Sprawling Storm Turns Deadly with Tornadoes, Flooding, Downburst Winds

January 12, 2020, 5:12 AM EST

article image
Above: An elderly couple died when their manufactured home was destroyed by an EF2 tornado in Bossier Parish, Louisiana, on Friday night, Jan. 10, 2020, Image credit: Lt. Bill Davis/Bossier Parish Sheriff's Office via AP.

At least eight people in four states died on Friday and Saturday as a well-advertised spring-like storm system plowed from the Southern Plains into the Southeast. A tornado confirmed on radar by the National Weather Service in Birmingham killed three people on Saturday afternoon in two locations near Carrollton in west central Alabama, weather.com reported.

Late Friday night, an elderly couple died when a manufactured home was demolished by a tornado near Haughton in northwest Louisiana, just east of Shreveport. The twister was rated as a high-end EF2 by the NWS office in Shreveport, with top winds of 135 mph and a path length of 40 miles.

Both tornadoes were spawned by an intense squall line that formed in Texas and eastern Oklahoma on Friday afternoon and was still progressing, albeit in a weakened state, over Georgia and the Carolinas on Saturday night.

Strong non-tornadic winds were by far the most prevalent hazard from this storm complex. Extremely strong low-level southerly winds—in some cases howling at hurricane strength only a mile above ground level—mixed down to the surface amid the squall line’s torrents.

More than 460 preliminary reports of high wind were compiled by the NOAA/NWS Storm Prediction Center for the period from Friday morning to Saturday night, most of them associated with the squall line across the Southern Plains and Southeast. Two people were killed by falling trees early Saturday, one in Nacogdoches County, Texas, and the other about 20 miles northwest of Shreveport.

The strong winds were coupled with mild air and extreme values of moisture for midwinter, with some of the highest values of precipitable water on record for the month of January. Given the winds and instability, if isolated thunderstorms had formed well ahead of the squall line, they might have become rotating supercells and produced long-lived tornadoes. Instead, the upper-level energy that led to thunderstorm development was oriented along a north-south line, which led to the formation of the resilient squall line and mostly short-lived tornadoes spinning up along it. The SPC database had a total of 12 tornadoes for the event by late Saturday.

The strong squall-line winds toppled countless trees and power lines. More than 300,000 customers were without power as of 7 p.m. Saturday, most of them in Alabama and Georgia.

Juiced by the unusually moist airmass, the storm system dumped heavy rains within the squall line as well as along a broad swath to the north of the surface low, from Oklahoma to Michigan. Nearly 5 inches of rain had fallen near Lake Texoma as of Saturday morning, according to CoCoRaHS observations for Texas and Oklahoma. A driver who stalled in high water was swept away and killed near Kiowa on Saturday morning in southeast Oklahoma.

To the north of the heavy rain zone, a strip of blowing snow stretched from west Texas (an inch fell as far south as Lubbock) to the Great Lakes. A total of 0.2” at the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport was enough to qualify as DFW’s heaviest calendar-day snowfall in almost five years.

Freezing rain and sleet pelted locations in a narrow band between the snow and rain zones, with some overlap making for messy transition zones.

Wintry conditions led to more than 1000 flights in and out of O’Hare being cancelled as of Saturday afternoon. See more on this storm’s winter-side impacts in the weather.com article. Winds that gusted over 50 mph at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport and Milwaukee’s Mitchell Field produced significant lakeshore flooding.

In southeast Michigan, Category 6 alumnus Dr. Jeff Masters reported 2.35” in his rain gauge as of late Saturday. Here’s some more on the Michigan storm impacts from Jeff:

“Flint, Michigan broke its all-time calendar day January precipitation record, with 2.42” on Saturday. The previous record was 1.34” on January 18, 1949. The only day with more precipitation in Flint during the months of October, November, December, January, or February was on February 16, 1954, when 2.85” fell. Detroit also beat its calendar day record precipitation amount for January, with 2.06” falling Saturday (previous record: 1.76” on January 12, 1908).

“Moderate flooding was reported in the northern Detroit suburbs at the Rouge River in Birmingham and along the Clinton River. Major flooding is predicted in the western Detroit suburbs, at the Huron River in Hamburg, beginning on Tuesday. The Grand River at Jackson is predicted to crest at its highest level on record on Thursday.

“Strong northeast winds blowing over Lake Huron’s Saginaw Bay on Saturday night pushed water levels to their highest levels on record along the Michigan shore near Bay City, causing significant flooding. At 10:30 pm EST Saturday, water levels at the Essexville gage were 0.19' (2.3") above the previous record high set in May, 1986. Records extend back to 1977 at the station.”

The Weather Company’s primary journalistic mission is to report on breaking weather news, the environment and the importance of science to our lives. This story does not necessarily represent the position of our parent company, IBM.

author image

Bob Henson

Bob Henson is a meteorologist and writer at weather.com, where he co-produces the Category 6 news site at Weather Underground. He spent many years at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and is the author of “The Thinking Person’s Guide to Climate Change” and “Weather on the Air: A History of Broadcast Meteorology.”


Recent Articles


Category 6 Sets Its Sights Over the Rainbow

Bob Henson

Section: Miscellaneous


Alexander von Humboldt: Scientist Extraordinaire

Tom Niziol

Section: Miscellaneous


My Time with Weather Underground (and Some Favorite Posts)

Christopher C. Burt

Section: Miscellaneous