It had been an active weather day. It was March 25th and we were on the air for hours tracking severe storms and long-track tornadoes. We had a tornado warning on one storm in Alabama that was on the ground for nearly 100 miles! Our first tornado occurred in northwest Georgia, moving through Polk and Bartow counties. Reports of damage and power outages came flowing in but fortunately, no injuries.
We were watching the cold front approaching from the west through the night. The dynamics with this system were very similar to the Super Outbreak in 2011.
As we were tracking the storms overnight approaching from Alabama, something caught my eye just west of Randolph County, Ala. It was a supercell thunderstorm. I asked my colleague, meteorologist Brad Nitz, who was driving our radar at the time to change modes from reflectivity, which shows rain intensity, to velocity, which shows speed and direction of the wind inside the storm.
I asked Brad to click on one particular pixel of color and I measure the wind at near hurricane force, 75 mph. That was the wind going toward the radar, right next to it was a bright red pixel of color. We measure the wind at 80 mph going away from the radar. That was over 150 mph of wind shear and it was a mile wide! It was heading for the Georgia state line at 50 mph. It was another long-track tornado.
As it was approaching the Heard County line, I was broadcasting dire warnings. This was the strongest tornado signature we tracked that day and night. It was still showing greater than 150 mph of wind, nearly the wind speed of a Cat 5 hurricane! I told people to take cover, to call people in the area to take cover, it was going to be a bad storm.
By morning, nearly 1,800 homes had been impacted. Seventy homes were completely obliterated. Out helicopter was flying over what looked like a war zone. The National Weather Service inspected the damage and determined the winds to be 170 mph. The tornado was a mile wide. It was an EF-4 tornado, only the 10th EF-4 in the past 70 years to hit Georgia. We knew damage was extensive. I was sure many in the path would be injured, or worse. As it turned out, people listened to the warnings and reacted. There was not a single injury. The was one fatality where a man had a heart attack and passed away because the ambulance could not reach him due to debris.
I was amazed no one was hurt as I looked at the damage and debris. It was due to people knowing what to do and heeding the warnings. I am hoping we don’t have an active summer storm season. Rest assured, we will be here and will keep you ahead of the storms if we do.