The National Weather Service has confirmed that Sunday night’s deadly tornado in Marion, Lamar and Forrest counties in Mississippi was a violent EF4 twister, with maximum winds of 170 mph. It was also unusually expansive, measuring 1.25 miles in diameter.
Remarkably, this was the third mile-wide killer EF4 tornado to strike within a 13-mile radius of some Mississippi dwellings in just one week, battering an area that can’t seem to catch a break from repeated episodes of destructive storms. Meanwhile, more severe weather could be on the way late this week.
Unlike its predecessors, this latest vicious tornado came at night and was largely wrapped in rain, cloaked beneath a shroud of darkness as it mowed down large swaths of forest. One person was killed when their mobile home was obliterated by the tornado.
Debris from the tornado was lofted to more than 20,000 feet high, attesting to the tornado’s intensity. One house was completely swept off its foundation and smashed to pieces, leaving behind only twisted bolts protruding from the foundation.
Due to the repeat severe weather outbreaks, the National Weather Service in Jackson, Miss., has been doing virtually nonstop damage surveys for the past nine days, fanning out to inspect the wreckage and collect evidence on just how strong tornadic winds may have been.
They found that Sunday’s tornado swelled to a staggering width of 1.25 miles. Wide tornadoes such as this one are relatively rare, but even more unusual is the fact that only days earlier, nearby regions were razed by a 2.25-mile-wide EF4 on April 12, which was Easter Sunday.
That tornado turned out to be not only Mississippi’s largest tornado on record, but the nation’s third-largest twister.
The region was within a Level 4 out of 5 “moderate risk” area from the National Weather Service’s Storm Prediction Center late Sunday. A rotating supercell thunderstorm formed along the southern end of a line of storms in southern Mississippi around 6 p.m. local time, prompting the National Weather Service in Jackson to issue a tornado warning at 6:55 p.m.
At 7:15 p.m., the Weather Service warned of “a confirmed large and extremely dangerous tornado” near the town of Pickwick. The tornado grew in size as it plowed across Marion and Lamar counties.
The thunderstorm producing the tornado towered to a height of 55,000 feet and featured an overshooting top, a telltale sign of a powerful storm. The tornado missed the town of Purvis by about a mile to the north. The tornado, still nearly a mile wide, eventually crossed Interstate 59 as it entered Forrest County, and then skirted well to the south of Hattiesburg, a city of 45,000.
Its path took it directly between the Bobby L. Chain Municipal Airport and the Hagler Army Heliport in Camp Shelby.
While it stayed over mainly rural areas, it did destroy one well-constructed home near New Hope Road west of Sandy Hook. That was the only structure that warranted an EF4 rating, the NWS stated, since the foundation was nearly wiped bare with piles of debris shunted downwind.
Ordinarily, meteorologists can only assess this degree of damage as commensurate with EF3 intensity, unless there is evidence that a home was well-constructed. In this case, such evidence was present, in the form of anchor bolts showing the walls were firmly connected to the foundation — before they were ripped away by the tornado’s vicious onslaught.
“We were able to use Google Street View to see what that house looked like beforehand,” said Thomas Winesett, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Jackson who surveyed the damage and assigned the EF4 rating. “The foundation was swept almost clean. There was a little debris piled up on one side of it. But it had the anchor bolts bent over, too.”
He said that tree damage nearby was also in line with high-end EF3 or borderline EF4 damage.
The third EF4 in seven days
All told, the damage path of this tornado was 54.2 miles long — making for a remarkable long-track tornado, particularly considering last Sunday featured an EF4 with a 68-mile path, an EF3 with an 84-mile-long track and another EF4 that etched a 21-mile scar of destruction.
In fact, one of the EF4s from Easter Sunday occurred just 18 miles away from this most recent tornado, while the other Easter Sunday EF4 tornado was just 23 miles away.
That means residents who live just east of Columbia, Miss., are less than 13 miles away from the paths of three killer EF4 tornadoes.
“That is pretty unusual,” the NWS’s Winesett said of the density of high-end killer tornadoes that have struck his forecast area in the past two weeks. “In a one week span from one Sunday to the next, we had three EF4 tornadoes in one [small] area … that’s not something you see all that typically often. I don’t know how to quantify that, but it’s pretty rare.”
Winesett happened to be on the warning desk on Easter Sunday, and issued the tornado emergencies for the dual tornadic storms that damaged communities including Bassfield, Soso, Laurel and Moss. Many feel the alerts — extended far ahead of the tornadoes — likely saved lives.
“I remember seeing the radar imagery coming in,” he recalled. “That mesocyclone [the rotating part of a thunderstorm] ended up looking like the El Reno storm from 2013.”
The El Reno, Okla., supercell thunderstorm and tornado are regarded by some meteorologists as the benchmark for extreme, violent tornadoes and thunderstorms.
“We do a lot of in-house training here and a lot of ‘polygonology,’ or how to issue well-constructed [warning] polygons,” Winesett said. “We focus a lot on warning downstream.”
Despite the advanced warnings, 12 died in the two EF4s on Easter Sunday, while another perished Sunday night in a mobile home. Winesett said his office works hard to communicate the risk tornadoes pose in the South, which can be every bit as dangerous as in traditional Tornado Alley.
“We do get a lot of tornadoes in Mississippi,” Winesett said. “I think overall a lot of the people in this area are used to it. It’s not densely populated in some of the rural parts of this state, but one of the issues we deal with is poor construction quality in some places. There’s a lot of mobile homes. We always tell people not to seek shelter in a mobile home.”