From February 23-24, 2016, the biggest tornado outbreak of the year so far, as well as one of the largest February outbreaks on record took place. At this time, 7 people have died as a result of 61 tornadoes in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Pennsylvania and Virginia. Damage surveys are underway, and this will be updated to reflect that. At this time, there are at least four EF3 tornadoes confirmed, with many weaker ones as well. One struck an RV park near Convent, Louisiana and killed two people during the afternoon of the 23rd, one caused major damage in Pensacola, Florida, one killed a person near Appomattox, Virginia on the afternoon of the 24th, and one caused major damage and numerous injuries near Tappahannock, Virginia. This will be an in-depth look at the event, looking from a synoptic perspective and a look at individual storms and tornadoes.
Late February 22 through February 23
A shortwave trough arrived in the Central U.S. on Monday, February 22. This induced a surface low to develop in Northern Mexico and Southwest Texas late that night. A Slight Risk of severe weather was issued for Southwest and South-central Texas, for the threat of damaging winds and some hail. There was substantial mid-level shear to organize storms; however, low-level shear and instability were not yet conducive for tornadoes. Storms began to fire in Southwest Texas near the Rio Grande. A substantial MCS developed, and impacted Del Rio, Texas, among other areas.
Bowing line segment Feb 22 east of San Angelo, TX
Strong MCS Southeast of Del Rio, TX. This complex produced large hail and some damaging winds in South Texas. Note white colors on radar, where likely very large hail is occurring.
First Tornado Warning of the outbreak in Southern Texas; this storm did not produce a tornado.
Severe storms continued to impact Texas through the early morning hours on February 23. A MCV (Mesoscale Convective Vortex, or meso low) developed and moved across the Gulf towards Louisiana. This mesoscale feature later played a substantial role in tornadoes in Louisiana and Mississippi. A bowing line segment moved south of Houston, TX and produced a brief tornado west of Galveston.
Distinct TVS, where a brief EF0 tornado occurred at this time. Path length: 2 miles.
From NWS Houston: “brief, narrow tornado destroyed three sheds and damaged three homes.”
The SPC had outlined a Moderate Risk on February 23 (the first MOD of the year) for Southeast Louisiana, Southern Mississippi, Southern Alabama and the Western Florida Panhandle. This included a 15% hatched tornado risk (which is quite high). The SPC had even considered adding a High Risk at one point, but that did not happen. There were many tornadoes within this risk area, some strong/intense, and unfortunately, two killer tornadoes. The SPC, along with local WFO’s, did an excellent job conveying the importance of the situation, and I believe saved many lives. In fact, the NWS New Orleans office lost radar from a lightning strike as a tornadic supercell was heading directly towards the office (must have been quite scary!) and seemingly produced a tornado within miles of the office. While at least 3 people lost their lives on February 23, excellent forecasts along with timely watches and warnings likely reduced the number from what could have been more.
The first tornadoes of the day took place in the New Orleans metro. As the remnants of the early morning storms in Texas moved into the western Gulf of Mexico and West Louisiana, two tornadic supercells quickly developed in the warm sector in Southeast Louisiana. As the storms moved into the western parts of the New Orleans metro, one storm moved from St. Charles Parish into Jefferson Parish around 11 am Central time. A tornado was reported in St. Charles Parish (unconfirmed at this time), and as a new circulation developed in the storm, a tornado was confirmed in the western parts of Kenner.
The supercell which has the Tornado Warning produced at least one tornado in Kenner before moving over Lake Pontchartrain.
The tornado did some minor damage before moving north into Lake Pontchartrain. As the cells moved over Lake Pontchartrain, an impressive sight unfolded before the eyes of several people. Three waterspouts were seen moving towards the north shore of the lake; it’s unknown at this point if they reached the shore.
Around 12 pm CST, a supercell moved from Iberville Parish, Louisiana through Ascension and Livingston Parishes. A confirmed EF0 tornado hit near White Castle in Iberville Parish, doing intermittent damage along a 3 mile track. The circulation reformed, and an EF0 tornado then struck Prairieville, Louisiana in Ascension Parish.
Velocity display of the supercell after an EF0 tornado struck Prairieville, Louisiana
A gym sustained serious damage from this tornado while people were still exercising inside (none were hurt). The tornado lifted soon afterwards. Just southwest of the town of Livingston in Livingston Parish, the supercell produced yet another tornado. This tornado was considerably stronger than the two preceding it, and was rated EF2, the first strong tornado of the outbreak. At its widest, the tornado was 1/3rd of a mile wide and heavily damaged many structures and trees in the town of Livingston. Fortunately, nobody was hurt by this tornado. The supercell produced yet another weak tornado near the town of Montpelier in St. Helena Parish.
Around 3 pm, another complex of storms moved into Southeast Louisiana from the Gulf. A brief tornado occurred near White Castle in Iberville Parish (the second in the same area) and produced some minor damage.
Paincourtville-Convent, Louisiana EF3
To the southwest of that storm, a supercell moved into Assumption Parish and a large tornado touched down southwest of Paincourtville. This tornado was likely heavily rain-wrapped through its existence. The already-strong tornado heavily damaged or destroyed several businesses and an apartment complex south of Paincourtville.
Debris signature evident near Paincourtville, Louisiana
The tornado continued northeastward and heavily damaged many homes. The second level of a well-built brick house was almost removed, which was awarded an EF3 rating, making this the first EF3+ tornado of the outbreak and the second of the year. The tornado damaged two homes near the Mississippi River and some intense tree damage was noted before the tornado crossed the river. The worst was still to come.
As the 300+ yard wide tornado crossed the Mississippi River, it slammed into the Sugar Hill RV Park. Numerous RVs and trailers were obliterated as the now high-end EF2 tornado tore through the area. Unfortunately, two people were killed and 75 were injured to some degree, including 7 critically. This was the second killer tornado of the year. The tornado began to weaken, still damaging trees and a home before lifting near Interstate 10.
Storms then intensified in far Southern Mississippi, and two EF-1 tornadoes touched down in Pearl River County. The tornadoes damaged trees and a few structures, with nobody injured. More weak tornadoes were confirmed in Washington Parish, Louisiana/Marion County, Mississippi, and Lamar County, Mississippi, mainly from a line segment with QLCS circulations. However, the rotating comma head of the line segment produced a strong EF2 tornado in Lamar County, Mississippi near Purvis. This tornado destroyed a mobile home, killing one person and damaging other structures and trees on a 5.6 mile track.
The same supercell that produced the Paincourtville tornado continued northeastward and likely produced a waterspout over Lake Pontchartrain. This waterspout came ashore near Akers in St. John the Baptist Parish and crossed Interstate 55. Some minor tree damage was noted, and the tornado was rated EF0. As this supercell moved over Lake Pontchartrain, another supercell developed on its southwest flank and moved northeastward through St. John the Baptist Parish. A tornado touched down west of the town of Laplace and produced substantial damage along its path. Trees were snapped and homes received minor damage before the tornado strengthened as it struck the Riverland Heights subdivision. Many homes had their roofs damaged and some roofs were removed. A narrow stretch of EF2 damaged was noted as the tornado moved through the Cambridge area. Many residences were heavily damaged. The tornado continued to strengthen as it moved through subdivisions in Laplace. After producing heavy damage in Laplace, the tornado crossed both Interstate 10 and Interstate 55 and dissipated. Overall, the tornado injured 17 people, but luckily no-one was killed.
Further east, a small thunderstorm tracked northward through West-central Alabama. It produced a brief tornado near Reform in Pickens County around 4:30 pm, and another brief tornado near Hackleburg in Marion County around 6 pm. These tornadoes did minimal damage to some structures, but mostly damaged trees.
The original Paincourtville supercell produced yet another waterspout that came ashore in Madisonville in St. Tammany Parish. This tornado was very weak and produced minimal damage along a .5 mile track, garnering a rating of EF0. Another supercell developed on the flanks of the Laplace supercell and produced an EF0 tornado in Lacombe in St. Tammany Parish. The tornado damaged a plant nursery, several mobile homes, and trees before producing minor damage to homes and dissipating.
A line segment in Central Mississippi produced a brief tornado in Yazoo County. As the system of storms consisting mainly of QLCS-type line segments pushed through Southern Mississippi, many brief/weak tornadoes were recorded, mostly in Greene and Wayne Counties.
Pensacola, Florida EF3
A large and impressive supercell storm was detected by radar over the Gulf of Mexico south of Mobile Bay before 6:30 pm. This supercell was moving northeastward towards Gulf Shores, Alabama and Pensacola, Florida.
Supercell thunderstorm offshore of Gulf Shores, Alabama. It is likely producing a large waterspout at this time.
The storm exhibited very impressive rotation, and was likely a cyclical supercell producing large waterspouts. In fact, there was a debris signature shown on this storm, despite the fact that it was over water. The situation became very worrisome as a likely waterspout was approaching Orange Beach, Alabama. Thankfully, it weakened considerably just miles offshore. However, the storm wasn’t done.
As the storm moved onshore, it moved northeastward into Escambia County, Florida. The rotation restrengthened as the supercell was over a large, populated area, and dropped a strong tornado near the Pensacola International Airport on the northeast side of Pensacola. The tornado ripped roofs off of houses, snapped power poles and extensively damaged trees while moving northeast. The tornado crossed I-10, and damaged many trees in the area. EF2 damage was noted as two houses had their roofs removed. At the Mooring Apartments, major damage occurred as the second floors of two buildings were gutted. The General Electric plant had a warehouse destroyed, and two units of the Grand Baroques Townhouses were destroyed. Likely near peak intensity, the EF3 tornado moved across Escambia Bay, and reached the other shore in Santa Rosa County. Some debris from the GE plant was found on the western shore of Escambia Bay. The tornado weakened considerably in Santa Rosa County, producing some EF1 damage before dissipating.
While an intense tornado had moved through a heavily populated area, only three people were injured, and miraculously, nobody was killed. Had the tornado touched down earlier and cut through more of Pensacola, this would likely not be the case.
Overnight, more tornadoes were recorded in Southeast Alabama and Southwest Georgia. These were mostly weak and brief, but there was some damage on the northwest side of Dothan, Alabama.
As the system ejected north and east, the deep surface low moved from Northern Mississippi towards Cincinnati, Ohio. A warm front pushed the cold air damming that was present in the Carolinas and Mid-Atlantic, creating an impressive thermal boundary that was to serve a nefarious purpose later (locations not far from each other had 20+ degree temperature and dewpoint changes). The SPC issued a Moderate Risk again, this time for Central Virginia into Central and Eastern North Carolina, with a Slight Risk in Central Florida as well. The cold front extended from the Appalachians to off the west coast of Florida, sparking intense thunderstorm activity in the Gulf of Mexico. These storms moved eastward into the Florida Peninsula near Tampa Bay, spawning a few tornadoes. Near Duette, Florida, in Manatee County (where an EF2 tornado killed two people on January 17) an EF1 tornado snapped trees along an 8 mile path. A brief tornado touched down in western Virginia and damaged homes, snapped trees, and blew a mobile home off its foundation. Another brief tornado touched down in Wayne County, North Carolina and damaged trees, mobile homes, and a turkey barn.
This tornadic thunderstorm produced two brief tornadoes in the Port Charlotte, Florida vicinity.
A thunderstorm complex moved into Charlotte County, Florida and produced two brief tornadoes. The second of the two, an EF1, damaged over 30 homes, a few of which received major damage.
In Southeast Virginia, what would be the deadliest tornado of the outbreak touched down just west of the town of Waverly in Sussex County at 2:35 pm. As the tornado struck the town, two mobile homes were destroyed, killing three people in one of them. Many homes and businesses also received damage along a 9 mile path. The tornado was rated EF1, showing that it doesn’t take a very strong tornado to be deadly. This tornado was also the first deadly tornado in Virginia in February, but unfortunately, not the last.
Near the town of Colerain, North Carolina (which was hit very hard on April 16, 2011, when an EF3 tornado killed 12 in the town) a brief EF0 tornado touched down. In far Northern South Carolina, another EF0 damaged trees in Chesterfield County. Further north, things were only getting worse.
Evergreen, Virginia EF3
Just before 3:30 pm, a supercell thunderstorm produced a tornado in Campbell County, Virginia. At first, the tornado was weak, damaging trees and outbuildings before strengthening to an EF2 near Chap. The tornado damaged structures and outbuildings as it moved northeastward through Appomattox County. A poorly built home was destroyed before the tornado struck Evergreen at EF3 strength. A small home was leveled, and some outbuildings and mobile homes were obliterated. The tornado tore a roof off a home near Holiday Lake State Park before it lifted. Overall, one person was killed and 7 injured along a 17 mile path. This tornado was the first EF3+ tornado to occur in Virginia in the month of February, but again, it wouldn’t be the last.
As storms moved into the Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina metro, a brief tornado touched down in northwest Durham in a wooded area, where extensive tree damage occurred. Further north, an EF0 tornado damaged trees and homes in Fluvanna County, Virginia. Around 4:30 pm, a strong tornado touched down northeast of Oxford, North Carolina, in Granville County. The EF2 tornado damaged many trees and destroyed outbuildings on a 5 mile path from Granville County into Vance County. The same supercell produced another tornado in Mecklenburg County, Virginia. Many trees were downed and some homes received minor damage from this EF1 tornado.
Tappahannock, Virginia EF3
As most of the activity was seemingly winding down around 6:30 pm, a strong, long-tracked tornado touched down in King and Queen County, in eastern Virginia. Initially at high-end EF1 strength, the tornado strengthened into a large EF3 tornado near Dunbrooke, where three unanchored homes and two mobile homes were swept away. West of Tappahannock, the tornado weakened slightly to EF2 strength, but many homes were heavily damaged and outbuildings were destroyed. The tornado then crossed the Rappahannock River and moved into Naylors Beach. Some small homes were destroyed, and a large home lost most of its second floor. Through the rest of the path, EF1 damage to homes, trees and outbuildings was observed before the tornado dissipated. Overall, 25 people were injured along a 30 mile path. The two EF3 tornadoes were the first EF3+ tornadoes in Virginia in February, and the first EF3+ tornadoes in Virginia since the Glade Spring, Virginia EF3 on April 27,2011.
Even further north, a powerful MCS was moving through eastern Pennsylvania and Maryland at more than 70 mph. The MCS spawned two tornadoes; the first an EF2 in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. This tornado heavily damaged nearly 50 buildings, including a large Amish schoolhouse which was destroyed, and a building with 100 people in it attending an auction which had its roof torn off. In addition, a van with many passengers was blown into a field, but luckily no-one was hurt. This was only the second tornado recorded in Pennsylvania in the month of February. Another tornado touched down in Bradford County, Pennsylvania which damaged a few homes and many trees. Two more brief tornadoes were confirmed in Virginia before the storm system moved northeast. It is also interesting to note some of the storm motions; towards the end of the event, as storms moved through the Northeast, some warnings indicated the storms were moving in excess of 100 mph.
Looking back at the first major outbreak of the year yields some interesting notes. This outbreak pushes the U.S. far above average for the year. In fact, it has been one of the most active January-February periods of recent memory. There are signs that March could continue this trend. The four EF3 tornadoes recorded during the two day period are also interesting. Last year did not have four EF3+ tornadoes until May 6, 2015. 2015 also did not have 9 tornado-related fatalities until May 25. While the first day of the outbreak was not unusual for February, the second day of the outbreak was quite unusual for February, as multiple tornadoes, including some strong, touched down across Virginia, North Carolina and Pennsylvania. All in all, 2016 is off to a fast start, and it could stay that way for March.