Multiple tornadoes had already been observed in Mississippi and Alabama through early afternoon Wednesday, some damaging.
Over 40 million Americans from Texas to Georgia are at risk of severe weather on Wednesday, including nearly 1.5 million residing in the top-tier high-risk zone, which spans extreme northeast Louisiana, central Mississippi and western Alabama, and includes Birmingham and Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Jackson, Miss.
It’s the first time since 2012 that a high risk of severe weather has been declared during March by the Storm Prediction Center. “A significant tornado outbreak, with long-track, intense tornadoes is expected to begin this afternoon across parts of Louisiana and Arkansas,” it writes, “and then spread eastward and peak this evening into tonight across Mississippi and Alabama.”
The risk of severe weather shifts east on Thursday, when a level 4 out of 5 moderate risk of dangerous storms blankets the Carolinas and Georgia. The potential exists for more strong tornadoes. Areas threatened include Charlotte, Raleigh, N.C., and Savannah, Ga. Over 50 million residents face an elevated storm threat Thursday from Florida to Pennsylvania.
Another tornado watch was planned for southeast Louisiana, including New Orleans, but hadn’t been issued yet. Tornado risk there was increasing.
Additional footage of observed tornadoes was obtained in Alabama in Selma, (west of Montgomery), northern Autauga County (northwest of Montgomery), Livingston (near the border with Mississippi, and northeast of Meridian), and Butler (near the border with Mississippi, and southeast of Meridian).
The Selma storm appeared to produce a large tornado near Cooper, Al.; there were at least two occasions when radar suggested two tornadoes on the ground simultaneously.
Six storms were tornado-warned in Alabama as of 2:15 p.m. Central Time, with nearly a dozen circulations visible on radar across the state.
An atmosphere primed with destructive potential in a vulnerable zone
Six tornado watches covered large parts of the South early Wednesday afternoon from eastern Oklahoma to eastern Alabama. Multiple rounds of severe weather were possible in the region into the evening.
The tornado threat will continue past dark in Alabama, especially in western and northern parts of the state. Alabama and parts of neighboring states are known for their vulnerability to tornadoes; the danger escalates at night. Research has shown that nighttime tornadoes are 250 percent more likely to result in deaths.
“The area of the American South, which contains the … Tennessee River [Valley], has the highest percentages of nocturnal tornadoes, nocturnal fatalities, and number of nocturnal killer events,” Walker Ashley, a meteorology professor at Northern Illinois University, wrote in a study in 2008.
The storms are predicted to hit an area with high levels of poverty and flimsy construction, including large numbers of mobile homes, which are particularly vulnerable in tornadoes.
“What bothers me most about the upcoming Southeast severe weather event … Poverty*. Mix this with an overnight event. It’s a recipe for fatalities,” tweeted Stephen Strader, a professor of geography and hazards experts at Villanova University.
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey (R) issued a state of emergency, which freed up money and resources to be more quickly distributed in the event disaster ensues, as well as activated the state’s emergency management agency. The order also temporarily relaxed the enforcement of covid-19 restrictions to allow the prioritization of sheltering from severe weather. A number of schools across the South canceled classes Wednesday ahead of the ominous threat.
Strong to violent tornadoes possible
Danger was already brewing across the South early afternoon Wednesday, where clusters of storms were forming as a warm front lifted northward. The atmosphere will reload behind the warm front, with a mild, sultry air mass overspreading the region and spiking the risk for severe storms.
At the border of central Mississippi and Alabama, the Storm Prediction Center highlighted a small area which has a 45 percent chance of a tornado occurring within 25 miles of any location. Such a high tornado chance is exceptionally rare and, historically, has only been predicted in some of the most extreme outbreaks.
Blue skies were reported midmorning in Starkville, Miss., at the core of the high-risk area. That was an ominous sign, since the sun is heating the ground even more, adding juice to what was already an unstable atmosphere.
“Significant severe thunderstorms and tornadoes are likely with strong or violent long-tracked tornadoes possible,” wrote the National Weather Service in Jackson, Miss. “Some thunderstorms will produce damaging wind gusts and destructive hail up to baseball size or larger.”
Surrounding the high-risk zone is a Level 4 out of 5 moderate risk, which encapsulates much of eastern Arkansas, northeast Louisiana, and the remainder of Mississippi and Alabama. Memphis, Little Rock and Huntsville, Ala., are in the moderate zone.
Wednesday’s storm timeline
Early afternoon, a line of clustered thunderstorms with embedded rotating storms was materializing along the cold front to the west and stretch from the Texas-Louisiana border northeastward into Arkansas.
Also, in the early afternoon, the most dangerous batch of storms — supercells or rotating thunderstorms — will blossom in eastern Mississippi and Alabama, bringing the greatest risk of long-track tornadoes. Some supercell structures may persist for six hours or more, with several producing “tornado families” of multiple twisters. That risk will continue into the night.
Even for storms during the daytime, indications suggest storm updrafts will be elongated and highly tilted, meaning storms won’t exhibit the visual cues sometimes associated with tornadoes. They’ll also move very quickly, and low cloud bases and overcast skies will make it difficult to see a tornado until it’s on one’s doorstep, making the threat especially dangerous.
Storms won’t finally clear Mississippi to the east until after midnight, and will still target Alabama into the wee hours of Thursday morning. Georgia could be affected by the storms, in a moderated state, during the predawn hours.
The broken band of storms will redevelop and fill back in late Thursday morning while racing east through the Carolinas, bringing the risk of wind and additional tornadoes. The Storm Prediction Center is bullish on the tornado potential, drawing a large Level 4 out of 5 moderate risk area. Any supercells that form ahead of the main line will be especially problematic.
“The more substantial risk will be from widespread damaging winds, as well as tornadoes — including possibility for a few strong/significant tornadoes during the afternoon and into the early evening,” wrote the Storm Prediction Center.
Raleigh, Charlotte and Wilmington, N.C., Charleston and Columbia, S.C. and Savannah, Ga. are all in the moderate risk area.
A few renegade storms are even possible as far north as north-central Virginia and southern Maryland on Thursday and into Friday morning, and could pose the risk of an isolated gust of damaging wind or a brief spin-up tornado.
Afterward, storms will exit the coast, with more tranquil weather building into the Lower 48 until the end of next week.
Over the next two days, numerous tornado watches and warnings are expected to be issued.
A watch means conditions are favorable for tornadoes and that residents should be prepared to take action. If a tornado warning is issued, it means weather radar is indicating a tornado and/or a twister has been spotted and shelter should be sought immediately.
The safest play during a tornado is to be at the lowest level of a strong building, preferably underground. Put as many walls between yourself and outside as possible and stay away from windows. Mobile homes and vehicles do not offer protection from a tornado. Meteorologists and emergency responders advise mobile home residents identify a safe place to shelter ahead of time. Options may include a public tornado shelter or the home of friends or relatives.
“You can’t stay in a mobile home during a tornado warning,” wrote Birmingham broadcast meteorologist James Spann in a blog post early Wednesday. “Know where you are going, and how to get there quickly. If there is no community shelter nearby, go to a business like a gas station, convenience store, or restaurant that is open 24/7.”
In a Facebook broadcast early Wednesday, Spann urged residents to have multiple ways of receiving tornado warnings, stressing sirens, which can only be heard outside, are inadequate.
The surest way to receive a warning, he said, was through a NOAA weather radio, because it operates even when cellular service drops.
Assuming cellular service is available, smartphone apps are another method, he said. He advised making sure wireless emergency alerts were turned on, which will automatically sound a shrill beep if a tornado warning is issued.
When sheltering, Spann suggested wearing a helmet to protect your head and hard-sole shoes “in case you have to walk over a tornado debris field.”
He also stressed residents should carry a bullhorn to assist first responders in finding them in case they became trapped.