CLEARWATER — Apparently, Clearwater really is the home of the tornadoes.
That's according to the Weather Channel, which this week released a list of the country's most tornado-prone cities and ranked Clearwater No. 1.
That might explain why years ago, Clearwater High chose a funnel cloud as a school mascot and declared itself "Home of the Tornadoes."
Dr. Greg Forbes, the Weather Channel's severe weather expert, ranked cities' vulnerability to the wind storms using tornado density, or number of tornados per year per 1,000 square miles. He utilized tornado data from the National Weather Service dating back to 1950.
Clearwater blew away the rest, coming in first with 7.1 tornadoes annually per 1,000 square miles. Oklahoma City and Tampa-St. Petersburg ranked second and third, both with about two tornadoes per year.
To local weather experts, though, the high billing is a bunch of hot air. "The numbers are skewed because of waterspouts," said Bay News 9 chief meteorologist Mike Clay.
According to National Weather Service meteorologist Anthony Reynes, summertime waterspouts often touch land only briefly before dissipating — cases which have to be classified as tornadoes in recorded data.
"It's not a rare thing," he said.
These cases, along with a high population density that leads to high reporting of funnels by the public, may make it appear as if the bay area is more tornado-prone than other cities.
Forbes' study focused only on the hurricane threat to cities. The study was intended to address the public's perception that tornadoes don't occur in cities, only in rural areas.
Forbes determined that the top five tornado-prone cities are Clearwater, Oklahoma City, Tampa-St. Petersburg, New Orleans and Tulsa, Okla.
The study results, including Forbes' finding about Clearwater, were discussed on the Weather Channel this week and led the network's website at one point.
It isn't unusual for funnel clouds to be reported in the Clearwater area, especially during the summer thunderstorm season, but most do no damage. In 1999, downtown Clearwater workers gaped at a long, twisting waterspout that undulated over the downtown waterfront for minutes before dissipating.
However, in October 1997 a confirmed tornado did $4 million worth of damage in the city. Among the buildings hit: Clearwater High, which lost part of its roof to the twister. In May 1978, a tornado hit the unincorporated area of High Point just south of the Clearwater city limits and destroyed High Point Elementary, killing three students.
Clay of Bay News 9 said while much of Florida can face dangerous tornadoes, he doesn't believe the state can hold a candle to the winds that blow in states like Oklahoma, Kansas and Texas.
"It's nothing like tornado alley, seen out in the middle of the country," he said.
Forbes said the Clearwater area is ripe for waterspouts and tornadoes in the summer because of sea breezes colliding with shifting winds, creating storms. He noted that few of these tornadoes are very strong.
"You get a lot of these short-lived, weak ones," he said.