According to US media, tornadoes that blasted through six US states over the weekend killed hundreds of people, devastated entire towns, and left recovery teams facing weeks of removing rubble, while scientists estimate once-in-a-century levels of destruction across a 250-mile expanse.
The Wall Street Journal said on Monday that “the storm could end up being one of the deadliest in US history.” Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday that the list of residents who were missing was eight pages long in one hamlet of 2,700 people. According to Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin, at least 56,000 people were without electricity, and many homes were missing roofs, doors, and windows.
In total, 37 tornadoes were reported across these six states, according to the National Weather Service. Though scientists won’t be able to assign severity ratings to the tornadoes for several days, they said debris could have been catapulted as high as 30,000 feet in the air, which is the cruise altitude of many passenger jets. Meanwhile, according to the Xinhua news agency, the overall number of fatalities has yet to reach 100 and may be lower than previously expected.
Over the weekend, US President Joe Biden approved government funds to assist sections of Kentucky hit by devastating storms, as well as a disaster designation for the state after a request from its governor.
According to the White House news released on Sunday, the declaration makes federal funding available for storm victims in the western Kentucky counties of Caldwell, Fulton, Graves, Hopkins, Marshall, Muhlenberg, Taylor, and Warren, as well as state and “eligible local governments and certain private non-profit organisations on a cost-sharing basis for emergency work.”
“Tornadoes do happen this time of year,” Dan DePodwin, Director of Forecast Operations at AccuWeather, said. “In December, on average, there are about two dozen tornadoes (nationwide). We’re going to beat that in only one night on Friday.”
“One of the primary factors that caused the outbreak was the extraordinary temperature in the north that preceded it. “I think the warm December likely played a factor,” DePodwin told AccuWeather on Sunday, adding that “it’s typically not so warm this time of year for that location, so outbreaks are usually unable to emerge.” There haven’t been many cold fronts that have made it all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico yet.”
Because the Gulf of Mexico is at or above normal at this time of year, it can help transfer warmer air northward, which is what fuelled the multi-state outbreak.
A very powerful low pressure depression was moving out of the Rockies and into the Great Lakes region while the Gulf’s warmer air pushed north. According to AccuWeather, this pushed the warm, moist air even further north.
The epidemic was sparked by four main ingredients needed for severe weather, according to DePodwin “Moisture is required, which we received from the Gulf of Mexico. Instability and rising air are required. We had colder air aloft, which is exactly what you need. You’ll need a lifting mechanism, in this case a cold front. Then you’ll need some kind of atmospheric spinning, or wind shear, as we call it.”