The Science Behind The Deadly Tennessee Tornadoes

Middle Tennessee is left reeling after violent tornadoes ripped through the region overnight Monday.  An EF-4 tornado tore through Cookeville, Tennessee killing 18 people and injuring 88 others.  Five of the victims were children.  This was the strongest-rated tornado the nation has seen in nearly three years.

Tornado Damage In Cookeville, TN

Tornado Damage In Cookeville, TN Photo credit: Upper Cumberland Reporter

How It Happened:

An approaching cold front from the west interacted with a warm moist airmass triggering dangerous rotating thunderstorms, or supercells that produced deadly tornadoes killing 23 people, injuring 308 people, and leaving a widespread path of destruction across four counties.

The Timing:

According to The National Weather Service in Nashville, the initial tornado touched down at 12:32 a.m., a little more than 3.5 miles WSW of John C Tune Airport as a strong EF-2 tornado and quickly moved into North Nashville and Germantown.

From there it strengthened to an EF-3 as it traveled into East Nashville, causing the most significant damage in and around the Five Points Neighborhood – where two people were killed. A path of EF-1 to EF-2 damage continued across the Cumberland River before the storm once again strengthened to an EF-3 in Donelson. Winds of 111 to 135 mph were observed across Hermitage and the remainder of Davidson County.

The storm strengthened for a third time as it moved into Wilson County, killing 3 people in Mt. Juliet. From there, damage associated with an EF-1 to EF-2 strength continued on a path along and occasionally across I-40, before finally lifting a little over 3.5 miles west of Gordonsville in Smith County at 1:28 a.m., stretching 53.4 miles, with maximum winds of 165 mph. This tornado killed five people and injured more than 150 people with a maximum width of 800 yards.

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The tornado touched down in Putnam County at 1:49 a.m. and lasted until 1:57 a.m. local time.

The Damage in Putnam County, Tennessee:

The EF-4 tornado that traveled across western and central Putnam County, Tennessee resulted in 18 deaths and 88 injuries.

The estimated peak winds were 175mph.  The path length of the tornado was 8.21 miles.  The max width was 500 yards.

Officials say 400 homes were damaged in Putnam County alone.  Thirty-one commercial structures were also damaged in the tornado that traveled parallel to Highway 70 between Baxter and Cookeville.  The Mayor of Cookeville said 100 residences were completely destroyed.

This is the path of the EF-4 tornado in Putnam County:

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Officials with the National Weather Service say:

The tornado began 2.5 miles northwest of Baxter where it produced EF-0 damage for 2.7 miles as it crossed Gainesboro Highway.  The tornado intensified to EF-1 and EF-2 intensity in the Prosperity Pointe subdivision just north of US 70N/Nashville Highway and further intensified to EF-3 as it crossed Bloomington Road and Clemmons Road, severely damaging several homes.

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Home severely damaged in Cookeville, Tennessee. Photo credit: Upper Cumberland Reporter

The tornado then became violent for 0.8 miles as it entered the area around McBroom Chapel Road, where it reached EF-4 intensity, completely destroyed over a dozen homes, and caused numerous fatalities, with the heaviest damage concentrated on Hensley Drive. EF-4 damage continued eastward to Echo Valley Drive, where an apartment complex was completely destroyed.

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Damage in Cookeville, Tennessee. Photo credit: Upper Cumberland Reporter

EF-2 and EF-3 damage continued eastward for 2.0 miles, affecting homes along us 70N/W Broad Street, before rapidly coming to an end near N Franklin Avenue just west of Cookeville Regional Medical Center.

Tornado History For Tennessee:

This marked the first violent tornado in middle Tennessee since April 10, 2009, but not the last for the state – EF-4 tornadoes were confirmed in western Tennessee in 2015 and eastern Tennessee in 2011.

Tennessee averages 30 tornadoes across the state per year, and 17 within Middle Tennessee alone. In fact, this is not even the first tornado for the city of Nashville, with the last occurring in 1998.

March marks the beginning of severe weather season for the majority of the southeast with the most tornadoes occurring between March and June.

Nocturnal Tornadoes:

One of the reasons why these tornadoes were so deadly was due to the time they occurred and the breakdown of communication and understanding within the general public of severe weather.

According to a study in 2007 by Walker Ashley, nocturnal tornadoes, or tornadoes between sunset and sunrise, account for 27% of all tornadoes within the continental U.S. However, of all tornadoes between 1950 and 2005 that occurred in Tennessee, 45.8% occurred at night – more than any other state in the country.

More than 24% of tornadoes within the Carolinas occur at night. The study goes on to report, that tornadoes that occur between midnight and sunrise are 2.5 times more likely to kill than those that occur during the day – with North Carolina ranking first for fatalities during nocturnal killer tornadoes.

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Peak Tornado Season:

Although peak severe weather season is during the spring, during the late afternoon hours – severe weather can occur at any time of year, during any time of day, at any place. In fact, the transition between the cool and spring seasons is when the highest nocturnal fatality rates occur. Why? A general misunderstanding that tornadoes only occur during the warmer months can lead people to be caught off guard to these early season severe events.

Issuing Severe Weather Warnings:

The threat of severe weather earlier this week was expressed by both the Storm Prediction Center and the National Weather Service lead. As well as meteorologists from local news outlets – who stayed on-air for hours to track the tornadoes and bring information to the public once tornado warnings were issued.

Although the threat of severe weather was low, the threat of tornadoes was still expressed. These tornadoes developed rapidly within a conducive environment to support long-lasting severe weather.

The biggest problem with these storms was that they developed after midnight when most people were asleep without any alert to wake them of the impending danger. Meteorologists bring you information before, during and after severe weather – but, staying WeatherWise to the latest forecast and having multiple forms of weather alerts that will wake you during nighttime storms are critical.

Importance Of Weather Radios:

Outdoor warning sirens are meant to alert people outside to seek the shelter of potential tornadoes, not for those already indoors and should not be used as your only warning during severe weather.

The outdoor warning sirens did go off in Putnam County as the deadly EF-4 tornado was approaching.  However, the storm hit at 1:49 a.m. and many people simply didn’t hear the warnings.

A weather radio is a reliable warning system and can be programmed to alert you of any severe watch or warning for where you live – even if the power goes out or if there is no cell service.  These radios cost less than $30.

Smartphones can also alert you of a tornado, flash flood or tsunami warning through the Wireless Emergency Alert system. You can activate it through your notification settings.

Government Alerts

Finally, one of the best FREE tools you can have is the WCCB COIT WeatherWise App. By turning on-location services and notifications, you will receive severe weather watches or warnings when they are issued (this even works for Tennessee residents). You will be able to follow along with coverage of severe weather even if the power goes out, or if you need to seek shelter away from your television.

One important tip is to make sure your phone is fully charged if you know severe weather is in the area.  A portable phone charger is also a great product that can help keep your phone powered for an extended period of time during natural disasters.

Finding A Safe Place:

According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, there is no completely safe place during a tornado, however, some locations are much safer than others.  The CDC says people should go to a basement or an inside room without windows on the lowest floor (bathroom, closet, center hallway) during a tornado warning.

It’s extremely important to avoid windows.  The CDC also recommends that you get under something sturdy for added protection.

Several survivors of the Cookeville tornado spoke to the media about hiding in a bathtub.  Accuweather.com says seeking shelter in a bathtub can help save your life during a tornado.  The bathroom has strong framing and the pipes in the walls could help hold them together, according to Tornadoproject.com.

The EF-4 tornado that caused major damage in Cookeville leveled dozens of homes.  Pictures and videos show the widespread damage in Putnam County.

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Home completely destroyed in Cookeville, Tennessee. Photo credit: Upper Cumberland Reporter

How To Help Tennessee Tornado Victims:

The Red Cross of East Tennessee says the best way to help these tornado victims is to donate money.  Thousands of volunteers have showed up in the damaged neighborhoods and it’s caused issues with the ongoing clean up efforts by local authorities.  It’s also difficult for authorities to keep the area safe and victims’ belongings protected with all the volunteers.

Anyone wanting to volunteer is asked to email helpnow@putnamcountytn.gov to sign up.

Here are some ways you can donate money:

Click HERE to donate directly to the Cookeville-Putnam County Tornado Relief Fund.  100% of the donations will go directly to victims.

You can directly donate money to any of the 19 Bank of Putnam County locations.  Their locations can be found HERE.

You can also donate to the American Red Cross by texting 90999 or click HERE to donate online.