Super Outbreak 5 years later: My story and the meteorology (Part 5 – the day after)

Good afternoon.

Yesterday I mentioned the experience that was April 27, 2011. The most historic day of a historic week of severe weather and tornadoes. Fortunately, it wasn’t too bad on my end but watching the images from the South were frightening. It was clear that more needed to be done to protect us in severe weather. Billions of dollars, endless manpower and new technologies could not eliminate very high death tolls from tornado outbreaks. Suddenly it was like we were back in the 1950s or earlier. Day 2 of the vacation was an emotional one, as I will explain here. Meanwhile, severe weather had not completely escaped yet.

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Surface weather map on the morning of April 28, 2011 (Weather Prediction Center/NOAA). The last vestiges of Round 6 (the intense supercells) was visible. Otherwise, most of the activity was focused farther north.

April 28: Nature’s final bow

As April 27 ended and April 28 began, we were hopeful that it would be a much quieter day. However, there was some reason to be skeptical and believe that one more round of severe weather was in store. The devastating supercells which had formed nearly 12 hours earlier continued to result in strong and long-tracked tornadoes, although they became more isolated in time. The last significant long-track tornado was at approximately 2:30 am near Harrisonburg, VA (an EF-2). A weak squall line eventually formed over the western Carolinas, which produced a few more weak tornadoes through dawn. More of the overnight activity was focused in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic (including parts of the megalopolis), although a few isolated supercells did also pop up ahead of the line and south of it (as far south as Florida). In total, 37 more tornadoes touched down by shortly after sunrise. There were no fatalities but several injuries did result from those tornadoes.

By shortly after dawn on that Thursday morning, the low pressure area had intensified over the Great Lakes, deepening to about 985 mb. The last vestiges of the new squall line was located over the Carolinas, racing to the coast. The cold front had finally moved eastward, near or just west of the Blue Ridge. The SPC issued an enhanced risk of severe weather for the Mid-Atlantic through the eastern Carolinas, mentioning the possibility that the atmosphere would recharge one more time between the squall line and the cold front before the front tracks offshore late in the day. That was what happened on April 16, when intense tornadoes occurred in eastern North Carolina and southeastern Virginia, representing one of the worst tornado outbreaks on record for the region. Will it happen again?

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April 28, 2011 storm reports (SPC/NOAA).

Fortunately, we didn’t see much of a recharging. The front raced eastward, leaving only a limited window of opportunity for redevelopment in the moderately unstable air mass. There were quite a number of tornadoes (15 from Maryland to Georgia near the coast) but they were all weak, meaning the final round of activity (Round 7) did not produce a significant tornado outbreak. It was a rare sigh of relief as relief personnel and equipment did not need to be spread out even more thinly. By late in the afternoon, the front and its associated thunderstorm (and tornado) activity moved offshore, which essentially ended the outbreak.

Even with a much quieter day, the large-scale weather system was catastrophic, with damage figures more associated with large hurricanes and off-the-charts human suffering. From Monday morning to Thursday afternoon, all associated with a single weather system, a total of 363 tornadoes are known to have touched down. It is possible a few more tornadoes occurred, particularly in the overnight hours, but were not detected or surveyed. Over the 79-hour period from the first to the last tornado, that is an average of 4.6 tornadoes every hour, and the longest tornado-free period in that time was a little under six hours. That dwarfed the multi-day period surrounding the April 3, 1974 Super Outbreak, when about 180 tornadoes were reported, although many more likely touched down and were not recorded.

From a human perspective, the 324 fatalities from tornadoes this week (of which 314 occurred during the main supercell activity and 10 occurred during earlier rounds) dwarfed any outbreak since 1974. It was higher than the combined death tolls of the five deadliest outbreaks in the 1975 to 2010 timeframe – the deadliest in that period was May 31, 1985 with 88 fatalities, followed by three outbreaks with 57 fatalities each (on April 10-11, 1979, again on March 28, 1984 and finally on February 5-6, 2008) and then by May 3-4, 1999 with 50 fatalities. Flash flooding and straight-line winds resulted in another 24 fatalities across the same regions affected. With the exception of Hurricane Katrina, it was the deadliest weather system in the US in the previous 50 years. In tomorrow’s final post, I will mention what we have learned, and how I am going to work towards improving tornado safety as well in the years ahead.

Back on the road…

We weren’t going to let vacation end after one day. Also the most devastated areas were not going to be visited on this day (April 28, 2011) as we slowed the trip down – and we do have a route option available to shift course. As a result, it was a fairly calm down, with one notable storyline. From start to finish on what was a partly cloudy (and much cooler) day, we were literally being followed by convoys of electrical employees and relief trucks. I would estimate we passed by more than 1,000 of them on the highway – either in passing or visible while we stopped. It was immediately clear that the tornado victims were not about to be ignored – they were going to get all the help the country can give them.

That was despite the fact the storms were competing with the royal wedding of William and Kate and (the following week) the death of Osama Bin Laden for news coverage. Some would argue that the national news focused too much on them, but I digress. They had planned the wedding coverage for months and committed millions of dollars to it, while the tornado coverage came with only a few days’ notice, if that. Besides, news directors are not meteorologists, and they need to balance coverage too. Exhausted meteorologists from all sources – including media, private sector and government – were all doing an excellent job in spite of the challenges.

Nonetheless, my mind was 110% on the storm and tornado victims. It reached a peak when we stopped that evening, and across the street from the hotel I stayed at, they had closed two restaurants and a gas station to the public, reserving the entire facilities to electrical trucks and other disaster relief vehicles. Even though the town I stayed in was not affected by the storms, they were clearly caring and willing to lend a hand to people that would become heroes. Most of them travelled on their own without government assistance at this time, although the restaurants served them all for free from what I was told and gas was sold at a discount. Over 2,000 meals were served that evening and night (they worked all night to help out) and the entire gas tanks were emptied for them. Clearly, everyone was coming together on their own. I was so impressed I felt I wanted to help out…and that comes tomorrow as I reached the disaster zone first hand.

Conclusion

Yes we are all humans. But as the worst tornado outbreak in my lifetime came to a conclusion, quickly everyone was responding. Despite starting over 500 miles from any of the major disaster zones, I could immediately see the response underway. Clearly, the meaning had changed. No longer was I thinking much about beaches, warm weather, golf or Mickey Mouse. Instead, the spirit of relief and helping storm victims was at the top of my mind on what was a nice day weather wise. Tomorrow’s conclusion will focus on what has changed over the last 5 years, and what happens next, in addition to my experience in the disaster zone.

Forecaster Craig Ceecee

Remainder of the series:

Part 1 (Sunday, April 24) – Introduction and strong warnings

Part 2 (Monday, April 25) – The outbreak begins and stronger warnings

Part 3 (Tuesday, April 26) – More tornadoes setting the stage

Part 4 (Wednesday, April 27) – The day everything changed forever

Part 6 (Friday, April 29) – Conclusion, lessons learned and the future

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