April 27th marked the worst outbreak of tornadoes to ever hit the southeastern United States and the second worst nationally in recorded meteorological history. With more than 350 casualties across the region and producing hundreds of individual tornadoes, with at least two in the EF5 category, this storm system is beaten by only the Tri-State outbreak on March 18th, 1925, which resulted in 695 deaths across three states in the Midwest.
During last weeks system Alabama was by far the worst hit state, claiming hundreds of fatalities, but East Tennessee and Southwest Virginia received its share as well. The region was bombarded with storm activity that included a confirmed EF3 in the Glade Spring Community of Washington County, VA and an EF2 in the Camp Creek area of Greene County, TN. Johnson County was the site of a third devastating storm that resulted in the fatalities of Linda Zanotti, 53, of Butler and Dorothy Issacs, 54, of Doe Valley. Complete obituaries are on page B-4 in todays paper.
The National Weather Service has been surveying damage and has determined that the tornado that touched down in the county was a Category Two on the Enhanced Fujita Scale, with maximum wind speeds reaching 120 miles per hour. The storms path of destruction began in Butler at approximately 11:52 p.m. and moved northwest through Doe Valley toward Mountain City at speeds of more than 70 miles per hour. The tornado left 12 miles of destruction in its wake widening at times to more than 250 yards across. Barns and outbuildings were leveled, roofs were peeled off houses, and whole groves of trees were smashed flat. Several mobile homes were also destroyed, including both circumstances that resulted in fatalities.
According to National Weather Service Meteorologist Tim Troutman, the system that struck the region was caused by a very strong upper atmospheric turbulence with strong and intense winds. These southeast-oriented winds formed a line of super cell storms known as a training or squall line system, which results in a number of individual storms following one after the other in a line or train.
According to Troutman, Conditions were just right for an outbreak. We had very dry colder air from a strong jet stream colliding with a warm moist atmosphere. When cold and warm fronts encounter one another the result is a very unstable atmosphere, which will result in bad weather. This type of storm system is rare for Johnson County, but its chances were increased by a recent La Nina episode. Spanish for the girl, La Nina is essentially the opposite of El Nino, and results in cooler ocean temperatures and an unusually unstable atmosphere, usually causing an increase in weather activity.
The last time that the Southeast was in such a period was 2008, and the peak time for potential storm outbreaks is during the spring, largely in April and May. With more than a month left of potential for this type of storm to happen again, the National Weather Service is hoping people will take renewed notice to issued warnings. Meteorologists are watching closely to provide as much time as possible and urge everyone to watch and listen for potential dangers. If a tornado warning is issued, it means that there is imminent danger and there is a need to seek immediate shelter. Those living in mobile homes or lightly built structures are urged to seek out a better location to weather the storm. Tornado warnings should not be taken lightly, and although there may not necessarily be an actual tornado touch down there is at least a strong possibility of damage from strait-line winds, hail, and severe thunderstorms.
During a tornado warning the national weather service suggests moving to the lowest level of the home or structure away from windows. Basements or cellars are preferable but if the house doesnt have one of these, move to the center of an interior room away from corners, windows, doors and outside walls. If caught outside and unable to find any shelter, the NWS recommends finding a low ditch or depression in which to lie flat.
A week after the storm has passed families across the area are still trying to pick up the pieces after losing nearly everything in some cases. Government on all levels has been active in assisting storm victims, with Governor Haslam declaring parts of the region disaster areas and requesting federal assistance from FEMA. Local representatives have also been following the situation closely with congressman Phil Roe issuing a press statement declaring, After the devastating storms that raged through East Tennessee and across the state, many are now having to deal with horrible damage. I offer my prayers and condolences for families across Tennessee who were affected by the storm, particularly to those who have lost loved ones. The tragic aftermath is still not fully comprehensible. Nonetheless, Tennesseans will work together to salvage what was lost. I will do everything I can to make sure requests for federal help in East Tennessee are met quickly.
Johnson County has been dealt a devastating blow by this storm, but the people of the county will persevere. The day following its passing, the tree strewn roads and homes were busy with the widespread sounds of chainsaws and equipment as highway crews, residents, and generous neighbors began the lengthy process of cleaning up the mess that was left behind. It has been said that during trying times we show our better natures, and this holds very true for the people of this area, some of whom are now looking at rebuilding lifetimes of work, stolen in just a moment of natures fury.