In 2021 there were 35 tornadoes, almost two dozen instances of hurricane force winds produced by thunderstorms, and devastating flash flooding in southeast sections of the state in early June. With all of our attention focused on wintry precipitation recently (February), it’s time to start looking ahead to severe weather season which traditionally starts in March.
The National Weather Service (NWS), in cooperation with the Arkansas Division of Emergency Management, has designated the week of February 27 through March 5 as Severe Weather Awareness Week. This is a safety campaign designed to help Arkansans prepare for the spring storm season.
Arkansas’ 2022 Severe Weather Awareness Week safety topics:
Flash flooding is usually caused by very slow-moving thunderstorms, or thunderstorms that repeatedly move over the same areas.
Urban settings are especially prone to flash floods due to large amounts of concrete and asphalt surfaces that do not allow water to penetrate into the soil. Places surrounded by steep, hilly terrain are also susceptible to flash floods due to rapid runoff (water moving downhill at elevated speeds) into streams and creeks.
In the last 30 years, flash flooding was the deadliest thunderstorm hazard, and caused more fatalities than tornadoes and lightning. There are an average of 80 to 90 fatalities annually due to flash floods across the country. Roughly half of flash flood deaths occur when people try to drive through flooded areas. Moving water two feet deep is sufficient to carry away most vehicles, even pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles.
The most deadly flash flood event in recorded state history happened in 2010. The Little Missouri River (a flashy tributary) rose more than 20 feet during the predawn hours of June 11th. This was after more than half a foot of rain. Campers at the Albert Pike Recreation Area (Montgomery County) were awakened to raging water, and 20 people drowned.
River flooding is a longer term event than flash flooding, and can last for several days or even weeks. Water from flash flooding eventually makes its way into rivers, with excess liquid flowing into nearby towns, fields, etc. Rivers are most likely to overflow when the soil is saturated, and runoff rates are high, and/or water levels are elevated prior to a heavy rain event. When rivers spill over, it can be devastating. Water can overtake homes, businesses, and thousands of acres of cropland.
The historic Arkansas River flood in late May and early June of 2019 happened after 15 to 20 inches of rain dumped in parts of Oklahoma and Kansas. Lake levels became dangerously high, and releases were necessary. Torrents of water flowed downstream into Arkansas, and the river was at record or near record high levels at most forecast points. Levees were breached, and creeks backed up, with properties and land flooded and highways closed.
Flood Safety Rules
You should know which places in your area are prone to flooding, and avoid these places in times of rising water.
Do not attempt to cross flowing streams while driving or on foot. If flood waters are between you and your destination, the National Weather Service wants you to remember a simple slogan: Turn Around – Dont Drown.
Outdoor activities are very popular in Arkansas. If you enjoy camping or similar recreation, be especially careful if you spend the night near streams. A thunderstorm miles upstream from your location could produce enough rain to cause flooding, even if it is not raining much where you are.
Never allow children to play around high water, storm drains, and culverts.
Lightning is a hazard in all thunderstorms, whether they are severe or not.
In the last 30 years, lightning was the third deadliest thunderstorm hazard behind flash floods and tornadoes. There are an average of 40 to 50 fatalities a year due to lightning across the country. Most lightning deaths occur in the summer (June, July and August) when people are outdoors. Eight out of ten victims of lightning are male. If a person is struck by lightning, that persons body will not retain any electrical charge. Thus, the injured person can and should be cared for immediately.
Lightning can strike as much as 10 miles away from a thunderstorm cloud. Given this, it is no surprise that most lightning deaths occur as a thunderstorm is approaching or moving away, and not necessarily overhead. Lightning tends to strike tall objects, but not always. The air is a poor conductor of electricity, so lightning will often go the shortest distance to make a connection from cloud to ground.
Statistics show that Arkansas is a top 10 state as far as lightning activity in the last ten years. The state experiences more than 800,000 cloud-to-ground lightning flashes per year.
Lightning Safety Rules
Remember, it is lightning that causes thunder. If you can hear thunder, you are in danger from lightning. When thunder roars, go indoors.
The safest place is a fully-enclosed building that is grounded. A hard-top car is also a safe location. Keep the windows rolled up and do not touch metal inside the vehicle.
Do not take shelter in small sheds, pavilions, or tents, or under trees.
Stay away from higher elevations spots such as hilltops, and avoid nearby poles and towers.
Move away from chain-link fences and other metal fences such as those around ballparks and playgrounds.
Motorcycles, scooters, bicycles, and farm tractors are not safe places.
If you are in the water, get out immediately. If you are in a boat, head toward safe harbor.
Organizers of events/activities are advised to designate a weather watcher. Assign an official who will stop the events/activities when lightning becomes imminent. Have specific evacuation instructions in place so people know where to go.
Telephone lines and metal pipes can conduct electricity, so do not use electrical appliances or corded phones. Computers and other expensive electronic equipment may be damaged by power surges. You may consider unplugging these items.
Stay out of the bathtub or shower.
Get off the golf course.
Today’s severe weather awareness week topic is tornadoes.
In 2021, 35 tornadoes were counted in Arkansas. In an average year, 37 tornadoes are expected in the state.
The peak seasons for tornadoes are spring and fall. This is when warm and cold air masses collide most often.
In 2021, the busiest month was December with 12 tornadoes identified in northeast Arkansas. The strongest tornado of 2021 (rated EF4 and maximum winds around 170 mph) tracked over 26 miles through Monette (Craighead County) and Leachville (Mississippi County) on December 10. The tornado went another 54 miles or so through southeast Missouri and northwest Tennessee.
The tornado was responsible for two fatalities in Arkansas. Monster tornadoes like this are rare. From 2000 through 2021, only three other tornadoes were rated as high as the one on December 10. During this twenty two year time frame, 852 tornadoes were spawned locally, and 83 percent of them (706 tornadoes) were weak (rated EF0 or EF1). These weak twisters accounted for only 3 fatalities.
Outdoor Tornado Sirens
Many towns and counties in Arkansas have acquired outdoor warning sirens to alert the public when tornadoes threaten. When these sirens are kept in proper working order, they do their job as expected and help warn the public. While Tornado Warnings often cause the sirens to blow, the National Weather Service does not have any control over the sirens. The decision to blow the sirens is made by designated city or county officials.
What You Can Do to Protect Yourself – Tornado Safety Rules
One of the newer safety rules is to avoid taking shelter under a highway overpass. Rotating winds surrounding a tornado can hit you with a lot of debris, and blow you out from beneath the bridge.
Be sure you know the difference between a watch and a warning. The National Weather Service issues a Tornado Watch when tornadoes are possible.
A Tornado Warning is issued when a tornado has been indicated on Doppler Weather Radar or has been sighted. Counties and cities are mentioned in Tornado Warnings. If you are new to the area, keep a map handy for reference. Make sure that you have a reliable way to receive weather information.
Battery-powered NOAA Weather Radios are an excellent way to keep up with the weather, even if your power has gone out.
If you are going to be at a large gathering, such as at a school, stadium or place of worship, make sure that someone is keeping an eye on the weather.
A tornado shelter, tornado cellar, or a safe room is the safest place to be, but these are not found in most homes. The next safest place is usually a basement, but these are not common in Arkansas. If you do not have any of these, go to an interior room on the lowest floor of a house or building. Put as many walls between you and the outdoors as possible. Many businesses, such as large stores, shopping malls, hospitals, nursing homes, and schools have pre-arranged safety plans and designated safe areas. If you are in one of these places, follow the instructions given inside these buildings.
If you are in a vehicle, your best option is to move to a sturdy building.
Mobile homes, even if tied down, offer little protection during a tornado, and should be abandoned.
Keep in mind that the elderly, the very young, and people with physical or mental challenges will often need more time to get to safety. Make special provisions if you are a care-giver for these people.
At any given moment around the world, approximately 1800 thunderstorms are occurring. Although thunderstorms are relatively small, when considered on a global scale of weather, all thunderstorms are dangerous. Lightning, flash floods, hail, straight-line winds, and tornadoes all result from thunderstorms.
A thunderstorm is considered severe when it produces winds of at least 58 mph, hail at least 1 inch in diameter (the size of a quarter), and/or a tornado.
Hail forms in storm clouds where the air is subfreezing. Updrafts which feed storm clouds drive raindrops skyward, and liquid turns to ice. Quite often, hailstones will fall through the cloud, collect water, and updrafts will force them aloft. The stones refreeze and get larger.
The largest hail in 2021 happened in central and southern Arkansas on March 27. Baseball size and slightly larger stones were reported at Gurdon (Clark County), South Bend (Lonoke County), and Whelen Springs (Clark County).
Large hail, on average, causes over one billion dollars in damage (property and crops) in the United States each year. While large hail causes some injuries, deaths from hail are relatively rare. Animals fare far worse than humans.
When updrafts are overcome by rain and hail in storms, air from aloft can descend in a hurry. When these downdrafts hit the ground and spread out in all directions, damaging straight-line wind gusts sometimes result.
Some of the strongest gusts in 2021 occurred across northern sections of the state on May 4. Gusts from 85 mph to more than 90 mph were noted at Hoxie (Lawrence County), Manson (Randolph County), and near Paragould (Greene County).
Occasionally, thunderstorms spawn tornadoes. Most of these are produced in the spring and fall during the afternoon and evening.
There are 37 tornadoes in a typical year. There were 35 tornadoes locally in 2021, and these resulted in two fatalities.
Two other hazards associated with thunderstorms are lightning and flash floods. However, these are not considered severe.
Whenever thunder is heard, there is lightning nearby. Lightning is deadly, especially in the summer when people are outdoors.
Flash floods are another thunderstorm hazard. Vehicles driven into flooded areas result in the greatest number of flash flood deaths.
Across the country, the top three deadliest thunderstorm hazards in the last 30 years years were flash floods, tornadoes, and lightning (in that order).
Severe Weather Safety Rules
Know the difference between a watch and a warning. The National Weather Service issues watches when conditions are favorable for the development of severe weather. Warnings are reserved for cases where severe weather is imminent or occurring.
If a Severe Thunderstorm Warning or Tornado Warning is issued for your area, do not hesitate to find a place of safety. If a safe room is not available, the next best location is the lowest floor of a permanent structure in an interior room away from windows. Put as many walls between you and the outdoors as you can.
Make sure that you have a source to receive the latest information, such as NOAA Weather Radio All Hazards, commercial radio, TV stations or cable TV. Other sources of warning information can include telephone notification services to which people subscribe, pagers and cell phones.
Watches & Warnings
Surrounding an event featuring severe thunderstorms, watches and warnings are issued to help you prepare for the elements.
Severe thunderstorms produce damaging straight-line wind gusts of 58 mph or greater, quarter size hail or larger, and/or tornadoes.
When conditions are favorable for severe storms, a watch is issued by the Storm Prediction Center (SPC) in Norman, Oklahoma. SPC is a part of the National Weather Service. Watches often encompass a large area, sometimes several states, and are valid for roughly six hours.
When storms develop and are classified as severe, warnings are issued by your local National Weather Service office. Warnings are posted for one or more counties and are valid for an hour or less.
There is something to mention, and it is a relatively new practice (beginning in 2021). As expected wind gusts and hail sizes increase, we want to get your attention. There will be little commotion surrounding a standard Severe Thunderstorm Warning (60 mph winds/one inch hail). However, if 70 to 80 mph gusts or golf ball to tennis ball size hail are in the warning, it will be tagged as a “considerable” damage threat. For gusts above 80 mph or baseball size hail or larger, the damage tag will be labeled as “destructive”. This tag will result in the activation of a Wireless Emergency Alert (WEA) through the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System (IPAWS), and this will go to cell phones within the warning polygon.
With a watch in place, severe storms might happen. When warnings are in place, severe storms are happening.
Watch and Warning Rules to Follow:
You should be ready to go to a safe place when a watch is in effect. Monitor conditions for several hours or until the watch expires or is cancelled.
You should go to your safe place when a warning is in effect. Stay put until storms pass and/or the warning expires or is cancelled.
The safest place to be is a safe room or a basement. If these are not available, go to an interior room on the lowest floor of a house or building. Put as many walls between you and the outdoors as possible.
While many people are aware that severe weather warnings are issued by the National Weather Service, they may not know there is an effort to collect storm reports during and after a weather event. Reports are used to verify warnings. It is a necessary step to find out if the warnings were justified.
Reports in real-time can help radar operators determine what storms are producing. Reports following an event are used to better understand severe storms and improve the warning process. Reports also inform people of what happened in areas affected by severe thunderstorms, flash flooding, and the like.
The reports are collected from various sources (by phone or on the internet) including trained storm spotters, emergency management, the media, law enforcement, and the general public.
Reports are entered into a computer each month, and then sent to a national database and archived. The reports are made available online by the National Centers for Environmental Information (NCEI), and also in a publication called “Storm Data and Unusual Weather Phenomena.”
You can access storm reports HERE for Arkansas from 1950 to the present. From there, go to “Select State or Area” and choose “Arkansas”.