In recent years, scientists have noted an increasing frequency of tornadoes in the Southeast, leaving a trail of lost property and life.
The well-known “Tornado Alley” includes the area from central Texas extending north to Iowa, and from central Kansas and Nebraska east to western Ohio, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
And while Tornado Alley still leads the Great Plains in tornado counts, more are occurring in southeastern, eastern Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia.
Tornadoes moving farther east have taken a devastating toll.
Unlike the Plains, where a tornado can be seen from miles away, the Southeast has rougher terrain and more trees, making it harder to spot a tornado. Many tornadoes that occur in the area are “rainpacked,” making them less visible to the naked eye, CNN meteorologists said.
Heavier forested areas in the south will result in more trees being knocked over by storms or turned into missiles.
Tornadoes in the south tend to stay on the ground longer and move faster. Many storms in the southern states are driven by a stronger jet stream, resulting in faster storms.
It’s not uncommon for a tornado to fly faster than 80 km/h in the southeast. This increases the pressure on forecasters to issue a tornado warning in time for the public to respond, CNN meteorologists noted. Nashville residents had minutes before the deadly tornado struck just after midnight on March 3, 2020.
Many of the storms occur overnight when most people are asleep and unaware that a tornado is approaching. Many homes in the Southeast lack a basement or underground shelter. In 2008, the US Census Bureau reported that only 10% of new homes had a basement, while 75% of new homes in the Northeast and Midwest had a basement.
It’s not an anomaly that two tornadoes appear in the Southeast each year, but they do have different vulnerabilities, Victor Gensini, a professor of meteorology at Northern Illinois University, told CNN.
“If you move east from Kansas to Mississippi, Georgia, Tennessee, the population density increases rapidly and we have a problem with more mobile homes in the Southeast as well,” he said. “If you get hit by a tornado in an RV, you have a much higher chance of being killed. They just have a really unique exposure and vulnerability problem.”
Gensini co-authored a study that began tracking tornadoes in 1979 and observed a southeastward shift around 2008.
Although there are fewer tornadoes in the Southeast than in the Central Plains, the MidSouth/Southeast region has seen more deaths because they occur in more densely populated areas.
Average tornado deaths from 1985 to 2014, according to National Weather Service data, were highest in Alabama with 14 deaths per year, followed by Missouri with eight and Tennessee with six deaths per year.
Although these states led in the average number of tornado deaths, they were not the states with the most tornadoes. The highest annual mean number of tornadoes were reported in Texas at 140, Kansas at 80 and Florida at 59, according to the National Weather Service. Meanwhile, Alabama averaged about 42 tornadoes a year.