3 big lessons learned from Saturday’s tornado outbreak in NJ
Saturday was terrifying. As I sat in the weather center Saturday afternoon, it became abundantly clear that New Jersey's atmosphere was ready to explode with some powerful thunderstorms.
And explode it did. Long-track rotating storms raised weather warnings across central and southern New Jersey. Families huddled for safety in basements as 70+ mph wind gusts, golf ball sized hail, constant lightning, and sideways rain blasted homes.
My heart breaks for everyone who incurred damage from these incredibly powerful thunderstorms. And for those who suffered storm anxiety and/or inconvenience too.
My meteorological colleagues from the National Weather Service and emergency management officials are in the field surveying the damage, to determine 1.) if tornadoes occurred, 2.) how strong they were, 3.) how long they were on the ground, and 4.) approximately how much damage occurred.
As of Monday morning, four NJ tornado touchdowns have been confirmed from Saturday evening: in Jackson, Cinnaminson, Howell and Sea Girt.
More determinations and more details will be released in the coming hours and days.
I think it's important after any significant weather event to take a step back and consider what we could do better. Both from a forecasting and communications standpoint (for me and my team), and also from a preparation and education angle (for you, the public).
1.) Yes, tornadoes happen in New Jersey.
On average, New Jersey sees 2 to 3 confirmed tornadoes per year. (The exact number depends on your source.) Some years have none. Some have a lot.
7 of the last 8 years have dropped at least two tornadoes in the Garden State. Since detailed record keeping began in 1950, 53 of 74 years had at least one tornado event. That's 72%.
New Jersey's most active tornado year on record was 1989, with 19 reports. Second-place is the more recent 2021 with 13. (You probably remember NJ's last tornado outbreak on July 29, 2021. I sure do.)
Every time a tornado occurs in NJ, it is a fresh reminder that tornadoes are not limited to the Midwest and the Great Plains. Yes, the mechanics of New Jersey tornadoes are a bit different than in Tornado Alley. Our twisters are usually quick spin-ups along a squall line, or the intense eye wall of a tropical storm.
And since our understanding of climate change points toward more frequent and more intense storms, this trend toward tornadoes in New Jersey is likely to only increase.
Bottom Line... Tornadoes are rare, but they do happen in New Jersey. Don't be too surprised when they're in the forecast.
2.) Many New Jerseyans know tornado safety rules.
The Tornado Warning is king of all weather advisories. (In fact, of the 124 advisory types in the National Weather Service's lexicon, only a Tsunami Warning is more urgent and more serious.)
When a Tornado Warning is issued for your area, it is an urgent and very serious matter.. That's why your television, radio, and even cell phone are instantly interrupted with the dramatic buzzing and beeping of the Emergency Alert System and Wireless Emergency Alerts. You may only have minutes (or less) to seek appropriate shelter.
Amidst the chaos of Saturday's dangerous weather, I couldn't help but be impressed and even proud of how many New Jerseyans knew exactly what to do when the warnings were issued. Seeking shelter is specifically built into the upbringing and culture in Tornado Alley. But here in New Jersey, it is a rare necessity.
Maybe you have a basement, maybe you don't. The important tornado safety rule is to seek shelter on the lowest level of a sturdy building, keeping away from windows. Cars and mobile homes are among the worst places to be during wind-driven severe weather events.
Bottom Line... When we tell you it's a "weather aware" day, you need to pay attention. Consider your plans carefully, and be prepared to take action. If and when a warning is issued, seek shelter immediately.
3.) When tornadic weather is forecast, it's not just about the tornadoes.
A tornado has a very specific definition. It is a violently rotating column of air, that extends from the base of a thunderstorm cloud to the ground. If it's not rotating? If it doesn't touch the cloud? If it doesn't touch the ground? It's not a tornado.
Only the strongest thunderstorms are capable of producing a tornado. And a storm must have the perfect combination of instability, moisture, shear, and lift to drop a twister.
Tornadoes really are a highly localized phenomenon. They are usually just a few hundred feet wide, tracking for yards or miles.
Then why was the damage and the drama from Saturday evening's storms seemingly so widespread? Because tornadic thunderstorms are also severe thunderstorms, capable of producing strong straight-line winds, large hail, and torrential rain.
Bottom Line... We can't just focus on the funnel threat. Destructive winds can be just as bad (if not worse) than a tornado. Hail and flooding can't be ignored during spring and summer thunderstorms too.
This was not New Jersey's first tornado outbreak, nor will it be the last. Thunderstorm season is just getting started, with convective activity peaking in the heat and humidity of summer.
It is critically important we all take lessons away from this significant storm, so we are better prepared for next time.
As always, we will be here to forecast and communicate any potential weather threats. Be smart and stay safe out there.
Dan Zarrow is Chief Meteorologist for Townsquare Media New Jersey. Follow Dan on Facebook or Twitter for your latest weather forecast updates.