow flurries are falling in that same county. We often joke about the unpredictable nature of spring weather in our region, but this is no laughing matter.

One school has already shared on social media that the student body is mourning the loss of a grade-school girl lost in the storm. Another family–a father, mother, and young boy–are all in the ICU with no home to return to as they begin to recover (and no medical insurance to cover the costs of said recovery).

leecomonfeature
via Alabama NewsCenter
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via Alabama NewsCenter

In the South, we pride ourselves on the “chainsaws and casseroles” brigade. “Neighbors” from states away who escaped the clutches of severe weather and show up bearing food, supplies, and a willingness to help in whatever way they can. Linemen from other parts of the state, and other states, show up and work tirelessly to get electricity back to the devastated areas so the families with homes left to go to at least have heat. Churches often show up with disaster relief teams and truckloads of bottled water, baby supplies, clothes, and tools to fix what they can. This is what people in the southern part of Alabama need right now.

Many of my readers are from far outside the southeastern portion of the United States. You have no connection to these people. Nobody affected is a friend of a friend, or a friend’s cousin. All the same, I ask that you spare a moment to think of those who are in need tonight. If you are the praying type, I ask that you pray for those affected by the severe weather. If you aren’t the praying type, a kind or somber thought would still be appreciated.

The reason the South has to be proud of our chainsaws and casseroles brigade is that much of our region is rural. We don’t warrant news coverage because most people in the U.S. have never heard of places like Lee County, Alabama. The death toll is in the tens not hundreds or thousands. But the loss is still great to those who live there. It’s still a disaster. And even agrarian areas deserve better than to be ignored in their time of need and grief.

If you are able to donate to the Red Cross, they are also a part of recovery efforts. If you aren’t–there is no guilt or shame in that–a thought or a prayer so that the people of Lee County are not forgotten or ignored during this difficult time is appreciated.

Chainsaws and casseroles are optional.

Blind Date Update

My weekend did not go according to plan, but it went awry in all the right ways. Instead of getting to enjoy my blind date with a book, I only got as far as opening the package to reveal the title, author, and book jacket synopsis (more on that later).

I didn’t get to read a book cover-to-cover, but my five-year-old knows how to play Monopoly now. Well, he knows how to play both Star Wars Monopoly and Disney Monopoly. He has no idea what Park Place is. Still. He not only understands the game, but he can also win against adults–provided someone is there to help him add or subtract the “really big numbers”. He’s five. I’m still impressed.

My one-year-old mastered the “crying as you hit your knees in the mud Shawshank Redemption style” level of melodrama, which is also fun. No, really. It’s really hard to be mad at someone who is throwing a tantrum when you’re laughing at their thespian prowess. Not everyone can conjure crocodile tears and channel Marlon Brando screaming “STELLA!” after being told they couldn’t go play “ball ball” (kickball) with the big kids (preteens).

Anyway, the point is that sometimes life is unpredictable. I had a great weekend with my kids even if it didn’t look anything like the weekend I had originally envisioned. I’m still hoping to read my book this week, but I’m not going to stress myself out over it. Yet. The due date is still far enough in the future that I’m optimistic about my levels of free time.

Speaking of my book. Y’all. It’s a modern retelling of Pride & Prejudice. I’m kind of excited because this is either going to be wonderfully delightful, or so awesomely bad that I’ll get several rant posts out of it. I’m hoping for delightful, of course. I love Jane Austen and her sense of humor that pokes fun at frivolity while also making us enjoy it. I have read all of her fully completed published works. I have read several retellings of both Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility over the years and enjoy about 80% of them, so I have a good feeling about this. Side Note: Does anybody know of a retelling of Mansfield Park or Northanger Abbey? Even Emma got an update in the 1990s with Clueless, but the Park and the Abbey seem to have been left behind (I’m not complaining, those weren’t my faves by any means).

On a heavier note, over the weekend severe flooding and tornadoes wreaked havoc in parts of my state. If you pray, please keep those affected in your prayers. The Mississippi River will continue to rise for the next two weeks and is expected to crest at its fourth highest level on record (and for that to happen in March before the snow up north melts means we could be in for a dangerously wet summer). That means more flooding for a lot of people, and some in lower elevations have already been evacuated. Some farms have already been lost for the year. Expect the price of corn and soybeans to go up this fall. It also means a more difficult time getting supplies to people who desperately need them after tornadoes tore through towns destroying houses, schools, and anything else in their wake.

I am grateful that I have not personally been affected by the severe weather, but my heart goes out to those who were not so lucky. We will do what we can to help shoulder your burden.