Just a little under 48 hours after a tornado struck North Rome and Kingston without warning, the RNW affiliated Northwest Georgia Severe Weather Team returned to the scene Friday for a damage assessment, a task that they seem to be having to do way too much lately.
Kingston Road Resident Darlene Chatman was standing in her backyard Friday afternoon speaking with NWGASWT members Hayden Jennings, Devin Womack, and Jennifer Womack as they toured the damage area on Chatman Hill along Kingston Highway, when she pointed out that the EF-1 Tornado that went right through her backyard knocked everything over on her back deck except for the dog house of her and her son’s Australian Blue Heeler named Blue. That’s when Hayden, Chatman’s nephew, realized why the dog house didn’t move: Blue was in it. Blue is around 5 years old, and Wednesday’s storm was not his first brush with severe weather. A few years ago, Blue was the subject of a RNW story after straight line winds hit the same area, and toppled one of the Bradford Pear trees lining the Chatman’s property directly onto his pen, and he came away unscathed. Wednesday, Blue was on the back deck outside as usual when the tornado struck, but was unshaken by the storm and 100 mph winds, as he was following Hayden around as he began helping residents and relaying reports to the rest of his team staged nearby. Blue again accompanied the team Friday on their damage survey of the area.
According to Chatman and her room mate Amy Lewis, they were at home along with Chatman’s husband Sheldon and Austin getting ready for bed when Amy heard a severe thunderstorm warning had been issued for a storm in the southern portion of Floyd County. It began thundering soon afterwards, but she noticed that it then became eerily quiet. Moments later, the wind suddenly picked up and she heard the distinct “freight train” noise and realized that a tornado was bearing down on their home. She yelled to everyone else to take cover, and they huddled in a bathroom until the storm passed. When they came outside afterwards, they walked into a dark and bleak disaster scene, with the storm still roaring, and screams for help heard in the distance. Darlene automatically reacted by calling her sister Delane and warning her, and that’s when Delane called her son and weather team captain Hayden, who was in the field chasing along with team members Devin Womack and Alan Locklear. There had been no warning for this storm.
The weather team, down one person in Car #1 Wednesday Night, had been perched atop Fouche Gap Wednesday Night watching the storms move into the area. When the southern most cell of the 2 storms entering Floyd County became sever warned, the chase was on. While Alan in Car #2 was in East Rome watching, Car#1 began following the storm on Blacks Bluff Road, even spotting briefly a wall cloud. As the chase entered the Boozeville area, Hayden got the call about Kingston Highway, and the chase was ended as the team rushed to help on Kingston Highway.
When the team arrived, Hayden grabbed the emergency gear the team carries and entered the scene on foot. Just 100 yards in, he found the house of storm victim Barbara Washington without a roof, spewing natural gas, and surrounded by debris and downed trees. After making sure everyone was out, Hayden made his way over to Darlene’s house to find that despite downed trees everywhere around it along with debris from the houses down the street, that it only sustained minor cosmetic damage. For the next three hours, Hayden was on scene helping and surveying, relaying reports to Devin and Alan who were staged a short distance away.
Chatman Hill as it is called, is an area in the 2000 block of Kingston Highway where members of the family live. In the area, Barbara Washington was the matriarch of the community. On any given weekend, you would find her house crowded with family members visiting and getting together for various occasions, anything from just family visiting, to cookouts in the summer. Washington was also a very religious woman, having attended church just a few hours before the storm struck. When news spread across the hill that she had been placed in an ambulance after she climbed from her damaged house, while everyone was still in a panic about the storm and damage, the worry over Barbara’s condition became more and more apparent. When news came that she had passed away, not only had the families along Kingston Highway been hit by disaster, but now by tragedy. On Friday, while the family had banded together and were busily repairing damage and cleaning up, the mood was still somber as the family mourned the death of Washington.
In the hours and days after the storm, the question began to arise about why there was no warning for this storm, and also for the West Rome tornado back in December. Many people were outraged about the storm, and began pointing fingers at the weather service, saying that their staff and meteorologist should be held to a high standard. What these people do not realize is that Meteorology is a science, and is one where there is still much to learn, specifically in the area of severe weather and tornadoes. One problem that hinders warnings for Rome and Floyd County is its location in reference to the surrounding regional radars. Rome lies in the middle between Huntsville, Birmingham, and Atlanta, which is where the National Weather Service has placed their radar sites. Because of this, Rome is in the area where these radars are higher in altitude, and the range begins make images a bit distorted. Because of the higher altitude of the radar beams when they get directly over Rome, it is hard for the radars to detect weaker tornadic activity which occurs in the lower areas of the storm cell.
With that said, despite these factors, Wednesday’s tornado spun up so quickly, that it was almost impossible to detect in the minutes before touchdown, by radar or even by one of the many trained weather spotters around Rome and Floyd County. The Weather Team had been monitoring that storm as it traveled from Sand Mountain in Alabama towards Rome. When it reached Collinsville, the team noted it on their web page that the storm had strengthened significantly and had rotation. Butr, in the minutes after, the storm underwent a change that many storms undergo in that area, as it had to cross Lookout Mountain. When storms have to cross the mountain in that area, the terrain will weaken them, though many restrengthen when they get to Rome, as was the case Wednesday. The storm had weakened, but had extremely heavy rain as it passed over the team as car #1 left Fouche Gap. When it restrengthened over Rome, it almost instantaneously spawned the tornado as soon as it became tornadic, and was only on the ground for a short time as it traveled its winding and jumpy 3.25 mile path along Kingston Highway.
In its damage survey, the team found classic signs of tornado damage, but also found interesting details. The weather team in its encounters with tornadoes and their resulting damage have mainly had the chance to survey damage of medium to large tornadoes that are long lived and travel relatively straight. Wednesday’s tornado was small and unstable in its path. The tornado had a winding path, as evidenced on Chatman Hill, where it hit Freeman’s Store on the south side of the highway at Freeman Ferry Road, crossed the highway and hit the Washington Home traveling northeast, but then curving behind a neighboring house and the Chatman house before it moved southeast towards the highway where it again crossed it near Quail Hollow Mobile Home Community. The tornado also did not leave much evidence of its counter-clockwise spin as the team has seen in the past.
The events of both this week and December support forecasts that this spring will be an active storm season for the Southeast, as “Dixie Alley” still recovers from last severe weather season. To react to this, the NWGASWT has prepared itself more than ever so that the team can cover severe weather both from home and in the field. The biggest advancement the team has made is the addition of a new team member, Alan Locklear, to help support it’s operations. Alan, who is also from Rome, is a weather enthusiast and trained storm chaser. Alan’s duties will play a support role for the team. In times of local severe weather, the team will deploy Alan to the field where he can also chase and provide an extra set of trained eyes. In other circumstances, such as when the team participates in a long range regional chase, Alan will take over local severe weather coverage, issuing warnings and alerts. This not only allows the team out in the field to concentrate better on their storm chase, but also allows better local coverage for the team’s followers.