A dangerous severe weather outbreak slammed the South Wednesday unleashing tornadoes, damaging winds, hail and flooding rain. The threat is predicted shift to the Southeast and southern Mid-Atlantic on Thursday.

Ahead of the storms Wednesday, the National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center declared a very rare Level 5 out of 5 “high risk” of severe thunderstorms highlighting the exceptional intensity and widespread nature of the anticipated outbreak.

By Wednesday night, the Storm Prediction Center had received 129 reports of severe weather, including 21 tornadoes, some of which led to serious damage of homes and businesses in Alabama and Mississippi.

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.

The situation late Wednesday night

Multiple tornadoes were observed across Mississippi and Alabama on March 17 as part of a major severe weather outbreak across the South. (The Washington Post)

A squall line with embedded strong to severe thunderstorm was tracking across central Alabama and was poised to push east across the state and into Georgia. Several flash flood warnings were active, due to torrential rainfall, and a few severe thunderstorm warnings but no tornado warnings were in effect a little after 9 p.m. local time. Even so, the risk for tornadoes was expected to continue overnight, although it was waning some.

  • Much of Alabama remained under a “particularly dangerous situation” tornado watch, the most severe kind, until 3 a.m. local time. The watch described the potential for “several tornadoes” and the likelihood that a few would be intense. Through Wednesday evening the Weather Service had issued more than 80 tornado warnings during the outbreak.
  • Nighttime tornadoes, particularly those in the Southeast, have a history of being deadly, due in part to the difficulty of warning residents who may be asleep or located far from a suitable shelter.

Over 40 million Americans from Texas to Georgia were at risk of severe weather on Wednesday, including nearly 1.5 million residing in the top-tier high-risk zone, which spanned extreme northeast Louisiana, central Mississippi and western Alabama, and includes Birmingham and Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Jackson, Miss.

Surrounding the high-risk zone was a Level 4 out of 5 moderate risk, encapsulating much of eastern Arkansas, northeast Louisiana, and the remainder of Mississippi and Alabama. Memphis, Little Rock and Huntsville, Ala., were in the moderate zone.

It was 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," the center wrote.

Here is a summary of the some of the reports of tornadoes and tornado damage Wednesday:

  • Tornado damage was reported in Mount Olive, a northern suburb of Birmingham around 7 p.m. based on reports to the Weather Service and social media pictures.
  • A tornado damaged homes in Chilton County, Alabama according to the Weather Service, around 5:20 p.m. central. Photos of damage were also posted to Twitter; some of the damage appeared to be severe.
  • Tornado damage was reported in the Wildwood Community in Tuscaloosa County, Ala., around 3:10 p.m. central, according to the Weather Service.
  • Emergency management in Hale County, Ala., south of Tuscaloosa near Moundville, reported roof damage to a number of houses and several businesses damaged due to a tornado, according to the Weather Service, around 2:30 p.m. central. Local media reported that while 30 homes and businesses were damaged, there were no reported injuries.
  • A tornado which touched down in Wayne County, Mississippi damaged homes around midday and was captured on video. Dramatic video also emerged of a tornado in Laurel, Miss, just to the west.
  • Footage of tornadoes was obtained in multiple locations in Alabama, including Selma (west of Montgomery), northern Autauga County (northwest of Montgomery), Livingston (near the border with Mississippi, and northeast of Meridian), Butler (near the border with Mississippi, and southeast of Meridian), Moundville, and Silas (about midway between Hattiesburg, Miss., and Montgomery Ala.)
  • 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. During the course of Wednesday, Selma was placed under a tornado warning four times.

Storms grow more dangerous at night in vulnerable zone

In Alabama, the tornado threat will continue deep into the night. 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 tornadoes possible

Danger brewed Wednesday afternoon, where clusters of storms formed as a warm front lifted northward. The atmosphere reloaded behind a northward advancing warm front, with a mild, sultry air mass spreading over the region and spiking the risk for severe storms.

Earlier on Wednesday, 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. Those odds had declined somewhat, to 30 percent, for Wednesday night into early Thursday morning.

Thursday’s storm risk

A broken band of storms will redevelop late Thursday morning while racing east through the Carolinas, bringing the risk of damaging wind gusts and tornadoes. 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.

Tornado preparedness

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.