Killer tornado strikes small Alabama community over the weekend

Tornado damage in Lee County, Alabama on Sunday, March 3, 2019. (Photo: National Weather Service, Birmingham)

Lives are shattered and hearts broken after a strong tornado smashed into eastern Alabama on Sunday afternoon. As of mid-day today (March 4), 23 people are dead, including at least three young children. Hundreds of homes have been damaged or destroyed.

The deaths occurred in rural Lee County, and, according to Sheriff Jay Jones, several people are still unaccounted for. Crews are sorting through the debris in hopes of finding survivors. Bill Harris, the Lee County coroner, told the New York Times that the three children among the dead were a 6-year-old, a 9-year-old who died at the hospital, and a 10-year-old. He said he had been told that in at least one case that multiple members of the same family died.

At a news conference this morning, Sheriff Jones said the hardest-hit location was a rural area of at least a square mile where most of the residences were mobile or manufactured homes.

“Unfortunately, we anticipate the number of fatalities may rise as the day goes on,” Said Jones. “I have not seen this level of destruction, ever.”

More than one tornado, Jones said, may have touched down in Beauregard, an unincorporated community of 8,000 to 10,000 people about seven miles south of Opelika. The town of Smiths Station was hit, too. Sheriff Jones added that search crews would use drones with infrared sensors that can detect heat signatures of trapped survivors.

There has been a relative lull in deadly tornadoes in the United States lately. In 2018, only nine were reported, causing 10 deaths. A more typical year might see 15 to 20 deadly tornadoes, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The worst year for tornadoes in recent history was 2011, in which 59 deadly storms killed 553 people. Nearly all struck in a three-month period from late February to late May, including one tornado in Joplin, Missouri that left 158 people dead.

Severe thunderstorms and tornadoes can strike the South any time of year, but they are most common from March through May. This is because spring is a transitional period when surface temperatures are warming, but cold air masses from the Midwest can still make it to the South, clashing with the warm air. Also, in the spring, the air aloft often stays very cold relative to the warming ground, and this also contributes to instability in the atmosphere. Sunday’s weather was a fairly classic pattern for March, when a colder air mass mixed with a warmer one.

Unfortunately, tornado season in Alabama started right on schedule and in tragic fashion. Emergency management and National Weather Service (NWS) officials always advise anyone who lives in tornado-prone areas to have a plan that can be followed quickly when warnings are issued and the sirens go off.

Although meteorologists can forecast with pretty high certainty what region(s) of the country may see tornadoes on a given day, it’s nearly impossible to predict exactly which communities will actually get hit within the target area(s). Tornadoes can develop quickly, day or night, but with even 10 minutes of lead time people can often seek proper shelter in time. The best defense is to have a NOAA weather radio at home and/or at work, get set up receive weather alerts on your mobile devices, and pay attention to broadcast meteorologists on your local television stations.

A survey team from the NWS Birmingham, Alabama office has issued a preliminary report on Twitter, stating that Sunday’s tornado was an EF-4 on the Enhanced Fujita Scale with winds of around 170 mph. The team will do further assessments to determine the width of the tornado and how long it stayed on the ground. Alabama Governor Kay Ivey issued a State of Emergency around the last week of February for areas affected by flooding, and has amended the declaration to include the communities devastated by Sunday’s tornadoes.

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Nick Austin, Director of Weather Analytics and Senior Meteorologist

In his 17 years of weather forecasting experience, Nick worked on air at WBBJ-TV and WRCB-TV, including time spent doing weather analysis and field reporting. He received his Bachelor of Science in Meteorology from Florida State University as well as a Bachelor of Science in Management from Georgia Institute of Technology. Nick is also a member of the American Meteorological Society and National Weather Association. As a member of the weather team at WBBJ-TV in Jackson, Tennessee, Nick was nominated for a Mid-South Emmy for live coverage of a major tornado outbreak in 2008. As part of the weather team at WRCB-TV in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Nick shared the Chattanooga Times-Free Press Best of the Best award for “Best Weather Team” for eight consecutive years. Nick earned his National Weather Association Broadcasting Seal in 2005.