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Tornadoes in Louisiana

Tornadoes are some of the most common natural disasters in the United States. Every year, roughly 1,200 events occur across the country, causing considerable damage to individuals and communities. Keeping safe during a tornado emergency requires adequate knowledge and preparation. Louisiana residents can improve their preparedness for a tornado by learning about the phenomenon, how it occurs, and what to do when one strikes.

Tornadoes Introduction

Tornadoes are violently rotating air columns extending from a thunderstorm to the ground. When visible, a tornado appears like a giant cloud funnel suspended from the sky. Tornadoes can occur at any time of the year, spanning over a mile in diameter, with extreme winds capable of causing wide-scale destruction and fatalities. The spring season provides more ‘tornado weather’ than others because of the varying air temperature and speed. Signs of a tornado include a change in the color of the sky to dark greenish, the tornado sound which is similar to that of a freight train, the gathering of a tornado cloud usually shaped like a funnel, and an approaching cloud of debris.

The severity of a tornado is measured by its rating, which largely depends on the tornado’s wind speed and extent of damage. The most intense tornado on record was the 1925 Tri-State Tornado, which tore through parts of Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana, causing 695 deaths and 2,027 injuries. According to the National Weather Service, the U.S experiences an average of 80 deaths and 1500 injuries from tornadoes yearly.

Here are some quick tornado facts you should know:

  • A tornado can strike swiftly, with little or no warning.
  • Tornadoes' forward speed varies from stationary to about 70 miles per hour (mph). The average is 30 mph.
  • Strong and violent tornadoes have extreme wind speeds that can exceed 200 mph.
  • Tornadoes move in any direction, but the average has been from Southwest to Northeast.

Science Behind Tornadoes

What causes a tornado or twister is a combination of natural forces during thunderstorms. There is usually a strong link between a tornado’s formation and the type of thunderstorm that spawned it. Therefore, tornadoes can be classified as either supercell or non-supercell, depending on the kind of thunderstorm in which they are formed.

As the name implies, supercell tornadoes form out of supercell thunderstorms, which are the most powerful and persistent kinds of thunderstorms. The formation of supercell tornadoes begins when heated pockets of moist air in an area rise through cooler air in the upper atmosphere and form cumulonimbus or thunderstorm clouds. This upward movement of air, known as an updraft, begins to spin if the environment has strong winds blowing in varying directions and speeds, making it a mesocyclone. Water droplets from the mesocyclone's moist air then form a funnel-shaped cloud, which initially rotates horizontally and then gradually begins to tilt vertically. As the funnel continues to grow, pressure from the downdraft of cool, dense air in the thunderstorm narrows its rotation, increases its speed, and pushes it to a lower level. Once the funnel cloud touches the ground, it becomes a tornado. Supercell thunderstorms cause the most violent super tornadoes, though only as few as 20% of them result in tornadoes.

What distinguishes supercells from non-supercells is the presence of a rotating updraft or mesocyclone. Non-supercell storms do not rotate because of the low change in the speed and direction of wind around the storm, known as wind shear. However, with sufficient low-level shear beneath them, such thunderstorms can spawn landspouts, which are less powerful than supercell tornadoes. Landspout tornadoes are characterized by rope-like funnel clouds which only begin to rotate close to the earth's surface. When they form over water, they are instead referred to as waterspouts.

Besides their formation, tornado categories can also be based on their rating. Tornado rating estimates a tornado’s strength based on its wind speed and the extent of damage it causes. The scale currently used to assign tornado rating is the Enhanced Fujita (EF) Scale which rates tornadoes from the least powerful to the most violent using values from 0 to 5. Tornadoes with EF values of 0 and 1 are the least powerful, with wind speeds of 110 miles per hour (mph) or less. Meanwhile, those with ratings 2 and 3 have wind speeds ranging from 111 mph and 165 mph and are capable of causing substantial damage. Tornadoes with EF ratings 4 and 5 are the most violent and destructive. They have extreme wind speeds that can exceed 200 mph.

Note that tornadoes can occur anywhere, at any time, so far the weather conditions are suitable for a storm. But some places have these conditions more than others. In the U.S, tornadoes are most common in the central plains. These areas are an ideal environment for the formation of severe thunderstorms because of the combination of dry cold air moving south from Canada with moist air traveling north from the Gulf of Mexico. Also, tornadoes have a peak season in which they are more likely to occur and cause severe damage. Peak tornado seasons are usually between the end of spring and the start of summer, during the switch from cooler weather to a warmer one. In the southern plains, this period stretches from May into early June, while In the northern Plains and upper Midwest, tornado season is in June or July. Also, although a tornado can occur at any time of the day or night, they are more likely to form in the late afternoon. By this time, the sun would have heated the ground and the atmosphere, creating a suitable condition for thunderstorms.

Tornado Consequences

Tornadoes are some of the most devastating atmospheric storms on earth. With wind speeds ranging from 50 to 300 miles per hour, tornado winds are capable of destroying buildings and bridges, flipping vehicles and heavy machinery, and lifting people. Besides the extreme winds, tornado damage can result from impact by flying debris. A tornado can send just any object, including nails, boards, tree parts, rocks, bricks, and even vehicles, flying at dangerous speeds. Flying debris becomes projectiles that can injure persons severely and cause structural damage to buildings. Additionally, tornadoes often damage power lines, gas lines, and electrical systems, causing fires, electrocution, and explosions.

According to statistics provided by the National Weather Service, in 2021, tornadoes caused 878 injuries, 104 fatalities, and a total of $228.8 million in economic loss nationwide.

Louisiana Tornado Threat Profile

Louisiana stretches from the deep south to the south-central parts of the U.S, with a land area of 43,210.23 square miles. According to census statistics, Louisiana had a population of 4,657,757 as of 2020. The state is not typically considered one of the high-risk tornado areas in the country. But it experiences a fair share of tornadoes yearly. In fact, one of the deadliest tornado outbreaks in U.S history tore through Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, between April 24 and 26, 1908, killing 324 people and injuring 1,652 The worst damage occurred in Amite, Louisiana, where 29 people were killed. Between 2016 and 2021, Louisiana recorded 429 tornadoes which caused a total of 16 deaths, 188 injuries, and the loss of $380.880 million in property damage. However, Louisiana tornadoes usually have ratings not exceeding EF3, with the areas more at risk being Baton Rouge and New Orleans. Below are some of the notable tornadoes that have occurred in the state in recent years.

Date Parish Rating Injuries Death Property damage ($)
04/25/2019 Lincoln EF 3 2 2 50M
04/12/2020 Ouachita EF 3 0 0 250M
12/16/2019 Rapides EF 3 0 0 22M
02/07/2017 Orleans EF 3 33 0 -
05/17/2020 Acadia EF 3 9 1 500K
04/10/2021 St. Landry EF 3 7 1 1M
02/07/2017 Livingston EF 3 3 0 -

Preparing for Tornadoes in Louisiana

Surviving a tornado requires adequate preparations. Louisiana residents can assess and improve their tornado preparedness by considering the following steps.

  • Identify a suitable shelter: Some places offer more protection during tornadoes than others. Places like storm cellars, basements, and windowless rooms on the lowest level of a building can keep you safe during a tornado. Homeowners can also create their own safe rooms in line with the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s recommendations. Avoid staying in mobile homes during a tornado. They can easily be lifted off by tornado winds or destroyed by flying debris.

  • Prepare your home and surrounding: Structural reinforcements can be made to improve a home’s durability in anticipation of a tornado. Additionally, remove trash and loose items that can be easily picked up and spun around by the wind. Indoor objects and furniture should also be fastened or kept in an enclosed place to avoid them getting displaced by the wind.

  • Protect your property: Strong winds and flying debris accompanying a tornado can easily damage cars and boats. You can reduce the risk of damage by keeping your vehicles in reinforced garages. Boats can be fastened in reinforced storage spots to keep them away from damage.

  • Create an emergency plan: Having a plan on what to do makes the emergency response more coordinated and effective for both individuals and families. The plan should include where to go, safety procedures, and how to communicate during an emergency. Practicing the plan periodically is also equally important. Household members should learn how to administer first aid treatment, switch off utilities, and use a fire extinguisher. Also, assemble emergency kits beforehand. The kit should include the most important items needed in an emergency situation, including medical supplies, water, non-perishable foods, and emergency contact information.

  • Plan for your pets: During a tornado, pets are totally dependent on their owners for direction and protection. Pet owners can practice their emergency plan with their pets and also have an emergency kit for them. Additionally, using special collar tags with owner-contact information can be helpful in the event that a pet goes missing during a tornado.

  • Prepare your finances: Undoubtedly, emergency situations like tornadoes can lead to unexpected strain on one’s finances. Louisiana residents can cushion these financial effects through proper planning. Make sure that properties are properly insured against damages caused by natural disasters. Setting aside an emergency response fund can ensure that, irrespective of your current financial situation, you have enough money to respond to a tornado emergency. Also secure relevant documents, such as those relating to property title and insurance. Waterproofing files and safes is one way of doing that. You may also consider keeping documents with family members that reside in areas less prone to disasters.

Finally, stay vigilant and understand your area’s tornado risk. This requires being on a lookout for tornado warnings and alerts, especially during major thunderstorms

Tornadoes Warnings and Alerts

Tornado-prone areas usually have alert systems that notify residents of the risk of an emergency. The alerts are disseminated through several media, including outdoor sirens, local television and radio stations, cable television systems, and mobile phone apps. Get familiar with the tornado alerts in place in your vicinity. Also, note that a tornado alert can either be a watch or a warning. The difference between a tornado warning and a tornado watch is the urgency of the message they carry. A tornado watch is issued if there is the possibility of a tornado considering an area’s weather conditions. After receiving a tornado watch, residents are expected to be ready to take a shelter and other precautionary steps in case the weather condition worsens. In contrast, a tornado warning signifies that a tornado has been sighted or picked up by weather radars, and residents should immediately take action to protect themselves. Warnings are usually issued to a smaller range of areas that are likely to be directly affected by an imminent tornado.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Weather Radio is a major provider of tornado watch and warning notifications in Louisiana. The radio service provides round-the-clock weather information, including safety tips. As such, residents can be notified of severe weather even if it arises at night. Additionally, the Emergency Alert System (EAS) also provides information on local emergencies in the state. The system uses a wide range of communication media, including radios and television broadcasters, cable television systems, and wireless cable systems, to spread the information. Regardless, know the signs of a tornado, as some hit swiftly, leaving no time for a warning. Common signs of a tornado are a roaring sound, dark greenish sky, funnel clouds, large hail, and debris clouds.

Assessing Your Tornado Risks

Assessing your tornado risk is a key aspect of preparing for it. It helps you understand your area's tornado history, typical intensity, and frequency of occurrence. Though there is no way to precisely predict the occurrence and path of the tornado, an area’s tornado probability can be assessed based on its current weather conditions.The NOAA provides weather information, indicating areas prone to tornadoes or other severe weather. This information can inform Louisiana residents about their tornado chances within a particular period. It is also beneficial to take note of alerts on conditions that generally contribute to a tornado, such as high winds warnings. The occurrence of such events can signify that a severe thunderstorm is lurking. You can also contact your local National Weather Service customer service for information on your tornado risk and preparation tips specific to your locality.

During a Tornado

Once there is a tornado warning or obvious signs of a tornado, act swiftly and follow the tips below.

  • Protect yourself: Move to your designated tornado shelter immediately. A basement or any windowless room on the lowest level of a building is always a good option if you do not have a tornado room. Also, staying beneath sturdy objects like heavy tables and workbenches which may offer extra protection. If possible, cover yourself with blankets, mattresses, or any soft material around. If you cannot find any cover, protect your head and neck with your arms.

  • Do not try to outrun a tornado: If you receive a tornado warning while in a vehicle and cannot find a safe place, do not stay in a vehicle or try to outrun the tornado. Your vehicle can easily be flipped over by the winds. Instead, find a low-lying area without trees and lay flat. Remember to protect your head and neck with your arms and if possible, cover yourself with a coat or blanket. Also, avoid highway overpasses and bridges during a tornado.

  • Turn off utilities and shut windows: If possible, take a moment to switch off utilities, including water, gas, and electricity, before the tornado hits. This can help avoid complications like fires and minimize the overall damage to your building. Also, do not open windows during a tornado

  • Remain calm and alert: tornadoes' duration varies by situation. Strong tornadoes can last up to about 20 minutes, while the particularly violent ones can last for over an hour. So don’t be in a rush to leave your safe haven, or else you risk compromising your safety. Instead, stay tuned to local radio or television for updates on the situation and further instructions

After a Tornado

The aftermath of a tornado can be challenging. There are usually a lot of concerns to deal with, including injuries sustained during the tornado, avoiding secondary hazards, and cleaning up your residence. Below are helpful tips to mitigate the effects of a tornado and avoid further casualties or property damage.

  • Check for injuries: Check yourself and your family to confirm whether anyone is injured. Common tornado injuries include cuts and bruises from debris, head injuries, and broken bones. You can apply first aid treatment. However, seek medical help immediately.

  • Be attentive: Stay tuned to your locality’s alert radio. You need important updates before leaving your tornado shelter. There may be secondary hazards like fires and floods that you should know about.

  • Be careful: Avoid entering damaged buildings until local authorities can verify its safety. Even so, remain vigilant. Do not hesitate to exit a building, if it starts producing shifting or unusual sounds. Such sounds may indicate an imminent collapse. Also, protect yourself when removing debris from your property. Wear protective boots, long clothes, and gloves to avoid injuries from debris.

  • Call for help: When trapped in a ruble, call for rescue immediately. You can send texts, bang on walls and pipes, or whistle. The goal is to get someone’s attention. While expecting help, protect your eyes, nose, and mouth from dust using a cloth or mask.

  • Assess building damage: Contact a building contractor to check your home for structural damages like foundation cracks and missing support beams. If you discover any such damage, avoid staying in the building until you have conducted repairs. Also, confirm whether your utility lines are damaged. While doing that, avoid using anything that can cause a spark to prevent the risk of an explosion.

  • Get the right supplies: When getting supplies, opt for fresh food and avoid items exposed to stormwater. Further, only take bottled or boiled water, as home water supplies may have been contaminated due to the tornado.

  • Prepare to make your insurance claims: This step is important to getting life back to normal and ensuring that your finances do not take a major hit due to repair costs. Making a tornado insurance claim requires evidence of damage. As such, take pictures or videos of the damages resulting from the tornado. Also, contact your insurance company as early as possible and avoid making permanent repairs before your property is inspected.

  • Take advantage of disaster benefits: There are several programs dedicated to assisting tornado victims both at the Federal and State levels. This includes shelters, nutrition programs, financial assistance for homeowners, and mental health assistance. Federal reliefs are usually provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) after the President makes a disaster declaration on the emergency. You can see a list of helpful resources on the Louisiana disaster assistance webpage. Also, look out for state tax allowances for persons in disaster-hit areas. These reliefs are usually announced after the disaster. Be on a lookout for news releases by the Louisiana Department of Revenue.