Saturday, February 4, 2012

Super Tuesday Outbreak: A first-person perspective on the Memphis tornadoes

Sunday, February 5, 2012 is the four-year anniversary of perhaps the most devastating tornado outbreak to directly affect the Memphis metropolitan area in recent memory.  As voters headed to the polls to cast their ballots in the Presidential primaries and caucuses of 2008, Mother Nature had little regard for activities across the Mid-South and Lower Ohio Valley. At the end of the 15-hour outbreak, 87 tornadoes had killed 57 and injured hundreds across five states. Twisters struck metro areas in Memphis, Jackson (TN), and Nashville during the outbreak, causing $500M worth of damage.
Super Tuesday tornado and squall line paths - Feb 5-6, 2008
In the Memphis area, there were two tornadoes that caused significant damage.  The first of the day touched down in northeast Shelby County near Highway 385 and moved northeast to the Tipton County line around 5pm (map below).  The tornado produced an 8-mile path length, was rated EF-2, caused $1M damage, and caused one injury.

Northeast Shelby County EF-2 tornado path
The second tornado was the one that most people remember most clearly, however.  An EF-2, this quarter-mile wide tornado initially touched down in Southaven and crossed the state line (just missing Memphis International Airport) before tearing into Hickory Hill and destroying a section of the Hickory Ridge Mall (map below).  This well-documented twister, which was shown live by WREG from their Hilton tower cam in East Memphis as dusk fell, killed three people and injured 13 others, producing $128.4M in damage.

Southaven/Hickory Hill EF-2 tornado path
This was also the night of the EF-4 tornado that struck Jackson, TN, setting down first on the Union University campus then proceeding through the northern suburbs of Jackson (map below).  In all 51 people were injured, miraculously none were killed despite many being buried by debris on the Union campus.  Damage in Jackson was estimated at $100M along the 7.6-mile path.

Jackson, TN EF-4 tornado path
Rather than go into great detail on the tornadoes themselves (see the embedded links above for more information on each storm), we asked MWN intern Kevin Terry to offer his thoughts.  Kevin was a University of Memphis college student taking in his first severe weather outbreak as an intern with the National Weather Service office in Memphis.  From Kevin:

"At the time of the Super Tuesday Tornado Outbreak, I was a few months into a student volunteer position at the NWS Memphis. I had been present and helped the staff there with a few severe weather events already, including a weak tornado event just north of the metro area on January 8, but had not experienced a truly significant severe weather event to that point. Of course, that would all change on February 5th. I had originally not planned to be at the NWS office until later that day because of an afternoon lab class at the University of Memphis, but shortly after noon, as school systems area-wide began shutting down, my lab ended up cancelled, and not long after the entire U of M campus would shut down early as well.

"As I headed toward the NWS to help where I could, I noticed the outside air had that "feeling," that feeling you've always heard was a sign for trouble, especially in February. The atmosphere was becoming highly volatile. When arriving at the NWS, as you would expect, it was "all hands on deck", as staff checked every new piece of data. Finally, around 4 PM, it happened. The "cap" that had been preventing thunderstorm development broke and storms exploded. Everything was perfectly in place for powerful supercells capable of tornado production, and within an hour that's exactly what was happening. Before 5 PM, the first tornado was touching down in Shelby County, near Arlington, and the hours that followed would be a long series of continuous tornado warnings and damage reports in the Mid-South. My main duty was to call spotters, law enforcement, and emergency managers in the area for damage reports as the storms passed.

Doppler Radar returns (precip left, wind velocity right) from the NE Shelby Co. tornado. Note the "debris ball" signature (red colors) just below the inverted green triangle in the right panel, indicating tornado debris in the air being detected by the radar.
"By far, the most anxious moment of the event happened between 5:30 and 6:00, as another supercell was moving through Desoto County and fast approaching Shelby. Within minutes, a tower camera at WREG-TV began capturing a tornado forming live, quickly growing into a monster as it moved toward southeast Memphis. As NWS staff watched, the decision was made to issue a rare "Tornado Emergency" and then the realization that this tornado was on track to impact the [NWS] office (which was at the Agricenter). At 5:50, we evacuated to a basement level at the Agricenter building, shifting warning responsibility to the NWS office in Nashville.

Doppler Radar returns (precip left, wind velocity right) from the DeSoto/Shelby Co. tornado as it crosses the state line.  The inverted green triangle shows the approximate position of the strongest radar-detected rotation.
"Over the next 10 minutes, nervous moments passed as we awaited the storm. With us no longer having access to our computers and radar data, media, and emergency management links - we weren't sure if the tornado was still on the ground. The tornado lifted in southeast Memphis sparing places like Germantown and Cordova, and us at the NWS office, from an even worse situation. At 6:00, we returned to operations and resumed issuing warnings for the area.

"The next day I was a part of a storm survey team that looked at the damage caused by the tornado in northeast Shelby County near Arlington. The damage was quite severe, with the tornado rated as EF-2. Many homes had roofs and even portions of second stories removed, and we came across several families who had become essentially homeless, though luckily nobody was seriously injured. It was a quite a humbling experience, and helped put into perspective the power of mother nature and its ability to turn destructive.

"I was, and still am, extremely honored to have worked with the NWS Memphis that night. The services provided by all the staff there in the midst of one of this region's worst tornado outbreaks on record was incredible and top-notch, and there's no doubt in my mind that lives were saved by the forecasts and warnings they provided. As I look back on that night 4 years later, its one I hope we don't see repeated again, but now I'm grateful to be working alongside Erik at MWN to provide that critical warning information if and when the next big severe weather event hits."

Many thanks to Kevin for offering his valuable insight from the perspective of the National Weather Service on that fateful day!

What do you recall from that Super Tuesday Outbreak?  Feel free to comment below.

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