Atlanta tornado one the most damaging on record

By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 2:24 PM GMT on March 17, 2008

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The strong EF2 tornado that smashed through downtown Atlanta at 9:40 pm Friday night is a reminder that the U.S. is potentially vulnerable to a very high death toll from a violent tornado hitting a major city. Friday's tornado, with a width of 200 yards, path length of 6 miles, and winds up to 130 mph, was strong enough to cause an estimated $150-$200 million in damage to downtown Atlanta. Only 16 tornadoes during the 20th century caused inflation-adjusted damage more than $200 million (Brooks and Doswell, 2000), so the Atlanta tornado is one of the most damaging of all time. Fortunately, no one was killed, although at least 27 people were injured, one seriously.

As unlucky as Atlanta was to have its first tornado ever to hit the downtown area, the city was extremely fortunate that the tornado was not not stronger. What would have happened if a clone of the strongest tornado on record--the May 3, 1999 Bridgecreek-Moore F5 tornado--had hit Atlanta? According to tornado researcher Josh Wurman of the Center for Severe Weather Research in Boulder and three co-authors in a paper published in the January 2007 issue of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, the toll would have been staggering--14,900 deaths and tens of billions in damage. I discussed their findings in an April 2007 blog.

However, three tornado researchers, led by Harold Brooks of the National Severe Storms Laboratory, challenged these numbers in a January 2008 article in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society. They argued that Wurman et al. overestimated the potential deaths from such a storm by a factor of 100, and a death toll nearer to 150 would be more reasonable. They stated:

Given that the highest death toll in a tornado in U.S. history is 695 in the Tri-State tornado of 1925, and that the last death toll of greater than 100 was in 1953, the validity of these estimates is of some concern.

The authors conceded that a violent tornado traveling the length of a rush hour-packed freeway or hitting a sports stadium filled with spectators could generate much higher death tolls. Wurman et al. responded to the criticism by defending their death toll estimates:

We acknowledge that historical tornadoes have not caused the level of fatalities estimated in our paper. However, considering that tornadoes are relatively rare and that dense population in urban and suburban neighborhoods in the United States is a relatively recent but growing phenomenon, the historical record is too short to indicate the range of possible events.

Considering that Friday's Atlanta tornado hit the Georgia Dome stadium when it was packed with 16,000 people watching an SEC tournament basketball game, I think that both groups of researchers would agree that a death toll in the thousands was quite possible had the Atlanta tornado been an EF5.


Figure 1. Doppler winds image of the March 14, 2008, Atlanta, Georgia EF2 tornado. Note the region just northwest of the city showing blues and reds right next to each other, denoting strong winds moving both towards and away from the radar in a tight circulation. This is the signature associated with a mesocyclone--a rotating thunderstorm that commonly spawns a tornado.

More severe weather expected this week
Severe weather is expected over much of the Midwest and Southern U.S. over the next three days, in association with a strong cold front that will traverse the region. The Storm Prediction Center has placed portions of Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, and Arkansas under its lowest classification of potential severe weather today, "Slight Risk". The Weather Underground Severe Weather page and Tornado page are good places to go to follow this week's severe weather.

Good tornado book
For those of you interested in reading about the most violent and most damaging tornado on record, the famed 1999 Bridgecreek-Moore tornado, I recommend a reading of Nancy Mathis' book Storm Warning, which is now out in paperback. I reviewed the book in a blog last year.

Annual WeatherDance contest ready for registration!
Armchair forecasters, now's your chance to shine! WeatherDance, based on teams in the men's and women's NCAA basketball tournaments, allows players to predict which team's city will be hotter or colder on game day in each round of the Big Dance. Beginning today, players can make their forecasts at the Weather Dance Web site at: www.weatherdance.org. The site will be updated with cities promptly after NCAA seeding announcements. First round Weather Dance selections must be entered by 11:59 p.m. EST Wednesday, March 19.

"Officially, Weather Dance began as a class project to get students involved in weather forecasting, but we kept it around because it got popular. People think they can do better forecasting than the meteorologists. Well, here's their shot!" said Perry Samson, WeatherDance creator, co-founder of the The Weather Underground, Inc., and Professor in the Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Sciences at the University of Michigan.

This is the third year for the game. Last year more than 2,000 people played. Most play merely for the thrill, but many science teachers involve their classes as part of meteorology units. The winning teacher will receive an invitation and $500 to join the Texas Tech/University of Michigan Storm Chasing team this spring for a day of tornado chasing. Other winners will receive a Weather Underground umbrella or a copy of the book "Extreme Weather," by Christopher C. Burt.

Jeff Masters

Atlanta Tornado Damage (boyntonbeachboy)
Brick Bldg that was destroyed by tornado landed on this car!
Atlanta Tornado Damage
Atlanta Tornado F2 CNN CENTER (boyntonbeachboy)
The first recorded tornado hit downtown Atlanta last night causing major damage
Atlanta Tornado F2 CNN CENTER
2 inch Hail (JoyBelle)
This is some of the hail after tornadoes swept through our area today.
2 inch Hail

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180. cchsweatherman
8:34 AM EDT on March 19, 2008
179. HouseofGryffindor 8:16 AM EDT on March 19, 2008
We had very strong winds over night for some reason...


Good morning all. Just to let you know HOG, the reason for the strong winds overnight was that high pressure to our east and low pressure to our northwest are creating a tight pressure gradient. This pressure gradient creates friction and that friction is released in the form of strong winds. We will have one more day of strong winds here in South Florida before the front approaches and forces the high farther east into the Central Atlantic.
Member Since: April 14, 2007 Posts: 8 Comments: 5169
175. TampaSpin
4:11 AM EDT on March 19, 2008
I do live in Tampa WE as in Tampa.......
Member Since: September 2, 2007 Posts: 178 Comments: 20439
173. TampaSpin
3:59 AM EDT on March 19, 2008
It sounds like we are getting close to tropical storm force winds outside....it is blowing
Member Since: September 2, 2007 Posts: 178 Comments: 20439
171. TampaSpin
3:52 AM EDT on March 19, 2008
JFlorida good morning where do you live at.
Member Since: September 2, 2007 Posts: 178 Comments: 20439
170. TampaSpin
3:50 AM EDT on March 19, 2008
yep i just woke up my family lives Southern Indiana and they are really getting soaked....flooding in the Ohio valley is going to be severe.
Member Since: September 2, 2007 Posts: 178 Comments: 20439
168. TampaSpin
3:17 AM EDT on March 19, 2008
This Low just isn't moving fast enough......wow look at the moisture yet to fall in the wet areas........
Member Since: September 2, 2007 Posts: 178 Comments: 20439
167. TampaSpin
3:15 AM EDT on March 19, 2008
BULLETIN - EAS ACTIVATION REQUESTED TORNADO WARNING NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE NEW ORLEANS LA 215 AM CDT WED MAR 19 2008 THE NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE IN NEW ORLEANS HAS ISSUED A * TORNADO WARNING FOR... EASTERN WEST FELICIANA PARISH IN SOUTHEAST LOUISIANA... THIS INCLUDES THE CITY OF ST. FRANCISVILLE... * UNTIL 245 AM CDT * AT 210 AM CDT...NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE METEOROLOGISTS DETECTED A SEVERE THUNDERSTORM CAPABLE OF PRODUCING A TORNADO 7 MILES SOUTHWEST OF ST. FRANCISVILLE...MOVING NORTHEAST AT 60 MPH. * THE TORNADO WILL BE NEAR... WAKEFIELD AND SPILLMAN BY 225 AM CDT...
Member Since: September 2, 2007 Posts: 178 Comments: 20439
166. TampaSpin
3:06 AM EDT on March 19, 2008
check out these rainfall totals in Illinois and Missouri and Indy getting bad......wow...bad flooding...

Member Since: September 2, 2007 Posts: 178 Comments: 20439
163. Ivansrvivr
5:11 AM GMT on March 19, 2008
The Guard did well handling basically 4 hurricanes in 2 months in Florida in 04 with us in Iraq. It is actually local up to state govts to handle situations such as flooding, severe wx, etc. What is the point of having local county or state government if the Feds have to be 1st responders to every situation?
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161. franck
4:06 AM GMT on March 19, 2008
Sorry for all your misfortune. I've suffered flood as well Tejano. My commiserations.
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160. Tejano72
2:42 AM GMT on March 19, 2008
So much flooding here in DFW.(Fort Worth) 9" today, still raining. As far as the tornado in Atlanta, our hearts go out to them. We had 2 deaths, my car was destroyed, and I had to push my boss up 4 flights of escalator over an open mall ice rink 50 ft up in the air over broken glass to get her out of the 4th floor garage (and she weighed 350 lbs at 72 years old). We ended up with all the ugly facades, ugly signage and deliapiidated buildings being torn down, and under new code, things are much much nicer. They never tore the Bank One down after the tornado, they dithered forever, and now it is expensive condos with an outrageous HOA due to insuring a building (36 stories) that is twisted 4" (it was 2 feet, but the "untwisted" it somehow. Crazy rich Bass family paid 20 million privately to untwist it, and then donated it to the City). Any sites set up for donations or help, or just the Red Cross?
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159. OUFan919
2:29 AM GMT on March 19, 2008
My uncle is evacuating his farm with my cousins just outside of Potosi, MO and heading back home to St. Louis hopefully. The Big River is right down the street from him and it is rising rapidly. Hopefully he can make it out.
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158. stormhank
1:44 AM GMT on March 19, 2008
could someone email me tellin how to add a pic by my name i tried n nothin works thanks,, hank
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157. Patrap
8:47 PM CDT on March 18, 2008
LSU Earth Scan Lab..Link
Member Since: July 3, 2005 Posts: 423 Comments: 127803
156. Patrap
8:47 PM CDT on March 18, 2008
Buoy Station TAML1 - Tambour Bay, LA. Link

5-day plot - Wind Direction Wind Direction (WDIR): SE ( 130 deg true )
5-day plot - Wind Speed Wind Speed (WSPD): 17.1 kts
5-day plot - Wind Gust Wind Gust (GST): 19.0 kts
5-day plot - Atmospheric Pressure Atmospheric Pressure (PRES): 29.73 in
5-day plot - Pressure Tendency Pressure Tendency (PTDY): -0.04 in ( Falling )
5-day plot - Air Temperature Air Temperature (ATMP): 72.1 °F
5-day plot - Dew Point Dew Point (DEWP): 70.3 °F
Member Since: July 3, 2005 Posts: 423 Comments: 127803
155. atmoaggie
1:03 AM GMT on March 19, 2008
but surf -ohhh lala my beach Gomex/srq should be perfect

Oh dear. Do please be very careful. The GoM will be a bit messy for the next couple of days.

With the high tide and persistent southerly winds we have coastal flood concerns here in SE LA right now. 16 footers in the west GoM and shoaling when the wind turns to northerly all adds up to messy.
Member Since: August 16, 2007 Posts: 6 Comments: 12461
154. atmoaggie
1:00 AM GMT on March 19, 2008
I'll wager that this will be spot on, though:

Member Since: August 16, 2007 Posts: 6 Comments: 12461
153. surfmom
12:56 AM GMT on March 19, 2008
Not interested in fishing tomorrow...but surf -ohhh lala my beach Gomex/srq should be perfect....worked out the horses today, so maybe I can sneak in a session before work tomorrow - Sun rise! So excited the board's on the car. It's been too long since I got wet! Off to get horizontal - tomorrow's a long day G'night all - I think you will all be rather busy with the activity out there.
Member Since: July 18, 2007 Posts: 30 Comments: 26536
152. atmoaggie
12:57 AM GMT on March 19, 2008
This is a large spread of clouds taller than 40 k feet. Lots of convection. This makes me think that most of the severe worries will stay a little north of the SPC moderate area in the forecast.

Member Since: August 16, 2007 Posts: 6 Comments: 12461
151. atmoaggie
12:52 AM GMT on March 19, 2008
Who wants to go fishing...or surfing? Sheesh...no thanx.

Member Since: August 16, 2007 Posts: 6 Comments: 12461
150. surfmom
12:48 AM GMT on March 19, 2008
Well looks like you guys will be busy tonight. I am wind fatigued today. The past two weeks have been the most windy I can remember. My concerns to all those in these scarey 'nado zones - especially wildlife and outdoor critters.
Member Since: July 18, 2007 Posts: 30 Comments: 26536
149. atmoaggie
12:42 AM GMT on March 19, 2008
Wow, a LOT of lightning in Arkansas:

Member Since: August 16, 2007 Posts: 6 Comments: 12461
148. atmoaggie
12:36 AM GMT on March 19, 2008
GRLevel3 is also great for building timeseries loops of vertical cross sections to do forensic studies...of downbursts for example. Not sure if all elevation angles are available real time in a single file, but the archives have it all.

Also fun to build a 3-D surface of the radar returns...very cool.
Member Since: August 16, 2007 Posts: 6 Comments: 12461
147. hurricane23
12:21 AM GMT on March 19, 2008
Where do you guys get those radar images from?

Evening, cchs.

This program...I'm using the trial version of GRLevel3 which is essentially identical to the purchased version (but it terminates after 21 days; it is a trial version, after all).

The trial version is only a portion of what you truly get from GR3/GR2 ive had the software along with weathertap for almost 3 years now.I use weathertap for the wide variety of satelitte capabilities.
Member Since: May 14, 2006 Posts: 8 Comments: 13676
146. TerraNova
12:16 AM GMT on March 19, 2008
A powerful and tornadic storm cell is nearing Lake City, Arkansas.
Member Since: July 30, 2007 Posts: 76 Comments: 4063
145. TampaSpin
11:49 PM GMT on March 18, 2008
BE carefull in the junction of 155 and 55 in Arkans.....another problem
Member Since: September 2, 2007 Posts: 178 Comments: 20439
144. TampaSpin
11:44 PM GMT on March 18, 2008
Just as i thought......
BULLETIN - EAS ACTIVATION REQUESTED TORNADO WARNING NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE MEMPHIS TN 638 PM CDT TUE MAR 18 2008 THE NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE IN MEMPHIS HAS ISSUED A * TORNADO WARNING FOR... CRAIGHEAD COUNTY IN EASTERN ARKANSAS... SOUTHEASTERN GREENE COUNTY IN EASTERN ARKANSAS...
* UNTIL 730 PM CDT * AT 638 PM CDT...NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE DOPPLER RADAR INDICATED A SEVERE THUNDERSTORM PRODUCING A TORNADO NEAR JONESBORO...MOVING NORTHEAST AT 45 MPH. * OTHER LOCATIONS IN THE WARNING INCLUDE BUT ARE NOT LIMITED TO BROOKLAND...LAKE CITY AND MONETTE.
Member Since: September 2, 2007 Posts: 178 Comments: 20439
143. TampaSpin
11:40 PM GMT on March 18, 2008
Possible vortex NE of Harrisburg Ark.
Member Since: September 2, 2007 Posts: 178 Comments: 20439
142. Tazmanian
11:37 PM GMT on March 18, 2008
Changes for 2008



Member Since: May 21, 2006 Posts: 5091 Comments: 114914
140. TerraNova
11:19 PM GMT on March 18, 2008
Where do you guys get those radar images from?

Evening, cchs.

This program...I'm using the trial version of GRLevel3 which is essentially identical to the purchased version (but it terminates after 21 days; it is a trial version, after all).
Member Since: July 30, 2007 Posts: 76 Comments: 4063
139. cchsweatherman
11:17 PM GMT on March 18, 2008
Forgot my manners. Good evening all. Good luck to everyone dealing with the flooding and severe weather in association with this system. Even here in South Florida, we would not be able to withstand the rainfall coming down in the Midwest right now. Looks really bad. Remember, turn around, don't drown.
Member Since: April 14, 2007 Posts: 8 Comments: 5169
138. cchsweatherman
11:15 PM GMT on March 18, 2008
Where do you guys get those radar images from?
Member Since: April 14, 2007 Posts: 8 Comments: 5169
137. TerraNova
11:07 PM GMT on March 18, 2008
Another Tornado Warning has been issued for a cell that will be nearing Tiptonville Arkansas.
Member Since: July 30, 2007 Posts: 76 Comments: 4063
136. NorthxCakalaky
11:07 PM GMT on March 18, 2008
This severe weather and flooding system will help the south-east drought.

I think where I live we got put down to a severe drought from some rain last Thursday.
135. TerraNova
11:02 PM GMT on March 18, 2008
There is a possible tornado on the ground near Paragould, Arkansas. Doppler is showing a very strong rotation with NEXRAD indicating a Tornado Vortex Signature (TVS). NEXRAD is also detecting multiple rotations within the storm.

The warned cell now over Kennett, Arkansas has fluctuated in strength but still has a strong mesocyclone associated with it (though it doesn't look as powerful a signature as the Paragould storm).

Image from GRLevel3 with Base Reflectivity on left and Relative Velocity on the right:

Member Since: July 30, 2007 Posts: 76 Comments: 4063
133. Patrap
10:36 PM GMT on March 18, 2008


Lotsa energy to slide East tonight and overnight.

REMEMBER...A TORNADO WATCH MEANS CONDITIONS ARE FAVORABLE FOR
TORNADOES AND SEVERE THUNDERSTORMS IN AND CLOSE TO THE WATCH
AREA. PERSONS IN THESE AREAS SHOULD BE ON THE LOOKOUT FOR
THREATENING WEATHER CONDITIONS AND LISTEN FOR LATER STATEMENTS
AND POSSIBLE WARNINGS.


Member Since: July 3, 2005 Posts: 423 Comments: 127803

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Jeff co-founded the Weather Underground in 1995 while working on his Ph.D. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters from 1986-1990.

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