Like most summer mornings, it was calm and quiet with a hint of humidity in the air. The excitement of a midsummer morning and the promise of enjoying all that is good this time of year in Central New York were quickly forgotten as the day rolled on and the storms rolled in. 5 years ago on July 8th 2014, 4 minutes of destruction would change the lives of a small community and go down in the record books as one of the deadliest tornadoes in New York State history.
Madison County is a long way from Tornado Alley. The Great Plains in the spring and summer time are known as Tornado Alley, a hotspot in our country where hundreds of twisters spin up each and every year causing destruction and devastation that most of us Central New Yorkers watch from afar. Now that’s not to say we don’t see tornadoes here but the frequency and intensity of these storms doesn’t compare to that part of the country. Tornado Alley has the right mix of warm moist air from the Gulf of Mexico colliding with cooler and drier air from the upper Midwest in a flat landscape where every cloud seems to be seen from many miles away. With all of that said, sometimes, all the right ingredients collide here in New York State to bring destruction from afar right to our backyard.
Like so many summer afternoons when a line of storms race across the state, forecasters including myself were letting viewers know to be ready for thunderstorms and the threat of severe weather on that July day. The radar was active with storms, some more intense than others, in fact one storm over Onondaga County in the late 5pm hour seemed to be rotating which is a sign that a tornado could be possible. The National Weather Service issued a Tornado Warning for Onondaga and northwestern parts of Madison Counties. This warning did not include Smithfield. Smithfield was under a Severe Thunderstorm Warning which also includes the treat for tornadoes.
With the attention of forecasters on the current Tornado Warning and the scan of the radar taking about 5 minutes to complete, a new storm cell formed. Within that 5 minute window, this storm swept through the Smithfield area producing an EF2 tornado with winds as high as 135mph. When the storms were all said and done, the Tornado Warning in Onondaga County did not produce a tornado while the Severe Thunderstorm Warning in Smithfield did. This is still an area of meteorology that puzzles researches and forecasters alike, why some favorable storms produce tornados while others do not. This is an important area that requires more attention as when the day of July 8th, 2014 came to an end, 4 people lost their lives in to a severe thunderstorm that produced an EF2 tornado that was on the ground for less than 5 minutes.
The next day I got the opportunity to walk the damage with local police as well as other national news outlets. Seeing houses leveled, lifted from their foundations, paint ripped from fences, personal belongings spread for miles, and lives lost or changed forever, were a heavy scene to see. These are the kinds of images we see all the time from Tornado Alley and now it was unfolding in our own backyard. For someone that watches these storms from a radar image or weather models, it was a deep reminder of the physical impacts of these systems as well as the urgency to give information to keep our viewers safe.
It is important to take all warnings very seriously. I think we get very complacent when it comes to weather alerts and the urgency they deserve. We can get so many severe thunderstorm warnings every summer season; it can feel like bit like the kid who cried wolf. Most of us don’t see damage and destruction from EVERY severe storm. However, it only takes one storm to barrel through your town to change or even end your life. That was the unfortunate truth for 4 people in Smithfield on that early July day. Some of those who died where aware of the storm warnings but didn’t continue to monitor the situation so when a storm came through in just minutes, it was too late.
I learned a lot from the devastation in Smithfield, NY. I know treat all severe storms with more urgency than ever before. I also take warnings more seriously in my own life outside of work and encourage my family and friends to be vigilant and aware of what is going on around them. Weather is changeable, occasionally violent, but NOT unpredictable. Yes there are incorrect forecasts, but information is always all around us and we need to listen and play an active role in staying safe when strong storms roll in.