By: Andrea Moyer
I have to confess that in the wake of the severe storms that ripped through our area a few weeks ago I’ve had tornadoes on my mind quite a bit. They’re somewhat foreign to us, as we usually don’t see too many here in southeastern Pennsylvania. According to Chelsea Ingram of CBS Philly, Pennsylvania has already had more than twenty tornadoes this year alone. Typically, our state only sees about seventeen tornadoes per year. We still have another six months to go!
You may be wondering why we’re suddenly seeing an increase in severe weather. The simple answer, according to Ingram, is the atmospheric pattern across the U. S., specifically for our region. High pressure over the southeast has been driving warm, moist air into the Delaware Valley. This makes conditions ideal for more than the usual amount of supercells and tornadoes.
What is a Tornado?
Tornadoes are defined as masses of violently spinning air. The mass must be in contact with the ground to be categorized as a tornado. Otherwise, it is considered a funnel cloud. Tornadoes typically form out of thunderstorms in which moist air rises, cools and condenses into clouds that release heat and force cooler air back down. Although they normally grow from supercell thunderstorms, in rare cases or in cases of waterspouts, tornadoes have been known to form entirely on their own.
Identifying a Tornado
It’s easy to get confused between a tornado watch and tornado warning. According to Accuweather, a watch means that there are favorable conditions for severe weather. A watch can cover 25,000 square miles. Warnings mean that a tornado has been sighted in the immediate area or that severe weather is imminent.
Signs that a tornado is forming or approaching
- Lightning and thunder get close and loud for five minutes, then stop altogether
- Air mass develops into an organized, funnel-shaped cloud
- Sometimes – but not always! – a loud roaring noise can be heard, much like a fast-moving train
Types of Tornadoes
Rope – This is the smallest and most common type of tornado and appears as a long, thin “rope”. Most tornadoes begin and end as ropes before they grow larger or dissipate.
Cone/Stovepipe – Larger and more destructive than a rope tornado, the cone tornado’s path is wider and it causes more damage. It tends to be wider at the base of the thunderstorm than it is on ground but it can also be the same width at the base of the thunderstorm as it is at the ground. This type is known as a stovepipe tornado.
Wedge – This is the largest and most destructive type of tornado. The El Reno tornado that tracked across Oklahoma in 2013 was a wedge tornado and the widest ever recorded. It grew to 2.6 miles wide during the height of the storm.
Multi-vortex/Satellite – supercell thunderstorms can produce multiple tornadoes. They are organized storms that have a strong circulation and this is what helps lead to the formation of a tornado. In extreme cases a storm can produce two tornadoes spinning independently of each other. The second tornado is called a satellite tornado.
Waterspouts and land spouts – These types of tornadoes can develop when there are no thunderstorms in the area. They do not officially count as tornadoes unless they hit land. It is unusual for a waterspout that has formed over water to sustain its shape and strength once it reaches land. Many are not associated with supercell thunderstorms.
- Green clouds indicate a tornado is forming – Typically, green skies and clouds only indicate a strong thunderstorm, not necessarily a tornado.
- Seeking shelter under an overpass is safe – It’s not. Winds will actually funnel under the bridge and accelerate, which can cause the car to be pulled out. It’s better to seek shelter in a ditch or just remain in your car.
- Opening windows equalizes pressure – Even though tornadoes have very low atmospheric pressures associated with them, most damage is inflicted by their strong winds as well as objects that they pick up being slammed into structures. Spend your time getting to shelter rather than opening windows.
- Take shelter in the southwest corner of a basement – The safest place to take shelter during a tornado is an interior room or bathtub in the lowest floor of your home or building, as far away as possible from exterior walls and windows. Grab a blanket or quilt and cover yourself. Wear shoes no matter where you choose to hide.
- Tornadoes form only on flat land – Tornadoes can form anywhere under the right conditions. Though they tend to be more prevalent in areas where cold, dry air collides with warm, moist air, as is often the case in Tornado Alley, they can form just about anywhere. They can even form in built-up urban or heavily wooded areas.
- All tornadoes are visible as they approach – It is tempting to believe you’re out of danger of an approaching tornado if you cannot see it, but the truth is, not all tornadoes are visible as organized funnels. Take shelter as quickly as possible in the event of a tornado warning.
Interesting Tornado Facts
Famous Tornadoes – I think it’s safe to say that The Wizard of Oz is a universal favorite among film enthusiasts. The producers and special effects directors were well ahead of their time with the realism and detail that they invested into the movie. Perhaps I’ve put a lot of faith in their abilities, because I’ve always accepted that filmmakers from that era were able to simulate or film a real tornado in action. That was a real tornado in the beginning of the movie, wasn’t it? Actually, it wasn’t. It was a 35-foot-long muslin stocking, spun around among miniatures of a Kansas farm and fields in a dusty atmosphere. The result was frighteningly realistic footage that has been impressing audiences ever since the film’s release in 1939.
Kinzua Bridge State Park – If you’re interested in seeing just how much havoc a single tornado can wreak, I encourage a visit to Kinzua State Park. Located in the central-northern part of Pennsylvania just off Route 6 in McKean County, it is the landmark of the Kinzua Bridge and was first constructed across the Kinzua Valley in 1882. At 301 feet tall and 2,053 feet long, it was, at the time of its construction, the tallest and longest railway bridge in the world. At around 3:20 p.m. on July 21, 2003, an F-1 class tornado touched down at the park and destroyed more than half of the aging trestle. It was reinvented in 2011 as the Kinzua Bridge Skywalk and is open to visitors year round.
Severe Weather Precautions and Aftermath
I’ve mentioned this above, but it bears repeating: seek shelter in the event of a severe weather/tornado warning. Attempting to outrun a storm is never wise, and it is safer to remain in your vehicle if you’re out on the road in bad weather. Outline and rehearse a home safety plan with your family and loved ones, including where you are all going to seek shelter and who and what you plan to bring (pets, shoes, quilts, etc.)
Know who to contact in the aftermath if your house or cars have sustained storm damage. Our offices in Perkasie 215-257-9171 and Harleysville 215-723-9805 are open Mondays through Fridays from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. If you are calling after hours, you have the option of contacting your insurance provider directly. You can also report a claim through our website and you will be contacted directly.
Now is an excellent time to review your personal or business policies and know exactly what is covered and what is not covered. Our agents here at The Weimer Group will gladly assist with any claims and/or questions regarding coverage. Be safe and remember – the season of severe weather has only just begun!
Also Read: Does Home Insurance Cover Hardscaping and Landcaping Features?