Above: This photo from the Mall at Turtle Creek in Jonesboro, Arkansas, from Sunday, March 29, 2020, shows severe damage inflicted by a tornado late Saturday, March 28. (Jonesboro Police Department via Facebook)
The first U.S. weather disaster of the coronavirus-shutdown era hit the northeast Arkansas city of Jonesboro on Saturday afternoon. A tornado rated as EF3 by the National Weather Service office in Memphis tore across southern and eastern Jonesboro around 5 pm CDT. Top winds were estimated at 140 mph along a 12.6-mile path.
The Jonesboro tornado emerged from an intense, fast-moving supercell that had already dropped an EF1 tornado between the towns of Algoa and Amagon, Arkansas, about 45 minutes earlier.
Damage appears to be widespread, but the human toll from the Jonesboro tornado was remarkably low: only 22 people were injured, with just two of them hospitalized, as reported by weather.com. The twister developed right over a dense commercial district on what would have normally been a weekend afternoon packed with shoppers and vehicles. Even though the state of Arkansas has not yet implemented a stay-at-home order in response to the coronavirus pandemic, many businesses in Jonesboro were already shuttered, including a mall that suffered major damage.
While the coronavirus shutdown may have saved lives in Jonesboro, it is complicating recovery efforts, as reported by the New York Times. With social distancing guidelines ruling the day, residents cannot gather as they normally would in churches and community centers for mutual support and information exchange. “You do what you have to do to meet the need at the moment, and right now, this is what we’re doing,” city councilman Bobby Long told the Times. “We’re doing our best to keep the virus under control. We will not abandon those people who need us the most at this time.”
The coronavirus-related shutdown has also thrown monkey wrenches into the clean-up effort after the deadly tornadoes that hit the Nashville area on March 3, according to the Christian Science Monitor.
An outbreak that underperformed
Saturday was expected to be a busy tornado day—and it was—but, thankfully, it fell short of its potential. As of Monday, the NOAA/NWS Storm Prediction Center had logged 24 tornado reports for Saturday. Most of these were in Iowa and Illinois, where a fast-moving spring storm and a strong warm front had been expected to serve as focal points for tornado development.
Late-morning thunderstorms left more cloudiness than predicted across northern and central Illinois, which cut down on instability and reduced the extent and strength of the resulting tornadic supercells near the surface low and warm front. The NWS/Quad Cities office was still carrying out storm surveys on Monday, with at least one EF1 confirmed near Leon Corners, Illinois. Several short-lived tornadoes in central Iowa were rated EF0 or EF1 by the NWS/Des Moines office, and at least two tornadoes could not be rated because they did not strike any damage indicators (buildings, utility poles, or other objects).
Instability was greater and wind shear was plentiful toward the south, where the day’s strongest tornadoes ended up forming. Along with the EF3 in Jonesboro, a pair of EF2 tornadoes from a long-lived supercell struck near the Ohio River, one near Henderson, Kentucky, and the other in and near Newburgh, Indiana, just southeast of Evansville. Both tornadoes damaged dozens of homes, according to the NWS/Paducah office.
A somewhat active tornado season thus far
The “inflation-adjusted” tornado count of 189 for the year through March 29 is a bit above average, close to the 75th percentile in a long-term database. (The inflation adjustment takes into account the increase in tornado reports in recent decades as more of the weakest tornadoes are caught on camera.)
Without an inflation adjustment, January and February ranked as the sixth busiest start to the tornado year in records going back to 1950, with a preliminary total of 117 tornado reports.
The tornado death toll for 2020 so far—33—is unusually high for the first three months of the year. Of that total, 25 deaths occurred in the outbreak of March 2-3 that brought deadly tornadoes to Middle Tennessee.
Just as August is too soon to know whether a full hurricane season will be a busy one, we’re only now shifting into the most active three months of tornado season. On average, roughly half of U.S. tornadoes occur from April through June.
Slight-risk areas were in place by midday Monday for both Monday and Tuesday. Severe storms may track across northern and western Texas and western Oklahoma on Monday afternoon and evening. The setup suggests a low tornado threat but a chance of very large hail. A somewhat greater severe threat, including tornadoes, may evolve on Tuesday as the severe weather shifts into southern Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia and the Florida Panhandle. See weather.com for a frequently updated outlook.