Posted on 24 May 2013 by Neilson
A very strong storm system moving across the central United States has produced deadly tornado touchdowns and significant property losses. The National Weather Service reported 16 tornado touchdowns on Saturday 18 May, 29 touchdowns on the 19 May and 31 on 20 May. Two tornado touchdowns south of Oklahoma City (OK) were responsible for an estimated 26 fatalities (2 fatalities from an EF4 touchdown on 19 May, and 24 fatalities from an EF5 touchdown on 20 May). Insured property losses are expected to range from $2 to $5 billion. Advance tornado forecasts and warnings were not sufficient to reduce the loss of life from these events.
NOAA's Storm Prediction Center filtered reports for 18 May identify 16 tornado touchdowns, 76 incidents of straight winds and 92 hail storms. Similar figures for 19 May were 29 tornadoes, 255 wind events and 142 hail storms, and on the 20 May there were 31 tornadoes, 218 wind storm and 105 hail storms reported.
Tornadoes on 18 May occurred in Kansas and Nebraska, on the 19 May the storm broadened and covered Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, Iowa and Illinois. On 20 May, tornadoes were reported in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, Arkansas and Indiana. Two tornado touchdowns have led to fatalities on the ground - on 19 May, an estimated EF4 intensity tornado near Shawnee, OK is reportedly responsible for 2 fatalities, and on 20 May, an estimated EF5 intensity tornado near Moore, OK is reported to be responsible for 24 fatalities, many of them school children. This continues a dramatic tornado activity month, with an estimated 6 fatalities from a 15 May tornado that occurred outside of Fort Worth, Texas.
Tornadoes are violently rotating columns of air that extend between a cloud and the surface of the earth and are generally spawned by thunderstorms. The central plains see the greatest tornado activity in the US, and at an approximate rate of 7.5 tornadoes per 10,000 sq. miles per year, Oklahoma has one of the highest densities of tornado activity in the country. Tornadoes range broadly in intensity, and the Enhanced Fujita scale is frequently used to characterize the intensity of touchdowns.
Tornadoes identified as EF4 intensity carry winds estimated to range from 166 to 200 mph, and EF5 tornadoes carry winds in excess of 200 mph. In comparison, a Category 5 hurricane includes maximum winds higher than 155 mph - EF4 and EF5 tornadoes carry much higher wind speeds, but over a much smaller affected area. Historically, tornado intensity has been assigned based upon associating the damage observed to estimated winds, so there are few precise estimates of the peak winds from these events.
The tornadoes over the period 18-20 May have damaged thousands of buildings, many of them completely destroyed and insured losses are expected to tally to between $2 and $5 billion. The Moore, OK tornado alone has caused damage to approximately 13,000 structures and is where the bulk of the losses are expected.
Tornado activity so far in 2013 has been below the long-term average, with only 342 tornado touchdowns to date (23 May). Activity is only about one-half the average over the last 8 years, and less than one-third the pace of the record activity years of 2008 and 2011. Overall tornado activity does not trend well with losses to life and property however, as most tornadoes do not impact populated areas and produce small monetary losses.