The Southeast has suffered from a number of severe weather events in the past few weeks, including a stormy night here in Athens GA in late July that dropped hundreds of trees and caused my neighborhood to lose power for 44 hours. Many people I know or read quoted in the news or online insisted that the damage was so extensive it had to come from a tornado, in spite of the fact that no tornado warnings were issued and the damage happened during daylight with no verified tornadoes observed (although I saw some interesting pictures of clouds that were not tornadoes). I drove around Athens the day after the thunderstorms roared through and noted wind damage throughout the city, but no organized path of damage from a tornado and no starburst pattern that would have indicated a microburst, so I know that the damage was caused by straight-line winds, not a tornado. Even a few twisted trees do not indicate a tornado, just some wind gusts that twisted the trees in a small area, especially if their limbs were interlocked. My colleague Dr. Marshall Shepherd of UGA wrote a Forbes article about this tendency to want to call anything that causes severe wind damage a tornado whether or not one actually occurred.
This misunderstanding about the danger of straight-line winds frequently results in communities not taking proper precautions when severe weather is predicted and warned. At my son’s high school in Athens, if a tornado warning was sounded they took the students off the bus at the end of the school day, but they did not do so for a “mere” severe thunderstorm warning, even though the winds in both storms could cause the same damage. In some communities, no sirens are sounded for severe thunderstorm warnings because they are not considered as dangerous as tornadoes, causing potential threats to people who get caught outside in strong thunderstorms with high straight-line winds. If you don’t know what your county’s policies are regarding tornado and severe thunderstorm warnings, you might want to check because they could be putting your children and citizens in danger if they are not recognizing the threat of any severe weather, not just tornadoes. And next time you are in a severe thunderstorm warning (which could be tomorrow, August 7, for a lot of the Southeast), take shelter immediately just as you would for a tornado warning, because you do not know where the strongest winds will occur.