Wednesday's historic tornado outbreak in the South will go down in the record books and will be studied and analyzed for years to come by meteorologists and other researchers, said Rick Smith, warning coordination meteorologist with the National Weather Service's Norman Forecast Office.
“We don't even realize the full scope of what happened yet,” Smith said. “To have one tornado as strong as the one that hit Tuscaloosa (Ala.) is rare, but to have several of them going on at the same time and traveling such large distances is exceptionally rare.
“As a meteorologist watching the event unfold through streaming TV broadcasts from the area, Twitter feeds and news blogs, you're amazed at what's happening from a scientific perspective, but at the same time overwhelmingly shocked by the power of the storms and the devastation and loss of life they brought.”
Smith grew up around Memphis, Tenn., and worked for the weather service's office there.
“Tornadoes are not unusual in that part of the country, and while it doesn't happen often, they have significant severe weather events that cause big impacts,” he said. “The April 27 outbreak is far beyond anything that region has seen in a very long time.”
Smith said the mix of weather ingredients that came together Wednesday was as volatile as it gets for tornadoes: Extremely unstable air ahead of an intense upper level storm system set the stage for rapid storm development and intensification. Parts of the area endured multiple waves of dangerous supercell storms, with some locations experiencing several tornado warnings.
“This is a reminder that it's not a question of if we'll see tornadoes in Oklahoma, but when,” Smith said. “Think about what you would do if a tornado was moving toward your home, business, school, church, car — what would you do to stay safe?”