The novel coronavirus isn’t the only thing that has ravaged the U.S. this year.
Tornadoes have killed 76 people in the first five months of 2020, already making it the worst year for tornado-related deaths since the historically deadly year of 2011. The National Weather Service tracked 351 tornado reports last month, making it the second most-active April on record.
It is a frequent and deadly phenomenon. But scientists say the public has a misperception of who is truly at risk: The Deep South and Florida can be more prone to twisters than “Tornado Alley” itself.
Professor P. Grady Dixon, a physical geographer at Fort Hays State University in Kansas, says “Tornado Alley” — the Great Plains states running from South Dakota to Texas — is a vernacular that he wishes would go away, because it doesn’t accurately describe the regions most susceptible to powerful tornadoes.
“It’s a misleading term,” Dixon said. “I understand why people use it, but I wish it would go away because I don’t want people to think it’s only those square states in the Great Plains that get tornadoes.”
He is one of the authors of a 2011 study that discovered some parts of the South and Southeast are the most prone to tornadoes in the nation. So far in 2020, southern states have suffered the most deaths: Tennessee leads the nation with 28 deaths and Mississippi has lost 13. No lives have been lost in Florida this year.
The study concluded that the Tampa Bay region and other parts of the Interstate 4 corridor experience as many tornadoes as some parts of the Great Plains — however, they’re not powerful enough to cause significant damage.
“You’re not going to have strong tornadoes most of the time in Florida,” Dixon said. “Counting the number of days with tornadoes, though, Florida has as many as any other state in the country.”
The Washington Post wrote about how prevalent and deadly tornadoes have been in the south and why “Tornado Alley” is misleading.
Villanova University assistant professor Steven Strader, who specializes in environmental hazards and societal interactions, told the Post that the South is more vulnerable to tornadoes because it is denser than the spread-out farmland communities of the Plains.
Not only do Southern states have more sprawl, he said they also have more people living in mobile and manufactured homes. In Florida, those residents are always the first to be evacuated during a hurricane.
“When a tornado does occur in either region, odds are much greater in the [South or Southeast] of it hitting something,” Strader told the Post.
But Florida also has a natural advantage that protects it from the kinds of powerful tornadoes that have taken lives in other southern states. It’s the Gulf of Mexico.
Tornadoes form when fronts — cold or warm — collide, producing severe weather. Thunderstorms are the most common result. Pressure and temperature changes can also come together to form a tornado. Those violent columns last minutes, but can produce devastating winds of 100 mph to an extreme of 300 mph.
Cold fronts can cause tornadoes in states such as Louisiana and Mississippi, but those fronts typically lose a lot of its power by the time they reach Central Florida.
"The warm Gulf has a way of helping slow down the forward momentum of cold air that causes tornadoes elsewhere," Dixon said. "It comes down to latitude."
The problem in Florida, he said, is that residents seem to keep being surprised by tornadoes.
"Anytime this happens, people in Florida who have grown accustomed to great weather, say ‘Oh my gosh, this isn’t supposed to happen here,’” he said. “Well, they’re wrong. Florida has tornadoes frequently.
“The difference between Alabama or Oklahoma with Florida is, they have far fewer tornadoes per event."
Floridians should be especially cautious now that hurricane season is almost here. Twisters often accompany storms as they make landfall, and hurricane season officially starts June 1.
“The last thing you need during a hurricane is another hazard embedded with it, which is what makes the hurricane-induced tornadoes so scary,” Dixon said.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said on Thursday that the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season could be an extremely active one. If that prediction holds, that also means residents may find themselves dealing with more tornado watches and warnings this year.
A tornado watch means conditions are ripe for tornadoes to form in the area, so residents should start seeking shelter or take precautions, according to the weather service. A tornado warning is issued when a potential twister has been detected or reported.
During a tornado watch or warning, Dixon suggests residents take shelter toward the center of their home. An underground shelter isn’t necessary.
What about manufactured housing? It’s not the units themselves that are at risk, Dixon said, it’s how they’re anchored to the ground. If those fail, the results could be catastrophic.
“For any tornado you’re going to experience in Florida, you don’t need a really strong storm shelter,” Dixon said. “It’s about putting walls between you and the outside.”