Tornado or Not?

Downburst Wind Likely Culprit for Storm Damage

A fascinating wind storm swooped into the Huntington-Proctorville area late Tuesday afternoon to cap off still another 90 degree Dog Day of summer. Tate Tooley of Rome Township called and asked “was it a tornado”? Added Tate, “there are so many trees down and at the Fairgrounds, a travel camper was shoved over onto a car”. Tate went on to describe the damage at the Fairland Middle School where the roof was partially “peeled off”.

Once the action quieted down, here at 8:30 this evening, I took a ride down to the East End of Huntington and surveyed the damage first hand. The power poles that were bent in half told of a vicious wind storm near the Steiner and BASF plants on 24th street. But the damaged poles were very orderly in their dangling. No sign of a twisting and turning motion was evident. This led me to believe that a straight-line (downburst) not a circular (tornado) wind had left its signature. I will describe a downburst wind in a bit.

To add additional credence to the downburst wind theory, a close inspection of the afternoon Doppler radar scope showed the classic signature of a sudden linear wind. The heavier rain fell in a narrow corridor from the Symmes Creek in Chesapeake thru Johnson World in Proctorville and onto the Fairgrounds. Across the river, Collis P's hometown also had a gusty downpour.

As meteorologists we are trained to look in this heavier rain zone for possible high winds too. That’s because the heavier rain falls in the middle of the strongest updraft that supports the thunderstorm. And it’s that strong updraft that can lead to a sudden equally potent downdraft of wind.

Indeed, just as the storm made it to the East End section of Huntington and the area across the 31st bridge into Rome township, the Doppler radar returns turned purple indicating an even stronger updraft and hence the strongest winds. My first scary thought was what if the storm had hit just 1 block over at Joan Edwards Stadium and what if the stadium had been filled with people?

Now let’s get down to the meteorology. Why not a tornado? First I offer some perspective. In our television happy, storm sensational times, it is “sexy” to call summer wind storms by the name “tornadoes”. In effect, we have been inundated with pictures of storms hop scotching across the Great Plains. The damage these twisters cause and the loss of life they produce can be catastrophic. Since the funnel clouds that these storms spin up gather dusk and debris and twirl them into dark columns of rotating air, the twister has become a sinister sign of a foreboding storm.

But the key is the winds in a tornado are spinning, turning, circular in nature. The path of debris left behind from a twister is disorderly with signs of twisting everywhere. In this case, as in the case of more than 90% of the summer wind storms in our country, the power poles all fell in the same direction. That’s a smoking gun for a straight line wind.

How fast were those winds? And why did they occur on an otherwise light to moderate wind day? Well to bend a power pole into two, winds would have to exceed 50 miles per hour. Now coincidentally, the winds at 40,000 feet overhead were blowing at 50 miles per hour Tuesday afternoon. When a thunderstorm moved into Huntington, it produced a nice suction effect that slurped those 50 mile per hour winds down to the ground. As those strong high altitude winds hit the ground, they spread out in a fan-like fashion and likely increased their speed to 60-70 mph. Strong enough to produce the damage that Dave Benton likened to the “LEANING TOWER OF POWER”.

One final observation, when the air is as hot and humid as it was on Tuesday, it is light as a feather. So light that it can be contorted into a twister or sucked into a downburst in a heartbeat. In that regard, winds storms whether tornadic or linear (straight-line, downbursts) are very hard to predict since they can happen in the blink of an eye!

I will travel to Proctorville on Wednesday for a first hand look at the damage. It is not out of the question that a twister occured there while a downburst hit Huntington. I will let you know what I find right here at WSAZ.COM.

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