New Friends in Storm Ravaged Athens
It’s funny how a “near-disaster” can court new friendships. This past Friday, several members of the WSAZ “family” traveled to Athens-Meigs Counties Ohio and Wood-Wirt Counties WV to report on the “family” of tornadoes that struck suddenly the night before.
The stories told and friendships forged highlight part of this tornado tale, the fiercest in my 23 years at WSAZ.
First, let’s piece together the meteorology of this event.
As we tracked the storm center out of central Ohio on 3D Doppler radar, a long-lived mesocyclone (meso=small scale, cyclone=storm) moved doggedly southeastward for a 6 hour period. Think of a mesocyclone as a wall of towering cumulo-nimbus clouds that surround a vortex of wind. The clouds often appear to be like bleachers around a staduim as they circle the storm’s interior.
I am enclosing one of those cloud shots that forewarned danger from the digital camera of Darlene Wilbur taken in nearby Vinton County!
Mesos, as they are nicknamed, have the capability to spawn tornadoes with a moment’s notice. Since this meso lived for 6 hours, it’s no wonder that it spawned a dozen or more twisters along its path.
The last time I had viewed a storm like that on our radar was June 1998 when a similar storm traveled from Rio Grande and Gallipolis Ohio along State Route 35 through Mason, Putnam, Kanawha, Fayette and Raleigh Counties in WV and survived all the way into the state of Virginia.
Along the way, both mesos dropped tornadoes. The ’98 storm producing touchdowns in Gallipolis and Apple Grove, Buffalo, St. Albans, Kanawha City and Cabin Creek in WV.
Thursday evening’s meso proved more formidable than the 1998 storm as it spun up larger, stronger twisters that hop scotched across a 10 county, 2 state area. Touchdowns in Nelsonville and Reedsville Ohio mustered winds in the 110 to 135 miles per hour range.
The extensive damage caused by these storms included destroyed homes, chunks of wood flying thru the air like projectiles that stuck to fences and buildings and cars lifted up and dropped on piles of debris.
As journalists, it was our job to gather information and present it on the air. A few hours after the storms struck, Stephanie Schelkun and Ryan Bloomfield made it to Athens in time for our Thursday night 11 pm show. Stephanie interviewed the sheriff who made it clear this was no ordinary wind storm. It was then that we realized that York Township near Nelsonville had been ravaged.
I joined Steph and Ryan for the Friday morning show at Athens High and quickly used the tornado damage scale first pioneered by Dr. Ted Fujita of University of Chicago to inform viewers that winds in The Plains ranged in the 110 mile per hour range (based on the enhanced Fujita scale focused on mobile homes overturned). A link to the Fujita Scale is enclosed.
Carrie Cline, Jim Backus and Charly Arnolt followed on Friday to tell the personal stories of the AHS girls soccer team that was on the field just minutes before the whirlwind swept through and the Kinghorn family that served soda and hot dogs from the concession stand that would soon collapse under the assault of the spiraling winds. Nancy Kinghorn described to us how “she laid on her son, literally, to protect him.” Nancy’s hubby Paul suffered a sprained ankle while another concessionaire was hit by a flying TV and incurred a non-severe head wound.
At first light on Friday, I traveled into Athens city in search of breakfast since power in The Plains was completely out.
At Mickey D’s the lines were long so one by one folks came up to share their story. Nancy Kern told me how a 150 year old solid outhouse had been “pulverized” and Linda Lucas related how the “bizarre skies” forewarned of something out of the Wizard of Oz.
As I drove back to The Plains, I noticed how a piece of aluminum siding had blown along westbound state Route 33 near Athens city. With no other debris in sight and the trees along this scenic highway showing no sign of a storm, it was clear that this piece of siding had come from some distant place.
Later the Athens Bulldog boosters would tell me how laminated plastic signs from the soccer field had been found a mile away. This was a clear indication that the tornadic winds had indeed blown objects for hundreds if not thousands of yards, even miles.
Then I was floored when the sheriff told me with a straight face that a woman near Nelsonville named Dotty Channel had watched as 20 head of her cattle had been picked up and carried away. So Helen Hunt (Dr. Jo Harding in Twister the movie), flying cows are not a figment of Hollywood’s imagination!
Indeed from Nelsonville and The Plains in Athens to Reedsville in Meigs to Belleville across the mighty Ohio in Wood County WV and Palestine in Wirt WV, the storyline was the same; namely, homes fractured if not destroyed and lives turned upside down. Only the names were different.
I spent 12 daylight hours on Friday at Athens County High inspecting the damage where the sudden wind storm had toppled mobile homes, bent solid steel football goal posts into pretzels and felled large 4 ton capacity AC units from atop the school’s roof.
Officially, the downburst winds were designated in the 100+ mile per hour range by NWS personnel. From the numerous eye-witnesses reports I heard of, it is safe to say a Force 1 to 2 twister hopscotched through The Plains as part of the parent mesocyclone that mustered a Force 2 tornado (111-135 mile per hour winds) just a few miles away in Nelsonville and a Force 3 twister in Reedsville, Meigs County.
For my colleagues at the National Weather Service, I applaud your proactive work in issuing warnings of the impending tornadoes. For Chris Bailey who was on the air dishing out the warnings and life saving information on WSAZ-TV, I applaud your severe weather savvy and calm under fire. For the few callers who phoned WSAZ to complain about our cut-ins during The Apprentice, let’s just say in Trump’s boardroom you would BE FIRED!
Special thanks go out to my media liaison, John Goodwin at AHS. John is Dean of Academics, but last Friday served as my go to guy for interviews, eye-witness accounts and information on The Plains. Without John and others, we could not have done our job!