At least 30 people were killed and dozens were injured after a swarm of destructive tornadoes and damaging winds tore across the South on Easter Sunday and continued into Monday. Violent storms brought more than 400 reports of severe weather, including 360 reports of wind damage and dozens of tornadoes associated with a powerful storm system barreling across the country. Power was knocked out to 1.3 million customers between Texas and Pennsylvania.

A series of storms and tornadoes ripped through parts of Louisiana, South Carolina and Tennessee on April 12 and 13. (The Washington Post)

The workweek began with yet another day of dangerous weather, a continuous line of strong to severe storms stretching more than 700 miles from the Gulf Coast to the Mid-Atlantic on Monday morning. The tornadoes themselves covered long distances, too. One deadly tornado that struck coastal South Carolina on Monday may have carved a damage path that stretched on and off for 160 miles.

According to state officials and the Associated Press, the storms killed nine in South Carolina, and eight in Georgia. Others died in Arkansas and North Carolina.

Residents in states from Tennessee to Alabama were under stay-at-home orders when deadly tornadoes ripped through their communities April 11 and April 12. (Reuters)

By midafternoon Monday, tornado watches that had stretched from northern Florida to southeastern Virginia were trimmed back to the Mid-Atlantic, including Washington, D.C., Baltimore and Philadelphia.

The Northeast was bracing for widespread damaging winds on Monday afternoon and evening. The potential for gusts up to 60 to 70 mph along the coast and 50 mph inland raised concerns for additional outages from Philadelphia to Boston.

On Sunday, southern Mississippi was the hardest hit area, as tornadoes flattened homes and businesses, and 11 fatalities were reported. A pair of massive, vicious wedge tornadoes carved parallel paths of destruction only a couple of miles apart. The twin supercell thunderstorms, arriving one after another, prompted overlapping “tornado emergencies” — a rare, top-tier alert that the National Weather Service uses when an ordinary tornado warning may not go far enough.

In a series of Tweets on Monday, Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves said the storms that struck his state were the worst to strike in a decade, with at least 12 tornado touchdowns.

“We are used to tornadoes in Mississippi. No one is used to this,” Reeves said. “Winds topped 200 MPH. The trail was long and devastating.”

Videos from Monroe, La., on April 12, showed homes with damaged or missing roofs, as the National Weather Service warned of a “tornado emergency” in the area. (The Washington Post)

Other tornado emergencies were issued in Monroe, La., early Sunday. In Tennessee, a tornado emergency was hoisted shortly before midnight as a confirmed tornado narrowly missed Chattanooga to the southeast. More than a dozen were injured in that tornado. Walterboro, S.C., also found itself beneath a rare tornado emergency around sunrise Monday morning, as a “large, extremely dangerous, and potentially deadly tornado” impacted the area.

Storms were ongoing Monday morning following two days of the high-end severe weather outbreak. While the threat will wane late in the afternoon, many East Coast residents prepared for a morning dominated by powerful storms.

Monday forecast

  • Areas at risk: Storms, some producing tornadoes, were already sweeping through the Interstate 95 corridor from Virginia through the Carolinas and even into Georgia and Florida at the start of the workday. Areas to the east will suffer the chance of damaging winds, hail, and tornadoes — one or two strong — as potent storms race through. The risk for severe weather extends as far north as Pennsylvania and New Jersey, where a second batch of storms capable of producing damaging winds and/or tornadoes was expected to form in the late morning and early afternoon.
  • Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. were placed under the Storm Prediction Center’s “slight risk” for severe weather — level 2 out of 5 — ahead of this second wave of storminess. To the south, a level 3 out of 5 enhanced risk was up for the squall line plowing through southeastern Georgia, the Carolinas and eastern Virginia.
  • Hazards: A number of tornadoes, including a couple potentially intense tornadoes, had already occurred in the enhanced risk area by daybreak Monday. One struck north of Charleston, S.C., while another “extremely dangerous tornado” hit Liberty and Long counties in Georgia, just southwest of Savannah, shortly before 8 a.m. Eastern time. Additional spinups of tornadoes along the line were likely before it moved offshore mid to late morning, with the chase of one or two strong tornadoes. Widespread damaging winds, some gusting to 75 mph, were also likely.
  • Even outside of storms, widespread wind gusts of up to 60 to possibly even 70 mph will exacerbate power outages. A 62-mph wind gust was clocked in Lackawanna, Pa., on Monday morning.
  • Flash flooding was becoming an issue in the Carolina Piedmont and in the lee of the Appalachians in Virginia, where rainfall rates of 1 to 2 inches per hour beneath extremely heavy downpours were dropping a quick 3 or 4 inches in a short period of time.
  • In the Mid-Atlantic from central Virginia north through Washington, D.C., and eventually into Maryland and southern Pennsylvania, a break in the action should precede additional storms late morning into the afternoon. Those could also contain a couple tornadoes, damaging winds and heavy downpours.
  • Timeline: Storms will continue to rage as they move through the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic during the morning hours, likely exiting the coast by noon. In their wake, a few additional downpours are possible in the Carolinas, but a more intense zone of secondary storms may develop in Virginia and track northeast into the D.C. to Baltimore corridor. That would be most likely between 10 or 11 a.m. to the south and west, arriving in the larger population centers by lunchtime. Things should wind down for most folks in the Mid-Atlantic by 2 or 3 p.m., but a few storms could linger on the Delmarva Peninsula, New Jersey or eastern Pennsylvania through 4 p.m.

Storm history

The storm system bringing Monday’s wicked weather has a long history of bringing dangerous conditions, first on Saturday in Texas as grapefruit-sized hail pelted the border town of Del Rio. Storms expanded overnight, blanketing the map Sunday as severe weather pushed east into Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee.

A tornado emergency was issued early in the day for a tornado that damaged dwellings in Monroe, La., leaving parts of the city’s airport in shambles. Additional storms developed before a more substantial tornado episode manifest later in the day.

By midafternoon, a rotating supercell thunderstorm developed in south-central Mississippi, allowing it to fully tap into the atmosphere’s full fury. A tornado emergency was issued for portions of Marion, Lawrence, Covington, Lamar and Jefferson Davis counties in Mississippi as a massive wedge tornado began a track of destruction that may have approached 70 miles long.

The tornado engulfed the community of Bassfield, home to just under 300 residents. Doppler radar showed the “doughnut hole” associated with extreme upward motions of the tornado swallowing the town. Debris from Bassfield was lofted more than 5 miles high into the air, marking what was likely a violent tornado.

While an official rating can’t be assigned until the damage is surveyed, the 170- to 205-mph winds estimated by experts at the Storm Prediction Center, as well as damage photos emerging, would suggest an EF4 or EF5 tornado on the 0 to 5 scale for twister intensity. Wind speeds may even be found to have been higher than those estimated in real time.

The enormous tornado then approached Seminary, Miss., passing just south of the interchange between highways 84 and 49. It then struck Soso, where storm chasers captured a photo of the extreme, high-end tornado appearing like a behemoth, vaporous wall. Around the same time, a second supercell storm formed behind the first, narrowly missing Bassfield with a second large, violent tornado — prompting a new tornado emergency.

Both tornadoes lofted debris to more than 20,000 feet simultaneously as the lead storm ravaged Soso and the second narrowly missed already hard-hit Bassfield to the north. For a time, areas northeast of Soso, Miss., were placed under two tornado emergencies for two different exceptional tornadoes affecting communities — perhaps a first since the tornado emergency was implemented in 1999.

Doppler radar showed debris from the first tornado carried downwind, potentially falling 40 miles away in Choctaw County, Ala.

As the threat in Mississippi began to wane, storms forming a line dropped confirmed tornadoes near Tuscaloosa and Birmingham, Ala., before producing a significant tornado that prompted a tornado emergency near Chattanooga, Tenn. That tornado came close to striking Southern Adventist University as it hit Collegedale and areas just south of Interstate 75. The tornado carried debris to 10,000 feet as it churned through Bradley and Polk counties.

In Alabama, storm damage was reported in more than two dozen counties, according to Birmingham meteorologist James Spann, some due to straight-line winds, others from tornadoes. Spann tweeted there were a number of injuries, but no fatalities in the state.

Other potential tornadoes hit near Atlanta, spun up in the Carolinas, and even prompted yet another tornado emergency for Walterboro, S.C. It marked the fifth storm to result in a tornado emergency in less than 24 hours.

Setup

The severe weather risk resulted from a potent lobe of bitterly cold air at the high altitudes sauntering across the South. It led to an amped-up atmosphere favoring pockets of rapidly rising air that gave rise to dangerous thunderstorms. The high-altitude cold pocket, separated from the more expansive body of cold well to the north, is called a “cutoff low.”

That same bowling ball of cold was heralded by a screaming low-level jet stream, whose southerly winds raced overhead at highway speeds only a few thousand feet above the ground. That pooled plentiful warmth and moisture in the Gulf Coastal states in an environment favoring rotating storms, a setup many meteorologists refer to as a “loaded gun.”

The ill-timed outbreak came not only on Easter Sunday, but in the middle of a pandemic that has sparked social distancing concerns far and wide. Some communities refused to open their community storm shelters as a result, prompting Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey (R) to issue an executive order requiring all shelters be made available and open to the public.

Her decision was in line with advice from meteorologists, the Alabama Department of Public Health and even the American Meteorological Society. The group urged people, “Do not let the virus prevent you from seeking shelter.”

The scene after tornadoes and violent storms tore through the South

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April 13, 2020 | Randy Shoemaker embraces his son, Conner, 6, after the family survived a tornado in Chatsworth, Ga. Shoemaker; his son; his wife, Kimberly; and daughter, Isabella, 4, survived by covering themselves with mattresses in the bathroom of their mobile home while the roof was lifted off and the rest of the trailer flattened. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP)