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Mayhem On The Fourth

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I know a few things about the weather having been an on-air meteorologist for over twenty years. One thing I know for sure is that weather doesn’t follow a schedule. Just ask the people shopping at the Wal-Mart in Louisa, Kentucky on July fourth.

A fast-moving storm emerged over hilly terrain and eyewitnesses saw a funnel approaching the town that lies nestled along the Kentucky/West Virginian border. Moments later people scrambled for cover as damaging storm winds struck. The roof came crashing in at the store and cars and shopping carts were tossed like toys in the parking lot.

Based on the damage survey from the Weather Service the next day, the tornado was rated EF-2 with maximum winds of 120 mph. It traveled nearly the length of a football field and was approximately two and half miles wide. Fortunately, only 5 people were injured but there were no fatalities. Based on the pictures, it could have been much worse.

So, why wasn’t there a tornado warning? In point of fact, a severe thunderstorm warning was issued at 3:45 pm by the nearest National Weather Service office in Charleston, West Virginia. The wording in the warning does caution for the possibility of winds over 70 miles an hour. Here is what the warning looked like highlighted in yellow:

I’ve written about this before, but people simply don’t really understand that a severe thunderstorm warning indicates a strong thunderstorm that could, in fact be upgraded to a tornado warning. In this case that didn’t happen, possibly because of how quickly the storm was moving – about 45 miles an hour. Also, based on the distance of the storm from the nearest radar, there might not have been an indication of tornadic rotation to warrant such an upgraded warning.

Another factor that can’t be overlooked in this case is that it was a holiday. Often during days like this there is a somewhat lowered sense of awareness throughout society, let alone the weather warning infrastructure. Often, people have the day off and others are filling in or possibly even pulling extra shifts to accommodate the personnel shortage.

The general public also isn’t particularly in a weather-watching mood. The most important question this day is usually – will I see fireworks? Not “will the roof cave in”?

Earlier in the day, the Storm Prediction Center highlighted Kentucky and West Virginia as in a zone where there was an elevated risk of severe weather they classify as “slight”:

I’m not sure that people living where the storm struck would have used that adjective, if they saw that projection at all. Remember, it was a holiday and they might not have been watching the news or checking the web.

As the storm threat unfolded, a severe thunderstorm watch was issued covering the area where storms did indeed develop:

Again, I suggest that many who may have seen the list of counties under the warning crawling across their TV screen that afternoon (if they were watching) probably didn’t expect a 120 mph tornado and a trip to the nation’s largest retailer cut short.

Yes, weather doesn’t follow a schedule. All the more reason why you should be aware of what could happen and have a plan in case things get worse than expected. Find out how at www.weathercall.net/gene.

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