On This Date in History: What is the dang deal with Palm Sunday and Tornado outbreaks? There have been significant widespread tornado outbreaks on a Palm Sunday in the United States four times. On March 27 1994 42 people perished. On April 11, 1965 47 tornadoes took the lives of 217 and injured over 1500. The event of April 5,1936 has a rather interesting trivial angle. It featured a very strong tornado in Tupelo, Mississippi. A young mother was able to protect her one year old son, but 216 people died that day in Tupelo. The little boy who survived? Elvis Aaron Presley.
Now, when you look at a hurricane chart of significant hurricanes, you find the names of storms, but one kinda stands out. That one simply says “Galveston 1900.” That’s all you need to know. But, you can’t just say “hey…what about the Palm Sunday tornado outbreak?” The only possible answer is, “which one?” The first and the fourth in the list was on this date in 192o. At that time, there was no National Weather Service. It was still known as the US Weather Bureau. And at that time they did not do surveys or assessments to determine the stregnth and number of tornadoes. So, the 38 tornadoes reported is generally thought to be far fewer than there actually were. The twisters were reported in the Midwest and the Deep South. Much of this area, especially 90 years ago, was very rural so no one can know for certain if there were tornadoes in sparsely populated areas. Further, it is not known if a given single tornado was actually more than one. But, that’s a rather academic argument because the bottom line is that over 380 people were killed that day and well over 1200 injured. The states affected were Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio and Wisconsin.
This situation is something that is fairly common in the spring months in the US and that is why there have been so many significant events on Palm Sunday. Palm Sunday moves around each year but always falls in either March or April. During that time, its not unusual for a strong storm to come out of the Rockies and clash with warm moist air coming up from the Gulf of Mexico. So, this guy comes out of the Rockies, swings around through Missouri and lifts up toward the Great Lakes. Not only was there warm moist air ahead of the system, but there was also sunshine in the northern plains. Most likely, there was a second piece of energy that swung through, perhaps on a warm front in the South and that is what resulted in the twisters there.
Now, there have been many advances in technology and procedures since then. Really, the first time before the 1950’s that a formal post analysis was taken was after the March 18, 1925 Tri-State Tornado. That evaluation concluded that it was a single tornado that stayed on the ground supposedly for 234 miles through Missouri, Illinois and Indiana and killed 695 people. Another analysis was done for the Tupelo Palm Sunday tornado and again in 1947 for a major tornado in Oklahoma. Now, the practice is routine to investigate every tornado report to determine whether or not the damage assessment is supportive of an evidentuary tornado and, if so, then how strong and how big was the tornado. We now have warnings and watches and super duper doppler future 3000 advanced 3-D storm tracker radars on TV to show us where tornadoes are. We can actually see where tornadoes are on TV and even warn for potential tornadoes developing before anyone on the ground can see them. Quite remarkable when one considers that just 70 years ago having several hundred people die from a tornado was not all that uncommon.
With all of that advancement, the number and frequency of fatalities due to tornadoes has dropped dramatically. The number of reported tornadoes has also increased. The reason is not Global Warming but instead we have a coverage of radars across the tornado prone regions of the US and also there are more people to report them and there are procedures in place to do post analysis. Nowadays, we even see more and more tornadoes on the tube because there are so many people out there with video cameras to record the actual events. More troubling, however, is the trend in the last several years of tornado fatalities rising. There is some thought that this is due to too much technology and too much reporting. The National Weather Service is trying to improve on the ratio of tornado warnings to actual tornado touchdowns, but its tough. I mean, the idea of the Doppler Radar is to be able to warn the public of a tornado before it ever is seen…to give people as much time as possible to prepare. Trouble is, not all rotation in a thunderstorm turns into a tornado touchdown and there is no way to reliably differentiate which ones. But, if you don’t warn for a rotating storm and it touches down and kills people, then people will be outraged that they knew a storm was rotating and had a tornadic potential and said nothing!
The TV stations go on the air and report constantly on the severe weather threat. Some are better at it than others. Some of the people on the air really aren’t qualified to be in such a position of responsibility. Fortunately, in Louisville, we have a pretty good crop of folks. In fact, even with some of the recent changes in personnel, we still have an unusual number of well versed people at each station. But, not everywhere is like that. I once worked at a place where we stayed on the air all night when the threat for tornadoes was very limited, at best. The stunt was strictly promotional. There are many tv foofs who want to get into a duel with their local National Weather Service office. In more cases than not, the person that tries to promote his or her ability to be greater than the offiicial entity of the United States Government that is responsible for collecting and disseminating information and passing it on to the public is typically someone with a shaky or limited background. Anyway, the fear is that all of this stuff going out into the public creates a ho-hum attitude from many people. It’s almost a cry wolf syndrome and people are beginning to not take warnings seriously. That is a big problem but is also a tough one to overcome. I’m afraid its something we will have to cope with for some time to come because I am skeptical that research can improve regarding the exact development of potential tornadic thunderstorms…and I doubt if there will be a trend to hire smarter tv weather people.
But, there has been one welcome change since 1920 and its one that would have most of us scratching our heads today. The reason why there is not an exact number of fatalities and injuries from the Palm Sunday outbreak of 1920 is that many of the dead and injured, particulary in Alabama and Georgia, were African-Americans. If you can believe it…more than 50 years after the passing of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution that followed a bloody Civil War….deaths and injuries for non-whites were not included in natural disasters as part of individual state protocal. Unbelievable. When the Federal Government got more involved in 1950’s, the National Weather Bureau did not subscribe to that nonsense. Something to consider…in 2009 Barack Obama was elected President of the United States but in 1949, he would not have been counted as a person killed had he died in a tornado at that time.
Weather Bottom Line
: It’s not Palm Sunday, but its that time of year. There is a system that is typical for creating havoc across the Midwest and South. Not too dissimilar from the Palm Sunday tornado in 1920, we have had a series of areas of low pressure swinging out of the Rockies and across the South. These can arguably be attributed to pieces of energy breaking off a powerful storm coming out of the Northwest. Those disturbances have produced 6 tornado reports on Thursday and 19 on Friday. Now, the big bopper is coming out to play. On Friday, the Texas Panhandle had temperatures in the 20’s with blizzard conditions as the big storm dove out of the Rockies. Meanwhile, in South Texas temperatures were around the 100 degree mark. Yup…I’d say there is quite a contrast in weather criteria across the country and, just like life, when there is great contrast, often there is conflict.
So, this big guy will swing down across North Texas and then up to the Northeast.
On Saturday, we’ll have a chance for showers. Highs will only be in the low 60’s, perhaps. It’s in the evening when we get into some potential trouble. The main surface storm center will come pretty close to running right over the top of us. We will be very windy. There will be a pretty good chance for some damaging winds. With the cold core coming over us, hail is certainly not out of the question. And, there will be the potential for isolated tornadoes. However, from what I have seen in viewing the forecast vertical profiles and the accompanying indecies, it would seem to me that the severe thunderstorm threat will be pretty high but the tornado threat will be a bit inhibited. Twisters are not out of the question but should be most likely in the Southeastern US. Our dynamics from the 00Z Sat NAM and 18Z Fri GFS both are advertised to be best Saturday afternoon, but that is generally prior to when the heaviest rain will be coming through. Its the transistion time from around sunset through about 10 pm that is most suspect. Sunday looks crummy with windy conditions and then we start to ramp up the temperatures early next week. Thursday, the GFS still wants to bring some racket here on Thursday.
DAY 1 CONVECTIVE OUTLOOK
NWS STORM PREDICTION CENTER NORMAN OK
1238 AM CDT SAT MAR 28 2009
VALID 281200Z – 291200Z
…THERE IS A SLGT RISK OF SVR TSTMS ACROSS A LARGE PORTION OF THE
OH/TN VLYS INTO THE SERN STATES…
STACKED UPR LOW OVER OK/N TX AT THE START OF THE PERIOD WILL SLOWLY
TRANSLATE EWD INTO THE LWR OH/TN VLYS AND DEEP SOUTH THROUGH
SATURDAY NIGHT. ATTENDANT SFC LOW WILL SHIFT FROM NEAR MEMPHIS NEWD
INTO THE CNTRL GRTLKS REGION BY 12Z SUNDAY. TRAILING CDFNT WILL
SWEEP EWD TO THE S OF THE LOW FROM THE MS VLY EARLY SATURDAY TO THE
APLCNS AND NRN FL BY SUNDAY MORNING. AHEAD OF THE FRONT…A WARM
FRONT WILL DEVELOP NWD INTO CNTRL/NRN GA…THE CNTRL CAROLINAS…AND
INTO TIDEWATER VA/MD.
…SERN STATES INTO THE CAROLINAS/VA…
ANOTHER COMPLEX CONVECTIVE FCST WITH GREAT UNCERTAINTY WILL EXIST
FOR SATURDAY. CNTRL GULF COAST MCS THAT IGNITED ALONG INCREASING
MOIST SLY LLVL FLOW ON FRIDAY EVENING WILL BE ONGOING AT 12Z ACROSS
ERN MS…AL AND THE FL PNHDL. AHEAD OF THIS SYSTEM…GULF BOUNDARY
LAYER THAT WAS SHUNTED SWD ON FRIDAY…IS EXPECTED TO SURGE NWD INTO
AT LEAST SRN/CNTRL GA AND EVENTUALLY THE CNTRL CAROLINAS BY SATURDAY
AFTN/EVE. ALTHOUGH THERE IS SOME QUESTION ON HOW MUCH HEATING CAN
BE REALIZED…MLCAPES SHOULD RANGE FROM 1000-1500 J/KG FROM SERN AL
NEWD INTO THE CAROLINAS. A LIKELY MCV…BORNE FROM THE MCS…WILL
MOVE ENEWD INTO THIS INSTABILITY AXIS…SUPPORTING A CONTINUED SVR
THREAT DOWNSTREAM INTO THE OVERNIGHT AS FAR NE AS VA.
SUFFICIENT VERTICAL SHEAR WILL EXIST FOR ORGANIZED STORMS ACROSS THE
REGION OWING TO SLY H85 FLOW OF 50 KTS VEERING TO WSWLY AT H5 IN
EXCESS OF 60 KTS. SUPERCELL MODES WILL LIKELY TRANSITION INTO
BOWS/LEWPS GIVING DMGG WINDS AND LARGE HAIL. HIGHEST TORNADO RISK
WILL ACCOMPANY DISCRETE CELLS THAT CAN INTERACT WITH THE RETREATING
WRMFNT…NAMELY FROM SERN AL…CNTRL/SRN GA NEWD INTO THE CNTRL
A SEPARATE AREA OF SVR POTENTIAL WILL LIKELY DEVELOP ACROSS PORTIONS
OF THE TN/OH VLYS DURING THE AFTN/EVE. STRONGEST DCVA WILL
TRANSLATE NEWD AWAY FROM THE RICH GULF MOISTURE SOURCE FARTHER SE.
BUT…LINGERING 50S SFC DEW POINTS ARCING BACK ALONG THE CDFNT/SFC
LOW INTO THE LWR OH VLY BENEATH STEEP MID-TROPOSPHERIC LAPSE RATES
WILL CONTRIBUTE TO MLCAPES OF A FEW HUNDRED J PER KG. EXPECT THAT
SCTD TSTMS WILL DEVELOP AND SLOWLY INTENSIFY FROM PARTS OF WRN
KY/MIDDLE TN AMIDST STRONG VERTICAL SHEAR. A FEW LOW-TOPPED
SUPERCELLS MAY EVOLVE AND ADVANCE INTO PARTS OF SRN IND…SWRN OH
AND KY/ERN TN DURING THE EVENING. LARGE HAIL AND ISOLD DMGG WIND
GUSTS WILL BE POSSIBLE. TORNADOES CANNOT BE RULED OUT…ESPECIALLY
WITH MORE SUSTAINED STORMS AND CLOSE TO THE SFC LOW TRACK. SVR
THREATS WILL DIMINISH WITH NE EXTENT AND AFTER SUNSET.