In recent years, scientists have noticed an increased frequency of tornadoes in the Southeast, carving a path of lost property and lives.
The widely-known “Tornado Alley” includes the area from central Texas stretching north to Iowa, and from central Kansas and Nebraska east to western Ohio, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
And while Tornado Alley in the Great Plains still leads in the number of tornadoes, more are appearing in the Southeast, in eastern Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia.
Tornadoes shifting further east have been taking a devastating toll.
Southeast tornadoes are harder to spot and often occur at night
Unlike the Plains, where a tornado can be seen coming from miles away, the Southeast has more rugged terrain and more trees, making it more difficult to spot a tornado. Many tornadoes occurring in the area are “rain-wrapped,” so they are less visible to the naked eye, CNN meteorologists said.
More heavily forested areas in the South leads to more trees being toppled by storms or turned into projectiles as well.
Tornadoes in the South tend to stay on the ground longer and move faster. Many storms across the Southern states are pushed by a stronger jet stream, which results in faster-moving storms.
It’s not uncommon for a tornado in the Southeast to travel faster than 50 mph (80 kph). This puts more pressure on forecasters to get a tornado warning out in enough time for the public to react, CNN meteorologists noted. Nashville residents had only minutes of lead time ahead of the deadly tornado which struck there just after midnight on March 3, 2020.
Many of the storms occur overnight, when most people are sleeping and unaware a tornado is approaching. Many homes in the Southeast lack a basement or underground shelter. In 2008, the US Census Bureau reported only 10% of new homes included a basement whereas 75% of new homes in the Northeast and Midwest had a basement.
Parts of the Southeast are more densely populated, which means more deaths
It’s not an anomaly for to tornadoes appear in the Southeast every year, but they present different vulnerabilities, Victor Gensini, a professor of meteorology at Northern Illinois University, told CNN.
“As you move east from Kansas to Mississippi, Georgia, Tennessee, the population density increases rapidly, and we also have an issue in the Southeast of more mobile homes,” he said. “If you get hit in a mobile home from a tornado, you’re much more likely to be killed. You just have a really unique exposure and vulnerability problem.”
Gensini was co-author on a study which started tracking tornadoes in 1979, and they observed a shift toward the Southeast around 2008.
Even though there are fewer tornadoes in the Southeast than in the Central Plains, there have been more deaths in the Mid-South/Southeast region, because they are occurring in more populated areas.
The average tornado fatalities were highest in Alabama with 14 deaths per year followed by Missouri, eight, and Tennessee with six deaths per year, according to the National Weather Service data from 1985 to 2014.
Although those states led in the average number of tornado fatalities, they were not the states with the most tornadoes. The highest annual average number of tornadoes were reported in Texas with 140, Kansas with 80, and Florida with 59, according to the weather service. Meanwhile, Alabama averaged about 42 tornadoes per year.
CNN Meteorologists Jennifer Gray and Brandon Miller contributed to this report.