The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The South’s winter of tornadoes could be just a prelude to storm season

By preliminary count, more than 300 tornadoes hit 16 states this winter. Tornado season typically peaks in April or May.

A tornado took out the exterior walls and left second-floor rooms exposed at a home in Dallas County near Selma, Ala., on Jan. 13. (Mickey Welsh/USA Today Network/Reuters)
5 min

Record winter tornado activity has been taking place in the past three months in parts of the Deep South and central United States, fueled by springlike warmth. Now, as those regions enter what’s traditionally the stormiest stretch of the year, residents already weary and recovering from violent conditions face fresh threats of severe weather.

The South faces the potential for more tornadoes from a storm system moving across the country this week, with the highest risks Thursday forecast across a stretch from Dallas to Little Rock. In the wake of the stormy winter, meteorologists and emergency managers are stressing the importance of preparation — and that disasters aren’t confined to the bounds of traditional seasons.

In Selma, Ala., for example, where meteorologists expect a line of potent storms to pass through late Thursday or early Friday, piles of debris remain after a Jan. 12 tornado outbreak. On Tuesday, representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency were stationed at a hardware store in town, guiding residents toward shingles, roofing and windows that can better withstand the next storm.

But there is little that can calm nerves for those still getting over the shock of the disaster, which spared lives there but devastated parts of the historic town known for its pivotal role in the civil rights movement.

“Every time the wind starts to blow, we just immediately start bracing,” said Aaron Roper, who faces hard decisions about where to live after the tornado destroyed his home in central Selma. It cut a 23-mile path across the state, heavily damaging a day-care center, strip mall and county jail with winds of up to 130 mph.

More than 300 tornadoes have hit 16 states this winter, according to a preliminary count from the National Weather Service. The tornado reports are clustered mostly in the southeastern quadrant of the contiguous United States, but also include rare tornadoes in New Jersey and California.

“While there’s a peak season for tornadoes and severe thunderstorms, they can come any time of year,” said Matthew Day, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service forecast office in Norman, Okla. “It’s important to be prepared at all times of year.”

A record-setting winter in some states

Tornado season typically peaks in April or May, with the risks starting in March and continuing into the summer. The Deep South is typically the epicenter of early-season activity.

“We definitely got started on that a little earlier this year,” said Gary Goggins, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service forecast office in Birmingham, Ala. His state also saw a spate of late-November tornadoes.

The winter tornado activity was unprecedented in states more used to such threats in the spring, when conditions are most ripe for severe storm activity. Tornadoes require warm and humid conditions ahead of cold fronts; the more heat and moisture in the air, the more atmospheric instability that can build up and eventually be unleashed.

In Oklahoma, for example, a preliminary count of 24 tornadoes from December through February is the most — by far — for any winter since the Weather Service started keeping track in 1950. The previous record was seven.

Early data is considered preliminary because tornado confirmation can require extensive on-the-ground surveys to inspect damage and ensure it wasn’t the result of straight-line winds.

The 29 tornadoes observed in Alabama in January were the most on record for that month, Weather Service meteorologists said. They were among more than 100 confirmed during that month nationwide, a benchmark the country has surpassed only two other times since 1950. Near-record warmth dominated the eastern half of the country in January.

Unusual tornado activity has also extended beyond of the nation’s southern tier: An EF-2 tornado that hit New Jersey with 115-mph winds Feb. 21 was just the fifth to hit that state in February, and the first since 1999.

Preparing for the next tornadoes

As temperatures surged into the 80s this week across the Southeast, it brought a sense of unease to places like Selma. Sheryl Smedley, executive director of the Selma and Dallas County Chamber of Commerce, said it has everyone attuned to the forecast.

Some worry that, after such trying and unusual winter weather, many residents will be too fatigued to prepare for the next storms.

After repeated tornado warnings and sirens, “How much energy do you have to respond to something?” said Tanya Gulliver-Garcia, a New Orleans resident and director of learning and partnerships for the Center for Disaster Philanthropy. “I worry about people getting complacent.”

For the Weather Service and FEMA, the goal is to ensure that doesn’t happen. In interviews, officials repeated messages about the importance of preparedness, including having emergency plans and kits ready to go. It’s also critical that people have access to severe weather alerts before a storm or tornado approaches.

Preparedness guides encourage residents in tornado-prone areas to have a safe place to seek shelter away from windows and exterior walls, if not underground.

For those still recovering from tornadoes, that may be a challenge — recent storm damage may mean normal sheltering spaces are no longer safe, Goggins said. Zakiya Darby, a FEMA mitigation specialist, urged residents to find a safe place to seek shelter in their community ahead of storms, if they don’t have one at home.

All the advice now rings especially true to those like Selma resident Roper. In his work for Edmundite Missions, a Catholic charity, he said he first reminds people of the risk of severe weather: “It’s real,” he tells them.

Then he encourages preparedness, down to the little details: Make sure your flashlights are easy to find in the dark. And put your clothes on before a storm hits. That way, he says, if damage does hit, you can make your way to safety “and not be looking for your shoes.”