February 29, 2012 Tornado Outbreak


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Overview

A strong upper level trough of low pressure moved across the Central Plains states on February 28, 2012, then spread eastward into the Ohio and Tennessee Valleys on February 29. An associated intense surface area of low pressure as deep as 987 mb moved northeastward from Colorado and through the Great Lakes, dragging a strong cold front rapidly across the Plains states into Middle Tennessee by the afternoon of the 29th. Scattered thunderstorms that developed ahead of the front produced numerous tornadoes across Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, and Kentucky from late afternoon on February 28 through the night into February 29, resulting in several fatalities and dozens of injuries. As the front moved into Middle Tennessee during the afternoon, strong wind shear aloft with winds as high as 170 mph around 35000 feet above the ground, along with unusually warm temperatures in the upper 60s and lower 70s at the surface, combined to produce additional scattered showers and thunderstorms. Although these thunderstorms remained weak west of the I-65 corridor, the combination of strong wind shear and moderate instability led to some of the thunderstorms becoming supercells east of I-65 to the Cumberland Plateau region, resulting in 4 tornadoes and several reports of large hail and wind damage. The tornadoes combined caused millions of dollars in damage, 3 fatalities, and 7 injuries in the Mid State.

Storm Surveys

NWS Storm Surveys were conducted in the following days to determine the number of tornadoes that occurred, as well as their strengths and paths. A supercell thunderstorm that tracked from Smith County eastward into Fentress County produced several microbursts and downbursts which blewn down hundreds of trees and caused damage to a few homes and outbuildings.  The worst damage was across eastern Fentress County, where large swaths of forests were blown down along the Morgan County border by winds estimated up to 85 mph.

A second supercell thunderstorm produced three tornadoes as it tracked from Wilson County eastward through Cumberland County. This storm first produced an EF1 tornado with maximum wind speeds around 95 mph in DeKalb County that touched down about 1 mile northwest of Smithville along Highway 83. The tornado then tracked rapidly east-northeast across the northern portions of Smithville, across Center Hill Lake, and into western White County before ending 10 miles northwest of Sparta. Scattered trees and some minor damage to buildings occurred along the beginning of the path in Smithville, with one small warehouse-type building significantly damaged on Highway 83. The tornado increased in intensity as it approached the west side of Center Hill Lake, where a home on stilts on Holiday Haven Road was blown down a hill and destroyed resulting in one fatality. Numerous trees were uprooted or snapped in this area. After crossing Center Hill Lake, the tornado continued to blow down hundreds of trees along Trimble Lane, Back Bone Lane, and Falling Water Road, with some trees falling on homes in the area. Passing just north of the Johnson Chapel Recreation Area, the tornado then entered western White County. A mobile home was damaged and a church steeple was blown off along Browntown Road near Wildcat Road, and two outbuildings suffered roof damage. Another barn and a home suffered roof damage further east on Browntown Road before the tornado lifted along Austin Road. To the south of the tornado track, an intense rear flank downdraft caused considerable straight-line wind damage, with exterior and roof damage noted to the DeKalb Middle and High Schools in Smithville, and many more trees being blown down in other areas.

This same supercell thunderstorm then spawned an EF0 tornado with maximum wind speeds around 85 mph near the Macedonia community northwest of Sparta, which then moved rapidly eastward across Highway 111 before ending east of Walnut Grove Road. A home and barn suffered roof damage on Linville Road, and several trees were snapped or uprooted along the path.

The final tornado was an EF2 tornado with maximum wind speeds around 125 mph that touched down along Castro-Pugh Road just north of Plateau Road in northern Cumberland County. Intermittent damage continued to the east northeast for approximately 1 mile before the damage became continuous along Clear Creek Road. Hundreds of trees were uprooted and snapped and a home suffered roof damage in this area. The tornado continued east northeast and reached EF2 intensity in the Rinnie community along Highway 127. A brick home slid off its foundation and was completely destroyed on Highway 127, and a double wide mobile home along Hollow Road was completely destroyed with debris tossed hundreds of yards, resulting in two fatalities in this area. Another home lost its entire roof, and several other buildings had significant roof and siding damage. At least a thousand trees were uprooted or snapped around this location. The original storm survey conducted on March 1, 2012 found the last evidence of damage along Todd Road to the east of Highway 127.  However, aerial imagery from Google Earth released in 2013 indicated the tornado continued eastward and widened to 1/2 mile, blowing down thousands of more trees as it moved across inaccessible forested areas of northern Cumberland County.  Damage was apparent for several more miles on Google Earth imagery eastward to Roy Taylor Road, indicating this tornado had a total path length of over 12 miles.

EFScale


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