2018-06-07 / Nature

State Not Immune to Natural Disasters

By Charles Avenengo

Earlier this week, all eyes were on Tropical Storm Alberto, which struck the Gulf Coast. As June 1 marked the beginning of the official hurricane season, Alberto was a little early.

Many people would be surprised to learn that the local region also receives tornadoes. Granted, they are rare, but they do occur. Since 1787, 13 tornadoes have been documented in Rhode Island.

The worst on record occurred on Aug. 7, 1986 when the state experienced its only multi-tornado day as three touched down in Rhode Island during a 24-hour period. The outbreak began in Cumberland. In mid-afternoon, a tornado carved out a path of destruction for a half-mile and damaged trees and power lines. Fortunately, there were no injuries.

An hour later, a supercell moved over Cranston and Providence. With winds registering up to 157 miles per hour, it was recorded as an F-2 tornado on the Fujita scale, which is a measurement of tornado severity based on the degree of observed damage.

The damage included a flipped truck, a house lifted off its foundation and deposited a few yards away and a large jewelry manufacturing plant losing its top floor. More than 6,000 homes lost power and there were 20 injuries, but no fatalities.

The following morning, a third twister shocked the state. This tornado left a six-mile trail of damage from Burrilville to North Smithfield that did not result in any injuries.

In Newport County, the lone tornado occurred on Sept. 15, 1972. It was a minor twister that formed in Jamestown and capsized two boats. It then headed east across Narragansett Bay toward Fort Adams, where it swirled up dirt and sand before dissipating east of Aquidneck Island. Most assuredly, at some point, local sailors have also spied waterspouts, but none have been recorded. A waterspout is a waterborne counterpart of a tornado.

The United States receives 75 percent of the world’s tornados, with more than 1,000 storms annually. They strike primarily in the loosely defined area called “Tornado Alley,” which has a core centered in Kansas, Oklahoma and Northern Texas.

However, a combination of unique weather patterns enabled one of the worst tornados in American history to strike in Massachusetts. This was the Worcester Tornado that pummeled the city on June 9, 1953. The F4 tornado lasted 90 minutes and wreaked havoc over a 48-mile swath in Central Massachusetts. The damage, both in terms of human life and property, was staggering. Ninety four people were killed, 1,300 were injured and 4,000 buildings were damaged. Entire neighborhoods were flattened, and officials estimated there was $52 million of damage, which, allowing for adjusted inflation today, amounts to somewhere around $350 million.

At the time, it was the costliest tornado damage in U.S. history, and it left 10,000 people homeless. The 1,300 injuries were the fourth highest on record.

Ironically, 1953 was the first year that tornado and severe thunderstorm warnings were broadcast nationally. However, forecasters at the National Weather Service didn’t issue a tornado warning for this devastating storm for fear it would cause panic. Instead, they compromised with only a severe thunderstorm warning in the forecast. This miscalculation immediately led to the creation of the Storm Prediction Center that operates under the control of the National Weather Service. This nationwide radar/storm spotter system has since been attributed with saving thousands of lives.

Unlike hurricanes, when local communities generally have days to prepare, tornadoes are frequently only announced 15 to 30 minutes before striking.

So as the season of warm weather has descended upon us and we conduct innumerable activities outdoors, it is always a good idea to keep an eye on the sky.

As a side note regarding local calamities, after hurricanes and tornados, state records indicate 29 earthquakes have also rocked the Ocean State over the last century. The most severe was in 1951, when a magnitude 4.6 earthquake had its epicenter in North Kingstown. This tremor resulted in damage to 8,000 buildings with more than 100 that were beyond repair.

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