As those of us who live in the South know all too well, we are now well into the tornado season. The United States’ season actually begins in late winter and lasts until mid-summer, but in the Southern states it is March until the end of May. This year’s storms got an early start with tornadoes as early as January. The storms that hit Joplin, Mo. early this year tore through a highly populated area and again in Birmingham, Ala., resulting in a cost of $30 billion dollars. And now the more recent ones that devastated towns in Kansas, Nebraska, Illinois, Kentucky and Branson, Mo. in late February and early April have added to the count. Other recent ones that did a lot of damage in early April were in Lancaster, Texas, in the Dallas area and Norman, Okla. The average deaths from tornadoes is about 60 people, but last year was the fourth deadliest year for tornadoes resulting in 550 deaths. So far this year, we have already had 497 reported tornadoes, 281 of them confirmed and with close to 100 fatalities. These tornadoes were classified as EF-4, which is the second most dangerous with 170 mile per hour winds. One tornado alone destroyed 166 homes and 25 businesses. There are different scales for rating the strength of a tornado. An F-0 or FE-0 tornado is the weakest and will damage trees but not usually homes, while the strongest is an F-5 or EF-5 and will rip buildings off their foundations.
The word tornado is a form of the Spanish word tronada, which means ‘thunderstorm.’ It is often referred to as a twister or the long-ago term ‘cyclone.’ Both these terms were used to describe Dorothy’s journey to Oz in the movie “Wizard of Oz.” Anyone who has lived through this terrible tragedy describes the sound as a whooshing roar like a freight train, a jet engine or a rapids or waterfall. The funnel cloud has been described as sounding like thousands of buzzing bees. Not all tornadoes have a funnel cloud, but a rotating dust cloud can indicate strong winds and that makes it a true tornado. I find it interesting that the rotation of the tornado is counterclockwise in the northern hemisphere and clockwise in the southern hemisphere. The funnel is a violent, dangerous column of air, like a thin tube that is in contact with both the surface of the earth and a cumulonimbus cloud. Most tornadoes have a wind speed of less than 110 miles per hour and reach about 250 feet across, but some have been known to have speeds of more than 300 miles per hour and stretch more than two miles across. Tornadoes have been seen on every continent except Antarctica.
Thanks to Doppler radar, these devastating storms can now be recognized by velocity patterns and the public can be warned ahead of time of the coming storm. The Doppler radar was named after its inventor, Christian Andreas Doppler, an Austrian physicist. It returns echoes from its target to measure their radial velocity. This has been around for some time but only became popular in the late 1970s to 1980s as a weather indicator. By 1982 it was used by most weather stations. Doppler radar is also used in air defense, air traffic control, sounding satellites, police speed guns and radiology. I remember the excitement on the television when Jim Gandy, meteorologist of channel 19, got a Doppler radar for the first time
If memory serves me correctly, it was 1984 when the tornado came through Winnsboro to Lake Wateree, did damage to 11 homes in our area and went across the lake and the state line into North Carolina where it did considerable damage to several towns there, the worst being Bennettsville. We had been weekenders since getting the property in 1974, not moving to the lake full time until 1990. We had just been to the lake the previous weekend and all was well. In the middle of the night on March 28 we got a call at our home in Durham, N.C., from our lake neighbor telling us of the tornado and the damage. We headed to South Carolina the next morning and we were not prepared for what we saw. It was difficult to even get in on Rockbridge Road with all the trees lying across the road. Many of the residents had been out since dawn, cutting a path for the cars. As we turned in to where our mobile home once stood, we were truly shaken. The wind had flipped our mobile home over twice and the only thing preventing it from going into the lake was a row of trees along the water’s edge. Furniture, appliances, clothing – everything — was strewn all over the yard and bits of metal roofing and insulation were hanging in the trees. The force of the wind ripped out the tie-downs that held the mobile home and also a large screened-in porch that had posts cemented in the ground. Our neighbors dock had torn loose and was up on our retaining wall. Another neighbor had moved his pontoon boat to our cove thinking it would be safer there than on the open water and one of our trees fell across the middle of it. As an example of the wind’s apparently random strength, our mobile home frame was bent and an iron skillet was found sticking out of a tree, but our pontoon boat, sitting up on cement blocks and chained to a tree about 20 feet from the mobile home, was untouched.
That is the mystery of this force of nature. We all want to preserve our home and our way of life and our best chance of keeping ahead of the news of an oncoming tornado is the television, mobile devices and weather radios. March 4 of this year was the start of Weather Awareness Week, but as we know, the tornadoes started long before that time. Stay alert folks and stay safe, as there are predictions of increased severe weather in the months ahead.