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The severe weather sequence of January 21-22, 2017

January of 2017 was quite warm for central Indiana, with many moments in the 50s and 60s. The month wasn’t very remarkable for Indiana, only accumulating 1.7″ of snow at the Indianapolis airport (1) through all of January! While our January was bland, a severe weather outbreak unfolded across the southeast from January 21-23, spawning multiple tornadoes in the southeast US to even blizzard-like conditions in the northeast.

January 21st
Before the Event
A few days ahead of event, multiple warning signs were appearing for a particularly dangerous system on both sides of a low pressure system.
For January 21st, a morning of severe thunderstorms seemed likely across southern Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, as a cluster of thunderstorms would interact with a low level jet, high amounts of wind shear, and a local low pressure system, which combined aids in fueling storm organization, and increases potential for tornadoes, some strong. This is part 1 of the severe potential for the day. This has been noted as (1) in Figure 1. This system was expected to move east into Georgia and Florida throughout the day as well, and even into southern South Carolina. As that system moved to the east, any storms that formed in the area would have the potential for long-tracking, strong (EF-2+), and potentially violent tornadoes, along with large hail and damaging winds. The Storm Prediction center marked the morning storms with an enhanced risk (level 3 out of 5), with the potential for strong tornadoes. As the system moved east, a moderate risk (level 4 out of 5) was introduced with a heightened chance for tornadoes, some strong. More severe thunderstorms were expected behind this local low as well, up into the ArkLaTex region, where all hazards of very large hail (2″+ in diameter likely), damaging winds, and tornadoes were possible as another disturbance moves by, which is denoted by the second moderate risk area (marked “2”) in the image below.

Storm Prediction Center outlook for January 21, 2017

–What Actually Happened
Multiple strong tornadoes were noted in the morning hours as expected, one specifically impacted Forrest and Lamar counties in Mississippi. This storm spawned a long track EF-3 tornado, killing at least four and injuring more than 50 people, destroying homes and property, heavily impacting the Hattiesburg, MS area. More tornadoes occured from the storm as this system meandered over Mississippi and Alabama, injuring a few more people as the storms crossed into Alabama. As daybreak arrived, these same storms survived throughout the day, and into the overnight hours, into the early morning hours of the 22nd, spawning multiple other strong tornadoes. One of these tornadoes was an EF-3 as it plowed through Adel, Georgia, killing 11 other people. In the ArkLaTex region, multiple instances of tornadoes an large hail were reported, but that paled in comparison to the damage experienced in southern Mississippi, south-central Alabama, and Georgia. Over 80 total tornadoes were reported in those 24 hours.

January 22nd
–Before the Event
As the previous’ day system would depart, another round of severe weather was expected, and thought to be in a much more unstable environment compared to the 21st. Due to this, the SPC issued a level 5 out of 5 risk, a rare High Risk for southern Georgia, extreme southeast Alabama, and most of northern Florida. Multiple discrete storms with the potential for violent tornadoes were expected as a low pressure system pushes through, aided by a cold front, in an unstable environment with heavy wind shear. Damaging winds were also a large concern, however strong, long-track tornadoes were the biggest threat for the day. Many feared that this would be one of the worst tornado outbreaks in recent years.

Storm Prediction Center High Risk on January 22nd, 2017

–What Actually Happened
Luckily, a “bust” occured when comparing to expectations for the event. Multiple tornadoes did end up occuring with the stronger storms. An EF-3 tornado went through the city of Albany, Georgia, devastating homes, stores, and other businesses, claiming the lives of 5 people, injuring many more. A few other tornadoes did occur, but were relatively weak and did not last long.

Storm reports on January 22nd, 2017

Regardless of the high risk failing to meet expectations, the severe weather outbreak that occurred caused significant damage across the southeast. Even after the severe weather outbreak occurred, the northeast received this system as a nor’easter a day later, brining harsh winds and heavy snow to areas.. The total damage surpassed $1 Billion to $1.3 billion in damages from this storm ($1,300,000,000). 20 lives were lost by the tornadoes, mainly during the overnight and early morning hours. Overnight tornadoes are usually the most deadly, and this was no special case. Warning people of overnight tornadoes and warnings is something that has been very difficult to resolve, but push notifications to phones within a polygon is a good start, as sirens have become virtually obsolete in some areas. Setting up a weather radio is always the best way to prepare for severe weather overnight, or any time of the day.

-Cardinal Weather Service, Lance Huffman-


Storm Prediction Center 1/21/2017

Storm Prediction Center 1/22/2017

Tornado outbreak of January 21–23, 2017: Wikipedia

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