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Deadly Tornadoes Symptomatic of Strong ‘Transition Season’ Weather

March 2, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Two Indiana towns were heavily damaged Friday as another round of deadly tornadoes raked the Midwest. Jeffrey Brown discusses the violent weather with Maj. Chuck Adams of the Clark County Sheriff's Department in Southern Indiana and meteorologist Greg Carbin of the National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center.
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RAY SUAREZ: Tornadoes raked the Midwest and South today for the second time this week. At least three people were killed in Indiana, and towns in four states were hard-hit.

Throughout the day, sightings of funnel clouds, like this one in Alabama, kept coming. One of the worst hit late this afternoon, blasting two towns in Southern Indiana. A sheriff reported the town of Marysville, home to 1,900 people, was completely gone. And nearby Henryville was nearly as bad.

Other storms also caused damage north of Louisville, Ky., near Chattanooga, Tenn. and just outside Huntsville, Ala.

In Bradley County, Tenn., near Chattanooga, high winds tore down the wall of a hardware store and knocked over several tractor-trailers.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When it hit, I mean, the noise is unbelievable. You know, everything’s moving. The pressure’s — the pressure is just unbelievable. I mean, stuff started flying around the room where I was. I mean, I could feel the stuff blowing into my face, and you, you know, begin to pray quick. You know, you can say some quick prayers.

RAY SUAREZ: In Alabama, a number of houses and a middle school were severely damaged in Meridianville, but thousands of students there and in other states had been sent home in advance.

Earlier this week, another round of tornadoes had wrecked much of Harrisburg, Ill., and killed 13 people in several states.

JEFFREY BROWN: A short time ago, I spoke to Maj. Chuck Adams of the Clark County Sheriff’s Department in Southern Indiana.

Maj. Adams, thanks for joining us.

First, start with the town of Marysville. It sounds like terrible destruction there. What can you tell us?

MAJ. CHUCK ADAMS, Clark County, Ind., Sheriff’s Department: Well, first reported, Jeff, in Marysville was certainly called in from citizens, with them certain — them just stating that Marysville was completely gone.

I do have two officers that have been in the Marysville area since that time, and there is some severe damage and things like that, but certainly not as bad as first reported.

We’re concentrating most of our efforts right now to a little northern town here from the county seat, Henryville, Indiana. It seems to be that’s where our most damage has occurred.

JEFFREY BROWN: Can you tell, was this one tornado, multiple tornadoes? Do you know at this point?

MAJ. CHUCK ADAMS: No, I sure don’t know at this point.

It seems like our damage has stretched from the far western part of the county all the way to the eastern part, probably about a 25-mile stretch, if you have to drive that.

But it looks like Henryville, which is approximately 19 miles north of Louisville, Ky., seems to be our heavily — most heavily hit. We did have a report earlier when school was going on, before school let out, that the Henryville High School had been struck with heavy damage. There were students inside.

But since the time, I’ve spoken with my school resource officer that’s assigned to that high school, and all the students were evacuated with very minor injuries, just a few cuts and abrasions, but no injuries whatsoever to any of the students that were life-threatening.

I do have one reported fatality also in the Henryville area at this time. But I really can’t even say whether that’s storm-related. As of now, the coroner hasn’t even shown up at the scene.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, what about the local and state response at this point? What are you able to do?

MAJ. CHUCK ADAMS: Well, we’re just — I have got — we’re taking a list here at the office. We’re being inundated by calls from citizens and people wanting to volunteer.

I’ve got other counties, surrounding counties bringing in their street and highway department crews to clear some of the roadways. Of course, we have got all the public service companies out tonight. And we’re just trying to clear everything up and take all the calls as they come in.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Maj. Chuck Adams, thanks so much for joining us, and good luck to everyone there.

MAJ. CHUCK ADAMS: Okay. Thank you very much.

JEFFREY BROWN: And we’re joined live by now by Greg Carbin, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center.

Well, Greg Carbin, what can you tell us now about the number and power of these tornadoes?

GREG CARBIN, National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center: Well, it’s been one of those unfortunate days that we happen to see, especially in that transition from late winter into spring.

This came on quite rapidly this morning. However, the forecasts from the NOAA Storm Prediction Center were right on target a few days ago. Very worrisome when we see storms developing so rapidly in the morning hours, when we know the day will unfold in such a way as to bring this devastation. And our thoughts go out to those people in the area affected today.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so is it — when you say a storm, is it one tornado, many tornadoes? Do you know at this point?

GREG CARBIN: Well, it defines — how you define the storm. Essentially, we’re looking at a very large area of low pressure, a cyclone, really, that is driving most of this activity.

And then within that larger circulation are these thunderstorms that move rapidly across the landscape. The Lower Ohio Valley and Midwest really were the areas today most at risk for tornadoes. And obviously we saw long-track, damaging tornadoes with part of a larger cyclone.

JEFFREY BROWN: So what causes this?

GREG CARBIN: Well, it’s really the transition season. We still have the wind speeds in the atmosphere that are very common in the winter months, very powerful wind speeds in the upper levels of the atmosphere, the jet stream level, deep low-pressure systems that we see bring blizzard conditions across parts of the Northern Plains the last couple of days.

But to the south of those blizzard conditions, where you have the warm air and moisture that starts to increase as we move into the springtime months, that brings together the ingredients needed for thunderstorm development, and then the wind shear brings other ingredient that is needed for violent tornadoes, unfortunately.

JEFFREY BROWN: And would this be thought of as unusual right now, or whether in power of the storm or timing of the storm?

GREG CARBIN: Well, when we see violent weather like this, almost all of these events are rather unusual. So early in March in the last dozen years or so, we’ve seen events along these lines maybe four times in the last dozen years.

So you can kind of see a return frequency on something like this perhaps every three to five years.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you mentioned the forecasts. How much warning is there when something like this is coming? How much ahead of time would the residents know that — what might be about to hit them?

GREG CARBIN: Well, we had that first event at midweek and that kind of set the stage for this more significant event today.

We were looking at the weather conditions for about the last five days, looking at this Friday as being particularly dangerous situation with these tornadoes. We ramp up our forecasts, because certainty is never really there with these events. But you become a little more certain about the potential as you go forward in time.

And early this morning, we knew this was going to be a bad day. We issued particularly dangerous situation watches and public outlooks, basically spelling out the threat that existed across this area.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, is your sense that your tracking ability is better and the ability on the ground to get the word out has become better over the years?

GREG CARBIN: It has. There’s no question about that.

The systems that are in place to give people the warnings they need to take appropriate action in advance of these storms are in place. Many of these cities and towns do have siren systems, but there’s also NOAA weather radio, the broadcast media and emergency management partners that work with the National Weather Service, a pretty good group and a pretty good team to get the word out ahead of this dangerous weather.

And hopefully we’ll see the results in lower fatalities and casualties. But, unfortunately, it sounds like we have a few this evening.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what do you look for in the next few hours and days?

GREG CARBIN: This system will continue to be a danger overnight, especially across portions of eastern Kentucky, Tennessee, across the Appalachians tonight and into the Southeast tomorrow.

The whole entire frontal system will move east and south throughout the night tonight and again pose a risk for some severe storms in Georgia and Florida tomorrow.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Greg Carbin of the National Weather Service, thanks very much.

GREG CARBIN: Thank you, Jeffrey.