Though few Americans recognize the name of Tetsuya “Ted” Fujita, many are familiar with the eponymous rating system he developed to measure damaging wind speeds.
The EF (Enhanced Fujita) Scale used in the U.S. since 2007 is applied to rate tornado intensity based on the damage inflicted on human-built structures and vegetation. The only federal agency authorized to provide an official EF Scale rating is the National Weather Service.
The rating process is an analytical and numerical one, involving assessment of eight degrees of damage to 28 indicators. After observation and calculation, the NWS determined that the tornado that tore through Jonesboro on Saturday packed EF-3 level wind force (136-165 mph).
There are some 1,200 tornadoes tracked each year, but this one was different.
For starters, despite a destructive six minutes on the ground, carving a path through Jonesboro’s major retail area and several clustered subdivisions—hurling automobiles and flattening large commercial structures—not a single life in the town of 75,000 was lost. Most of the 22 injuries reported were minor.
When the funnel finally dissipated amid the farm fields east of Brookland, some 458 homes were destroyed, along with large sections of the mall and numerous other businesses.
Another critical difference is that this tornado unfolded live on KAIT, with meteorologists Ryan Vaughan (working remotely, on the phone) and Zach Holder (in-studio and on-camera) collaborating in coverage and warning residents in real time.
Those precious minutes proved priceless for families and employees. With business shutdowns associated with coronavirus “Slow the Spread” policies, one of Mother Nature’s most deadly phenomena found the people of Jonesboro generally absent from normal weekend shopping centers, and prepared and protected in their safe spots at home.
Saturday’s event also has to be one of the best-documented tornado disasters ever, and should wind up being a remarkably instructive case study rich with ultra-valuable lessons for other communities, news media outlets and weather forecasters and analysts.
In a makeshift re-creation using my two computer monitors and smartphone, I synced up the full KAIT televised broadcast, the Jonesboro Radio Group’s audio, and a Google map aerial path video showing the NWS damage markers.
It’s eerie to turn back the clock and relive those six frantic minutes in actual time.
Two KAIT weather-cams capture the tornado as it first descends from the ominous wall cloud on the south side of town and then follow it live (with the exception of a momentary camera switch) until it reaches the Farville curve north of the city.
Throughout the broadcast, Holder is literally pointing to specific places on the large screen image as the mammoth tornado is seen throwing up huge chunks of debris and igniting multiple power flash explosions.
Simultaneously, radio broadcaster Trey Stafford is repeatedly declaring a tornado emergency, and naming off streets, locations, highways, landmarks in danger.
“This is crossing over Red Wolf [Boulevard] right now,” Vaughan says, just before the debris-circled funnel churns through the mall, wiping out Best Buy and ripping the roof off Barnes and Noble.
As the tornado moves past the airport and into residential areas on the video, despair creeps into the broadcasters’s voices. Most people are home in this pandemic, and the debris being lofted now represents houses, not mostly empty business retail buildings.
Veteran radio personality Stafford’s voice—a fixture on local morning drive time for decades—breaks just a bit.
“I’m just sick at my stomach right now,” he says haltingly, speaking for anyone seeing it live. “It’s just hard to watch this happening in our town.”
All those covering the tornado, from the television meteorologists to the radio reporters to the stormchasers on the ground, expected severe injuries and loss of life. There seemed to be simply too much destruction, too much debris hurtling too fast through the air, for too long.
But residents at the subdivisions in harm’s way, watching on television or on Facebook live or listening to the radio (or getting frantic calls and texts from others who were), benefited from several crucial minutes of advance notice.
Following the tornado on video, you don’t see what was happening at businesses and in homes as the broadcasters pleaded for audiences to take cover.
People were listening. Thousands all at once were making those ticking seconds of warning count by hurrying to their safe spots. A store employee was able to usher a young family outside the front door into the store’s safe room. A couple of scared roommates had time to scamper down the street to a grandmother’s storm shelter.
Such stories are legion, and they all showcase the vital role local news media can play in times of lethal community threats. Stafford, Vaughan and Holder were supported by many other reporters, technicians and experts, and collectively the execution of their efforts helped the people of Jonesboro safeguard themselves.
Communities come together during tornado aftermaths, and Jonesboro is no exception.
The distinguishing teachable moment here is how Jonesboro’s community came together in those brief but lifesaving minutes before and during the tornado.
It should be the talk of the state, and the nation, during storm season and beyond.