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The South is more vulnerable to deadly tornadoes as land, sea, air and government collide

The land, the sea, the air and even the government contribute to make the South more vulnerable to deadly tornadoes.

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Larry Kelly, right, puts his arm around Jerry Edward Johnston of Central near Kathleen Kelly, left, at the steps of his home on Robinson Bridge Road in Central, S.C., on October 9, 2017.
Larry Kelly, right, puts his arm around Jerry Edward Johnston of Central near Kathleen Kelly, left, at the steps of his home on Robinson Bridge Road in Central, S.C., on October 9, 2017. KEN RUINARD, INDEPENDENT MAIL

The gruesome count started just before midnight on Jan. 10, 2020, when a storm system moved through the South and spawned multiple tornadoes that wrecked homes, toppled trees and killed seven people from Texas to Alabama.

A Louisiana couple was found dead after a tornado tossed their mobile home about 200 feet from its foundation. A man was found dead nearby in the debris of a tree that fell on his home as his slept, though his wife was somehow uninjured.

Tornadoes with winds peaking at 200 mph struck Tennessee in March 2020 and killed 25 people.

The Easter tornado outbreak that started around 3 p.m. in Mississippi on April 12, 2020, swept up through Tennessee and ended just after 4 a.m. on the South Carolina coast, killing 34 people.

By the end of the year, deadly tornadoes had hit every Southern state, killed at least 72 people and caused more than $2 billion in property damage.

Researchers say a number of factors put the South at greater risk for tornado casualties and damage than the traditional “Tornado Alley” of the Great Plains. 

And that risk is growing. 

Denser populations in the South mean more people are in harm's way

Denser populations in the South mean more people are in harm's way

Over 20 years between 2000 and 2019, tornado reports in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi and Tennessee increased between 33% and 100% over the previous 20-year average, according to data analysis by the USA TODAY Network.

Scientists, however, can’t pinpoint how much of that increase comes from additional tornadoes and how much is an increase in the reporting of tornadoes due to improving weather observation technology, such as Doppler radar, urbanization and more people with cellphones who film and report tornadoes.

Since 2019, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina and Tennessee have experienced an EF4 tornado, the second-strongest on the tornado intensity scale. Winds from those storms can tear down well-constructed houses, flip cars and create missiles from debris.

The more tornadoes there are, the greater the chance of one of that magnitude — and since 2000, all six of these states rank in the top 20 for most tornadoes per square mile. Alabama is ranked No. 1, Mississippi No. 2.

"The shifting tornado pattern to the southeast is subtle," said Stephen Strader, an atmospheric scientist at Villanova University. "The factors of growing society and vulnerability are amplifying much faster and are much more of an apparent problem." 

The South was more susceptible to fatal tornadoes than the Tornado Alley states even before increases were noticed in the region, Strader said.

"The population is much larger east of Mississippi than in the central Plains," he said. "Places like Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and Tennessee have a much higher rural population density.  

"If you go drive out through rural Kansas, there's nobody. But when you go to rural Alabama, it feels like the rural area but there are homes. It's slightly denser, and that plays a big role when we talk about impacts."

Manufactured housing, weather patterns and the landscape of the South increase the risk of tornado casualties, too. 

Stephanie Scott, 50, at her Seneca, SC home on South Oak Street April 15, 2020, which an insurance adjuster deemed a total loss after an EF3 tornado with 160 mph winds touched down in the early morning hours of Monday, April 13th.
Stephanie Scott, 50, at her Seneca, SC home on South Oak Street April 15, 2020, which an insurance adjuster deemed a total loss after an EF3 tornado with 160 mph winds touched down in the early morning hours of Monday, April 13th. MATT BURKHARTT/Staff
'Location, location, location': How the continent sets up the South for trouble

'Location, location, location': How the continent sets up the South for trouble

Tornadoes typically form when warm air at the surface collides with colder air above and combines with winds in the upper atmosphere that are blowing in a different direction than winds closer to the ground.

These conditions come more often in the South because of the region's proximity to the warm air of the Gulf of Mexico to the south and cold fronts out west, according to the director of the Department of Agriculture Southeast Climate Hub, Steve McNulty.

"What is it they say in real estate? 'Location, location, location,'" McNulty said. "That's what it is for tornadoes in the Southeast."

Steve McNulty, director of the Department of Agriculture Southeast Climate Hub
What is it they say in real estate? ‘Location, location, location.’ That’s what it is for tornadoes in the Southeast.

Supercell storms in the area traditionally known as Tornado Alley — which includes Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Texas — have more predictable patterns, said Jake Wimberley, a National Weather Service meteorologist. That makes it easier to see signs of tornadoes forming and issue warnings.

"The storms that move through the Southeast are quick and typically unpredictable," he said. "Tornadoes aren't on the ground as long as out west."

As for why more tornadoes are forming in the South, experts say that's not clear. 

The strength and speed of tornadoes can astonish even weather professionals like Georgia State Climatologist Bill Murphey. His office was tracking the tornado-ripe conditions around his home in Newnan, Georgia, throughout the day of March 25.

When he stepped outside before midnight, he saw power flashes as lightning hit transformers all around him. He managed to relay "lightning in all quadrants" on a weather service chat.

Then a tornado siren sounded and another warning blared from his cellphone.  

Without time to get to the outdoor entrance to his basement, he opted for Plan B. Grabbing a flashlight and his goldendoodle, Minnie, he hunkered down in a windowless bathroom. 

"Probably about two, three minutes later, the tornado came over the house, and it churned for about 20 seconds," Murphey said. "It was not like a roar like a train. I say it was more like a cascading waterfall, as far as the sound goes. When the debris field hit, my windows blew out."

A woman looks through her refrigerator after it was ripped out of her home at Underwood St. and 16th Ave. N.
A woman looks through her refrigerator after it was ripped out of her home at Underwood St. and 16th Ave. N. George Walker IV / Tennessean.com
A matter of time: The South more often has tornadoes at night

A matter of time: The South more often has tornadoes at night

While weather systems that pass through the Plains often spawn twisters in the late afternoon and evening, the Southeast more often has nighttime tornadoes, weather service meteorologists said.

The timing is enabled by local geographic factors, according to meteorologist Joanne Culin with the weather Service in Jackson, Mississippi. Storms passing through the South don’t die off as quickly in the evening as they might in the Plains, where less moisture is available to insulate warmth.

“I mean, clearly, we can also get them during the day, but we get a lot of our weather systems come through in the evening and into the overnight hours," Culin said. “So, they’re going to also contain tornadoes, and not having the awareness when we’re asleep is really what makes us most vulnerable for that.” 

A 2008 study published by Northern Illinois University professors Walker Ashley and Andrew Krmenec found that nighttime tornadoes made up only 27% of all tornadoes from 1950 to 2005 but were responsible for 39% of tornado deaths.

More mobile homes and less zoning put more at risk in the South

More mobile homes and less zoning put more at risk in the South

The speed and timing of approaching tornadoes can be particularly hazardous for those who live in manufactured housing, since reaction to an approaching tornado requires them to evacuate.

And even weaker tornadoes are dangerous for those in mobile homes.

People who live in such manufactured housing are at higher risk because the buildings aren't as structurally sound or anchored into the ground, and they typically don't have basements or shelters underneath them.

Half of the 20 states with highest percentage of manufactured housing are in the South, according to 2000 Census Bureau data, the most recent comprehensive data available. South Carolina is No. 1 with nearly 20% of its housing stock manufactured. Between 11% and 16% of housing is manufactured in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and Florida.

"The South does have more mobile homes than some other parts of the country," the USDA's McNulty said. "If an EF1 tornado goes through a stick-built community, it may do some damage, but if an EF1 goes through a mobile home park, it may do a lot of damage. 

"We have more of those, so we're just destined to have more damage." 

A 2018 study published by Villanova's Strader and Northern Illinois' Ashley found 2,248 tornado-related fatalities across the U.S. between 1985 to 2017. About 39% of those deaths were associated with manufactured homes even though they make up only 6% of the nation’s housing.

The study compared manufactured housing in Alabama to that in Kansas, finding it wasn't as clustered as in Plains states — and that indicates more areas in the South bear more risk.

"In states with more strict zoning, manufactured homes are clustered together, which makes it easier to construct shelters," Strader said. "In the Southeast, you're more likely to see manufactured homes all across the landscape, making them vulnerable."  

Pam Knox, director of the agriculturally focused University of Georgia Weather Network, said she's concerned that manufactured housing has become even more popular in recent years throughout the South, where a warmer climate has made it more practical than elsewhere in the U.S. 

With increased tornadic activity, she said, "it's a double whammy.”

Tornado near US-82 in Alabama
Josh Pate, via Twitter
The landscape of the South puts it at risk, too. Trees cause more damage.

The landscape of the South puts it at risk, too. Trees cause more damage.

One difference rises above the rest when comparing the landscape of the South to the Plains — trees.

At least half the land across Southern states is forest while it's the opposite in the Plains, according to an annual USDA forest report. In Alabama, for example, 70% of the land has tree cover while Kansas has only 5% of its land under cover of trees.

While they're valuable and often cherished, trees bring disadvantages when it comes to tornadoes.

"It's hard to see tornadoes in the Southeast because we have so many trees and hills." Knox said. "So it's not like you can drive out like in the Plains and see them 120 miles away."

Trees lead to more damage. The stronger a tornado is, the more likely it will uproot or break apart trees that can strike where people are taking cover.  

"There are so many more trees surrounding homes in the Southeast," said Kevin Ash, a human-environment geography professor at the University of Florida. "So often homes not compromised by wind can be by a tree falling on a house." 

Southeastern tornadoes also tend to be wrapped in rain, Knox said. That adds to the difficulty of seeing tornadoes and responding to them.

Jerry Edward Johnston stands at the steps of his home on Robinson Bridge Road in Central, S.C., on October 9, 2017.
Jerry Edward Johnston stands at the steps of his home on Robinson Bridge Road in Central, S.C., on October 9, 2017. Ken Ruinard / USA TODAY
Budgets and staff shortcomings can hamper storm recovery efforts

Budgets and staff shortcomings can hamper storm recovery efforts

As for responding after tornadoes strike, officials have more control, but not every local government prioritizes emergency management, leaving services lacking when they’re needed most, said Clemson University engineering professor David Vaughn.

“A lot of the times, we don’t have proper staffing in these counties to focus on all these aspects (of recovery),” said Vaughn, who focuses on disaster resilience. “We have individual counties where the emergency manager job is a part-time role.”

Jimmy Harris, mayor of Madison County, Tennessee, thinks the emergency management in his area is well equipped to handle tornadoes — but that may be due to three major tornadoes that hit between 1999 and 2008.

Those storms helped leverage funding for the emergency management agency in Madison County, and local governments have spent years fine-tuning the emergency operations command center. 

The center has seen success thanks to its credibility and buy-in from several local government agencies and the business community, Harris said.

"We are definitely more aware and prepared than 25 years ago,” he said, “but part of that is because it feels like we experience a severe weather event every year."

Georgia state climatologist is one of few who remained after EF4 tornado

Georgia state climatologist is one of few who remained after EF4 tornado

More than two months after that EF4 tornado blew out the windows of Murphey’s home, the Georgia state climatologist is one of the only residents still living in his neighborhood.

A reminder stands in his yard: a wooden stake driven maybe six feet into the ground by winds that hit at least 170 mph, he said.

Despite previously knowing what could happen in a storm like that, the damage to his property — and the evidence of damage from afar — left him aghast. 

"The damage was incredible. Trees on tons of houses, debris everywhere,” he said. “I had debris in my front yard that probably came from Heard County. I got roof parts, pictures; I got all kinds of stuff that are not from anywhere near me.” 

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