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Super Tuesday tornado outbreak: deadliest in 23 years

By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 4:00 PM GMT on February 06, 2008

Violent tornadoes rampaged across the South last night, killing at least 52 people, injuring hundreds, and destroying thousands of buildings. The death toll from the 2008 Super Tuesday Tornado Outbreak makes it the deadliest tornado outbreak in the past 23 years. The last time tornadoes killed so many people in the U.S. was on May 31, 1985, when 88 people died in a tornado outbreak that hit Ohio, New York, and Pennsylvania. What is really unusual about yesterday's Super Tuesday Outbreak is that it occurred in early February. Only one other tornado outbreak in the past century killed so many people so early in the year--the great Warren, Arkansas tornado outbreak of January 3, 1949, which killed 60 people.

Figure 1. Storm reports for the Super Tuesday tornado outbreak of 2008. Image credit: NOAA's Storm Prediction Center.

Tornado outbreak fueled by record warm temperatures
Yesterday's outbreak was fueled by record warmth over the South. Record high temperatures were recorded in Little Rock, Arkansas (75), Shreveport, LA (78), El Dorado, AR (77), Memphis, TN (75), Jackson, MS (81), and Charleston, SC (79), to name a few locations. A strong cold front associated with a powerful winter storm over the north central U.S. pushed into this warm, unstable air mass, triggering Tuesday's bout of violent weather. From what I've seen of the damage photos so far, some of these tornadoes were undoubtedly strong EF-3 and possibly violent EF-4 twisters. I did not see any damage characteristic of the highest EF-5 level. Among the areas hard-hit were Memphis, TN (Figure 2), where a tornado smashed through the Hickory Ridge shopping mall on the southeast side of town, killing one person. In Jackson, Tennessee, a tornado devastated Union University, destroying 40% of the all the student dormitories and damaging another 40%. At least 1100 cars were damaged at the university, but no one was killed.

Figure 2. Radar reflectivity image of the February 5, 2008 Memphis, Tennessee tornado.

How bizarre is this?
The Super Tuesday tornadoes disrupted polling in many locations in Tennessee and Arkansas, where voters were forced to take cover when tornadoes swept through in the late afternoon and early evening. In a bizarre twist, the town of Clinton, Arkansas was hit by a tornado on a day when Arkansas voters journeyed to the polls to vote for Hillary Clinton in the state's democratic primary. The Clinton tornado also ripped through the town of Atkins, Arkansas, about 30 miles southwest of Clinton. Three people died and damage was very heavy in Atkins, a small town of about 3,000 people.

Figure 3. Radar reflectivity image of the February 5, 2008 Atkins/Clinton tornado as it approached Clinton, Arkansas. Note the classic hook-shaped echo characteristic of a tornado.

Figure 4. Radar velocity image of the February 5, 2008 Atkins/Clinton tornado as it approached Clinton, Arkansas. Note the area of blue and red echoes just south of Clinton. The blues and reds show that strong winds going both towards and away from the radar exist in a small area, denoting the presence of a parent mesocyclone (rotating thunderstorm) and a tornado.

Continued threat of severe weather today
Severe weather continues today, with tornado watches posted in Florida, Alabama, and Georgia. Stay turned to our Severe Weather Pages and Interactive Tornado Page to keep up with what's happening. Today's weather should not be nearly as violent as yesterday's, however.

Jeff Masters

Tornadic Supercell (RevBE)
Lightning picture captured a little after 10:00 pm CDT as a tornado warned supercell moved through Davidson and western Wilson county this evening. Damage is being reported. I was approximately 30 miles away from the storm.
Tornadic Supercell
Deadly night (RevBE)
It was a deadly night in Tennessee with tornadoes moving through. This storm produced a tornado in my county that demolished buildings and set a gas pumping station ablaze.
Deadly night

The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.

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52. WxWyz
12:15 AM GMT on February 07, 2008
If I may interject one more comment...I think the average "non-weatherwise" person, especially those who live in an area where thunderstorms are fairly frequent, don't comprehend the vast difference between a harmless summer air mass thunderstorm and a monster supercell thunderstorm. I have heard the comment from storm victims "We get lightning storms here all the time so we didn't pay much attention to it". Especially at night, that can be a fatal mistake. Again, Weather Radios and education!
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51. MNTornado
12:14 AM GMT on February 07, 2008
At a minimum, once the media/government has a handle on a pending severe weather event (and not for us weather freaks that carry NWS receivers everywhere)like tornado favorable conditions, they need to urge people to go out and purchase NWS radios

Actually the NWS based in Chanhassen, MN has been very good about pushing people to go out and buy a NOAA weather radio. Even some of the businesses like the Cub Foods Warehouse stores have been making them available very cheaply. But as some have noted, there are still many folks who just don't take the weather seriously. I have hounded my brother for years to get a weather radio and sent him a subscription to Weather Underground. This year he finally got the message and went and bought one of the weather radios available at Cub Foods. If we really want to help make people safe, I think it's going to be up to all of us, not just the government, to emphasize the dangers involved with certain weather events. And to just keep pushing the issue until our friends and family get the message.
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50. weathermanwannabe
5:31 PM CST on February 06, 2008
I know the technology was talked about last year (or two years ago) by Dr. M in the context of some of the newer/advanced weather radios that can receive warnings based upon zip code locations (I think)....(or some type of system that can "dial in" a warning to telephones in certain zip codes)....At a minimum, once the media/government has a handle on a pending severe weather event (and not for us weather freaks that carry NWS receivers everywhere)like tornado favorable conditions, they need to urge people to go out and purchase NWS radios (really for the entire "season" much like hurricane preparation public awareness) and to keep them on/on alert as these weather events approach (particularly in the overnight hours). However, even this does not bode very well for the unfortunate souls (probably a great majority in many tornado prone areas in the Spring and Fall when the fronts collide with warm air masses) who live in trailers/wooden structures/ or have no safe rooms or basements to seek shelter in if a tornado suddenly materializes [If such a system is approaching, my wife and I, who live in a sturdy wooden house with a concrete basement, always call the in-laws (who live in a trailer outside town) and tell them to come over to our house to sit it out until the event passes].............Our Hearts and Prayers go out to those who lost their lives and the survivors of this tragedy.......
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48. cyclone1
6:39 PM EST on February 06, 2008
CAT 4 Cyclone in South Indian Ocean-pretty cool outflow
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47. scwindsaloft
11:35 PM GMT on February 06, 2008
I was in the path of a tornado in the 1985 outbreak north of Pittsburgh. We were on an interstate and a tornado was about a mile ahead. We didnt know what to do...didnt know it's direction. so we stopped. Good thing it crossed the interstate and continued on it's way!
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46. Melagoo
11:34 PM GMT on February 06, 2008
O'Hare cancelled 1,000 flights tonight due to snow storm
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45. MNTornado
11:36 PM GMT on February 06, 2008
CBS news just reported that there have been 208 tornado sightings for 2008 so far. What does this indicate for the rest of the year?
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44. Oldmanwinter
11:17 PM GMT on February 06, 2008
Thanks. WxWyz for the great comment about weather radios. There should be a law requiring a every household to have a weather alert radio and hopefully that would further reduce the death toll from tornado outbreaks like the Super Tuesday outbreak. I have owned a weather radio since i was 15 years old and couldn't even imagine what it would be to not have one. Another thing that helps me watch the weather is a personal weather station i have owned for 4 years.
In my opinion, even if one person is killed by a tornado, that is one too many.
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43. Dropsonde
6:21 PM EST on February 06, 2008
I guess I focus on the issue of shelter... people will do foolish things, and they don't take these storms seriously at all, but building codes in the South make it risky to even stay at home in storms, in many cases.

I don't know how common mobile homes are in Tornado Alley, but I understand that after the Moore, OK tornado, people in the region really wised up. There's not enough awareness in the South, and prefab or poorly built structures are everywhere. Without in-ground storm cellars, it's a disaster waiting to happen.

If your house is built well, you should be able to ride out anything up to an EF3, but higher grade tornadoes will level it, and survival is a matter of luck in that case. I could see living with this risk in areas like the West Coast, where violent tornadoes are almost unknown, but I don't understand it in the South. A storm cellar or a safe room is within most people's means, and the government could subsidize it for others, as FEMA did for Tornado Alley following the 1999 outbreak.
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42. scwindsaloft
11:28 PM GMT on February 06, 2008
As OldMan Winter said, most people do not understand the potential ramifications of a "southern warm spell" when mixed with the right ingredients. However, lets not forget alot of these hit at night.
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41. Melagoo
10:52 PM GMT on February 06, 2008
After seeing some of the footage those Tornados must have been F4 to F5 ... has that been verified?
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40. WxWyz
11:18 PM GMT on February 06, 2008
I agree with you StSimons. Sometimes I feel EVERYONE should be weatherwise but I know that's never going to be the case.
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38. WxWyz
11:13 PM GMT on February 06, 2008
I know...I can't expect everyone to be passionate about the weather like I am but I think anyone who lives east of the Rocky Mountains should have a pretty good understanding of severe weather.
I know there are spotter training classes but maybe there needs to be more "general knowledge" type seminars or classes open to the general public. Maybe there are and I just haven't heard of any!
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37. Oldmanwinter
11:12 PM GMT on February 06, 2008
It is a shame so many people lost their lives in this recent tornado outbreak here in the South. We were extremely lucky here in the Northwest part of Georgia that those storms weakened considerably as they moved into Georgia.
I get tired of these so-called TV weather people bragging about how warm and ''Springlike'' it is when an unusual warm spell happens at this time of year knowing good and well that these so called wonderful warm temperatures is just the ideal thing to breed violent and severe weather in the winter here in the South. I like the warm weather too, but not at the expense of people's lives. I had personally rather see record lows than record highs in the winter because at least you can dress for the cold, and you can only hide from tornadoes in the basement and hope for the best.
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36. scwindsaloft
11:07 PM GMT on February 06, 2008
32. WxWyz 10:48 PM GMT on February 06, 2008

never heard the warning, or doesn't even know what a Tornado Watch is.

I'm amazed how many people do not know the deifference between a watch and a warning!
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34. WxWyz
10:57 PM GMT on February 06, 2008
I agree, Dropsonde. Maybe it's just me but I can't figure out why people are even out and about when the weather turns violent. You always hear of people being in malls, at the supermarket, at the movies, or driving around in their car. Living in Oklahoma, if we go under a Tornado Watch, the last thing I'll be doing is heading out for a shopping adventure!
If you're at work, that's understandable, you can't just up and leave every time the sky gets dark but there has to be more educating the public on weather and it's potential consequences. If it was up to me, classes in basic meteorology and storm awareness would be mandatory at all levels from elementary on up through high school.
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33. Dropsonde
5:48 PM EST on February 06, 2008
I used to live in the South and I've been harping for years about the region's unpreparedness. There is the potential for a truly horrific death toll in the Southeast. Imagine if the Oklahoma Outbreak of 1999 had occurred in Birmingham or Jackson MS or Nashville (three cities that have had very close calls with F4/F5 tornadoes). Imagine if the Greensburg EF5 had hit a town of comparable size in the Southeast, at night. The Plains states expect tornadoes and have basements and storm shelters, which are the only way to make survival in a violent tornado better than a crapshoot, but these things are just not common in the South, even though violent tornadoes occur very frequently.

So sad. I hope the region doesn't have to learn this from a tragedy.
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32. WxWyz
10:37 PM GMT on February 06, 2008
Though 52 fatalities may not seem huge with respect to the size and devastation associated with this outbreak, I am still amazed by the scores of people who are clueless when it comes to weather. As a trained spotter, I roll my eyes every time I see an interview with another storm survivor who never saw it coming, never heard the warning, or doesn't even know what a Tornado Watch is. This despite media weather reporting and plenty of advance notice from the National Weather Service. Weather Alert radios cost 30 bucks at Radio Shack. That's cheap life insurance! There is no excuse for being complacent with respect to severe weather.
People in general take weather for granted and turn a blind eye to the sky. And unfortunately many of them end up in the morgue after an event like this.
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31. weatherboyfsu
10:28 PM GMT on February 06, 2008
The next time we have conditions come together like this did......The weathermen need to put out there a prediction of how many deaths like the Florida Highway Patrol do on a Holiday weekend............

"This Tuesday afternoon, conditions are coming together that will produce significant tornado activity. The National Weather Service predicts that 10-30 persons will lose their lives during this event. This is a serious event and needs to be address accordingly. Please help to spread this information in you live in this area. Please pass this along to friends and family".

I understand that predicting these situations are difficult sometimes.....but there was enough hints that something this bad should never happen. Have a great evening!
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30. Dropsonde
5:34 PM EST on February 06, 2008
The Jackson TN (Union University) tornado was apparently rated EF4. I doubt it is the only EF3 or EF4 of the outbreak. :(
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29. FLWeatherFreak91
5:30 PM EST on February 06, 2008
Wow, the models are predicting for that front to stall in the Tampa area. Some areas could pick up a lot of rain. Anyone remember that February day in '06 that caused 17 inches of rain in the Tampa area in one day?
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28. scwindsaloft
10:01 PM GMT on February 06, 2008
The front is supposed to stall out over Fla. according to NASA forecasters.

Forecasters expect a cold front to move over Kennedy on launch day and bring with it clouds and storms. Meteorologists also think the front may stall over Central Florida, so they also lowered the chances for acceptable weather if launch attempts are made Friday or Saturday.
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27. Alockwr21
10:02 PM GMT on February 06, 2008
Im in Raleigh,NC...anything coming my way or am i in the clear?
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26. CybrTeddy
9:59 PM GMT on February 06, 2008
This front is heading to florida is it not? What kind of weather should i get?
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25. mobal
3:58 PM CST on February 06, 2008
21. scwindsaloft 3:16 PM CST on February 06, 2008
Can't say I could tolerate CNN from 7-11:30

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24. IKE
3:53 PM CST on February 06, 2008
Thanks for your information Dr. Masters...I noticed a new picture of you at the top of your blogs.
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23. pianomahnn
9:47 PM GMT on February 06, 2008
You're all complaining about the mass "news" media. These organizations are bent on not covering actual news, but acting like paparazzi whores!! Stop thinking they're going to be reporting important news items or you will just keep being let down.

On to other things ... anyone have comments on Hondo? Looking quite swoule...
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21. scwindsaloft
9:11 PM GMT on February 06, 2008
Can't say I could tolerate CNN from 7-11:30, but every scan to major news channels throughout the evening produced no weather info. They could have tapped into Llocal Memphis if they deemed it important enough.
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20. weatherboykris
9:03 PM GMT on February 06, 2008
For those of you complaining about CNN's lack of coverage,apparently you weren't watching when I was (7-11:30PM ET).They were cutting to their weatherman every 20 minutes or so.

For weather info around the clock,goto Link
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19. MNTornado
8:42 PM GMT on February 06, 2008
I don't know if anyone noticed, but all the major cable news outlets did not even report on the tornadoes because of the election until early this morning.

I think that someone should send emails to them complaining about this. I was up all night posting warnings on SL's blog. The tornados were coming up as fast as I could post them. I went to bed finally this morning after the others woke up to take over. When I got up about 30 minutes ago, I was hoping that this nightmare would finally be over. It's been a long time since I've seen a storm this big last this long and do this much damage. And the funny part for me is that Minnesota hasn't even been touched by this. When I went to bed, the storm front extended from the Gulf all the way to the state of Maine. WOW!!!!!!!!!!!
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17. CrazyC83
7:08 PM GMT on February 06, 2008
Actually 76 died in the US on May 31, 1985. (12 of the 88 deaths were in Canada)
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16. Melagoo
6:56 PM GMT on February 06, 2008
Good satellite view of the outbreak

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15. Melagoo
6:52 PM GMT on February 06, 2008
I live in Florida and I knew that this was going to happen. I wonder how many of the fatalities actually prepared for the possibility of a tornado. It is a shame that in this day and age that this still happens.em>

How many really pay attention to the weather anymore.
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14. sebastianjer
1:22 PM EST on February 06, 2008
I saw reports on it on both CNN and Fox, though they did not go their live, CNN broke in several times with meteorologist to give updates. For what it's worth.

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13. mobal
12:20 PM CST on February 06, 2008
Yes Tampa, I notices that. Pitiful!
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12. scwindsaloft
6:11 PM GMT on February 06, 2008
I agree Tampa, That was shameful reporting!
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11. TampaFLUSA
12:53 PM EST on February 06, 2008
I don't know if anyone noticed, but all the major cable news outlets did not even report on the tornadoes because of the election until early this morning. I would think 50+ Americans dying is more important than how many delegates one received. The Weather Channel was the only one I could find live from the scene last night. This makes me furious!
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10. sebastianjer
12:51 PM EST on February 06, 2008
Excerpts from a study done in 1999 by COAP

2) Ohio Valley and Deep South %u2014 La Ni%uFFFDa

Conversely, seasonal differences of tornado events in the Ohio and Deep South over late winter and spring show that there is an increase in tornado occurrences during warm phase as compared to neutral conditions. The changes in activity are already apparent during JFM (Figure 8a). A line of increased activity can be seen extending from Louisiana northeast into Indiana and Michigan. The greatest increases appear in Louisiana and Mississippi, with another maximum in Indiana.

As spring approaches, the total area seeing more tornadoes spreads eastward while the number of La Ni%uFFFDa seasonal tornado event increases (Figures 8b-d). The area seeing an increase in tornadoes during FMA has more than doubled, completely enveloping Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Indiana and large sections of surrounding states. The region of maximum increase (upwards of 4 more tornadoes per La Ni%uFFFDa season) shifts northeast, centered in Indiana, Kentucky, and Tennessee.

MAM sees the area of increased tornado activity decline in the western areas, such as Louisiana, Arkansas and Illinois. The maximum centered along the Ohio River remains, while increase move southward into Florida. The region of maximum increase of tornadic activity shifts southward during AMJ, into eastern Tennessee. Georgia and the Carolinas see an increase in tornadic activity, upwards of 3 more per La Ni%uFFFDa season.

Differences in Tornado days show the same pattern, but is more apparent in the early seasons. During JFM (Figure 9a), the southwest-northeast patter is discernable, but the increases in tornado days also spread along the Gulf of Mexico coast. The largest increases are also along the Gulf coast, with the largest change in Louisiana.

The increase of tornado days becomes more apparent during FMA, but begins to weaken during MAM and into AMJ (Figures 9b-d). FMA sees a large continuous area of increased tornado days from Louisiana north through Michigan. The largest change is in Tennessee, and coincides with the maxima of tornado event differences as seen in Figure 8b. Overall, most of a region from Louisiana to Indiana sees at least one more tornado day per La Ni%uFFFDa year. The MAM season shows a reduction in increased tornado days in the southwest area of the region. However, the number of tornado days starts increasing in north Florida and Georgia during the same time. The maxima continues to occur in Tennessee. The increase tornado days continues to weaken in area and intensity into AMJ, with area of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois returning to normal. The increases in the Deep South continue to hold on through this season.


The JFM season (Figure 10a) shows more tornadoes at the 95% significance level over Louisiana and Arkansas, as well as Indiana and central Kentucky and Tennessee.


The Ohio River Valley and Deep South see a region of statistically significant increased tornadic activity during La Ni%uFFFDa.


The results of this study support the findings of Knowles and Pielke (1993), who found that El Ni%uFFFDo events tend to produce weaker tornadoes with shorter damage paths, and produce few major outbreaks of tornadoes. They further found that La Ni%uFFFDas are associated with stronger tornadoes that remain on the surface longer, and tend to create more families of 40 or more tornadoes due to one synoptic system.

entire study
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9. franck
5:03 PM GMT on February 06, 2008
weatherboyfsu...you're right, especially in this country.
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8. weatherboyfsu
4:57 PM GMT on February 06, 2008
What a terrible day for a lot of people.......

SUPER TUESDAY! Catch 22!!!!!!

I live in Florida and I knew that this was going to happen. I wonder how many of the fatalities actually prepared for the possibility of a tornado. It is a shame that in this day and age that this still happens.

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7. catfuraplenty
4:48 PM GMT on February 06, 2008
Thank you Doc. Masters. You confirmed what I had suspected after seeing the damages on the Union College Tenn. The outsides of the buildings raked, cars tossed, trees down - EF-3

No interior damages to residents though it did look like a couple got worse damage than others meaning possible low EF-4 or Strong EF-3 with something that smashed into the home first, like a tree or a car and that allowed the tornadic winds to do the rest.

Funny mix up today, CNN reporter was talking about damage from the "hurricanes" last night. I think that must mean CNN is getting their reporters in the field all reveved up for summer. LOL

The CAt
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6. lawntonlookers
4:48 PM GMT on February 06, 2008
Welcome back storm. Hope you are feeling better.
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3. lawntonlookers
4:20 PM GMT on February 06, 2008
Thanks Dr. Masters:

We have been really having some strange weather for February. With the rain, snow and warm temperature in the northern states, 111 river gauges are reporting flooding and 11 showing major flooding. The Susquehanna River in Harrisburg is supposed to reach flood stage on Friday so many of the gauges will probably show flooding Thursday and Friday.

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