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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
Tornadic Supercell
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.
Deadly night
Deadly night
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.


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