New research sheds light on tornado debris patterns - WFXG FOX 54 - News Now

Studying tornado debris now could help protect lives and property later

Professor John Knox, right, and student Synne Brustad research tornado debris data. (Source: The University of Georgia) Professor John Knox, right, and student Synne Brustad research tornado debris data. (Source: The University of Georgia)

ATHENS, GA (RNN) - Two years after the historic April 27 tornado outbreak scarred the Alabama and Mississippi landscape and memorabilia - photos, family letters and more - rained down in yards across the south, new research is shedding light on tornado debris patterns.

In cases of more dangerous debris, that research could help predict fall patterns that might protect property and life.

"Twenty years ago, if a picture landed in your yard, you'd stare at it, wonder ‘Who does that belong to?' look for a name on the back, and probably eventually throw it away," said John Knox, associate professor at the University of Georgia.

With people posting pictures to social media, today "It's a completely different situation."

In what Knox says is the most comprehensive study on tornado debris patterns, he and a team of student co-authors analyzed the takeoff and landing points of nearly 1,000 pieces of debris - photos, quilts, even a metal sign - for clues to how debris travels and where it might eventually land.

"The previous most comprehensive study looked at 120 years' worth of newspaper accounts and had only found at most 160-something items. We were way beyond that," he said.

"In the old days, it would have been one object written up in a newspaper. Here we have a wealth of data to keep the error down."

The team gathered their data from photos and items posted to a Facebook page set up by Alabama resident Patty Bullion designed to reunite victims with their memories.

The Facebook page, which has since shut down, allowed those who found photos or other tornado debris in their yards to post pictures and owners to claim the items.

Photos, quilts, family Bibles - nothing was off limits. Some items flew nearly 200 miles before landing in the yards of strangers, often in other states.

Many found their way back home through the power of the internet.

Sometimes, the owners of the memorabilia had died in the storm, leaving relatives the precious artifacts as remaining tokens of loved ones.

In all, nearly 1,700 items were claimed, including a 5-foot metal sign that blew from Smithville, MS.

The sign hung in the Smithville High School football stadium until a tornado destroyed the stadium and lobbed the sign to Russellville, AL, 60 miles away. The sign featured a photo of a former student and high school band member who passed away from bone cancer in 1998.

The sign was identified on the Facebook page within a day and returned to the student's parents.

As Knox's team studied the photos on the page, patterns emerged.

Most of the debris landed approximately 10 degrees to the left of the tornado, except the debris that traveled the farthest.

"What we found from the study was that tornado debris goes in different directions slightly depending on how high up it goes in the thunderstorm," he said.

The items that traveled the farthest, from 150 to 220 miles away from their home base, landed slightly right of the tornado's path.

"What we think happened there was those are objects that went higher in the storm and were affected by the jet stream," he said.

The item that traveled the farthest was a photo from Phil Campbell, AL, that landed in Lenior City, TN, 220 miles away.

Knox says the information on flight paths could come in handy for scenarios in future storms, for instance, in the case of toxic or radioactive debris.

"This is not hypothetical … it's one of those scary disaster scenarios where it's not just the tornado but the debris from the tornado that can cause problems," Knox said.

"It's not that farfetched. These tornadoes were dancing around nuclear power plants in the Tennessee Valley and around medical facilities and such."

And, in time, that data could lead to debris forecasting.

"We aren't there yet. I could envision a day where we'd have a necessity to issue a debris warning. We still need more work on it," he said.

Knox said he has even been asked about possibly of someday using the project to help find  victims picked up by storms and thrown from their homes. 

"I honestly have never thought about that," he said. "The noise and signal get all muddled up at short distances so I don't know if it would be that effective but there's an application we never thought of."

Knox and his team said they took great care to protect the privacy of those they were studying. The team only researched publicly available photos and did not contact victims.

"The people come first," Knox said.

"These are real lives that have been upended and I think that message came through to the students."

The study was recently published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society.

In all, more than 300 people died in the April 27, 2011 tornado outbreak, according to NOAA.

Many of the tornadoes were EF4 and EF5 tornadoes, the strongest ratings on the Fujita scale, based on intensity.

Smithville, MS, and the Alabama towns of Tuscaloosa, Hackleburg, and Phil Campbell were among the hardest hit. 

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