Terry’s Take: Super tornadoes…are we ready?

Posted on: 10:42 pm, June 6, 2013, by

Terry Swails Weather Blog

Tornado Expert Mike Smith out of Wichita, Kansas described the El Reno, Okla., tornado, which is considered the widest tornado in recorded history (2.6 miles), as a “super tornado”.

He fears that one of these super tornadoes could hit a major city and it would require a much more upscale search, rescue and recovery response than has been done with less intense tornadoes or devastating tornadoes hitting rural or suburban areas.

THE EL RENO SUPER TORNADO 2.6 MILES WIDE-296MPH WINDS

THE EL RENO SUPER TORNADO 2.6 MILES WIDE-296MPH WINDS

AREA IMPACTED BY A 2.6 MI. SUPER TORNADO IN THE QCA

AREA IMPACTED BY A 2.6 MI. SUPER TORNADO IN THE QCA

A super tornado, as Smith defines it, is F5 (200mph+) and 2 miles or wider. Less than one tornado in 50,000 ever reaches super tornado statues. Put one of these “super twisters” into a major city such as Des Moines, Chicago, St. Louis or even the Quad Cities, and it would be a monumental disaster. There would be the potential for up to a thousand casualties and a super tornado could cost tens of billions of dollars if it hit a densely populated area.

Although the Moore, Okla., tornado was not by his definition a super tornado, (with a width of 1.3 miles), it was the second EF5 tornado in less than two weeks to strike central Oklahoma. It will produce more than 2 billion in damage but due to good warnings and awareness in Oklahoma, it only killed 24 people.  A remarkably low number.

HALLUM, NB TORNADO 2.5 MI WIDE SUPER TORNADO

HALLUM, NB TORNADO 2.5 MI WIDE SUPER TORNADO

Including the recent El Reno, Okla., tornado, there have been only 60 EF5 tornadoes since 1950. A very small percentage of these have reached Smith’s super tornado status.

Smith named the 2007 Trousdale, Kan. twister, with a width of about 2 miles and the 2004 Hallam, Neb., tornado with a width of 2.5 miles super twisters. It’s his belief that storms like this occur, on average, about once every decade. That me be a low estimate since we’ve now had three 2 mile wide tornadoes in just 6 years.

10 YEAR TORNADO REPORTS. ILLINOIS 4TH, IOWA 5TH

10 YEAR TORNADO REPORTS. ILLINOIS 4TH, IOWA 5TH

Thus far they have all hit relatively rural areas, but, we know that statistically, whether it is 50 years from now or five weeks from now, one will eventually hit a major city and it is going to require a completely different type of response.

TORNADO WATCHES ISSUED SINCE 1993

TORNADO WATCHES ISSUED SINCE 1993

Just for the purpose of comparison, I marked what the damage path of the 2.6 mile wide El Reno tornado would be if it rolled into the Quad Cities. In my random track I show the storm wiping out the entire area from 53rd street in Davenport and Bettendorf south to the Mississippi River. That would include multiple hospitals, medical centers, and first responder outlets such as fire stations. Death and destruction would be massive and the world’s media would descend on the Quad Cities for weeks.

What I’m suggesting here is highly unlikely and a worst case scenario. But tell that to the people of Moore who have been hit by 2 EF5′s in 14 years. It can happen and we better be prepared? Super tornadoes are real and it’s just a matter of time before one finds a major metro area.