Dr. Greg Forbes, severe weather expert for The Weather Channel, said the tornado was on the “upper end” of an EF3 rating, making it the strongest to hit Georgia in January since 1950.
He pointed out that stronger tornadoes have hit Georgia in other months, like the one that struck on April 27, 2011 and left Ringgold in near ruins, but for January Wednesday’s twister was at the top of the list.
“It’s kind of early in the year for Georgia to have tornadoes,” Forbes said. “They are more typical in March or April, but it’s not normally in the low 70s in January in north Georgia, either.”
The tornado was the byproduct of a very large weather system that moved across the country with winds in the jet-stream up to 200 miles per hour, Forbes said.
“The cold side had snow and bitter cold and the warm side had near record warmth and very strong winds just above the ground,” he said.
Low level winds cause thunderstorms to rotate, he said. If wind shear is strong enough, a storm can rotate upward and become a tornado.
Wednesday’s conditions were perfect for just that, Forbes said.
“Winds up to 5,000 feet in the air where up to 80 miles per hour,” Forbes said. “Low level winds like that fuel thunderstorms to rotate.”
The tornado came from a storm that was out ahead of the squall line, Forbes said.
“It came from Alabama in the Anniston area and entered Georgia north of Cedartown then made its way to the east side of Rome,” Forbes said. “Then it blasted into Adairsville and then moved towards Calhoun and finally up towards Ellijay.”
Forbes surveyed the damage himself last week, he said. He discussed the path of the tornado:
“The tornado came near Calhoun on the same track that it was on when it hit Adairsville,” he said. “That track began about 2.4 miles southwest of Adairsville and tracked about 21.8 miles to about 14.3 miles northeast of Calhoun near the Oakman area.
“And this is from the Naitonal Weather Service survey,” he added. “There could have been more tornado damage closer to the Georgia/Alabama border but they are not finished (investigating) yet.”
The tornado that hit Adairsville and Gordon County was not the only tornado that day, Forbes said.
“There were 34 confirmed in a two day period,” he said. “This one … is the only one confirmed in Georgia.”
So why did the tornado strike this area?
“Over the years we’ve come to know, for some reason, a mini tornado alley from northeast Alabama to the northwest side of Atlanta and up into (this area) and up to north-central Georgia that tends to get more tornadoes than other parts of the state. The is another one near Camilla in the southwest corner.
“We don’t know for sure why that is,” he added. “It may have something to do with the southwest edge of the Appalachians.”
He believes the winds tend to spin more near the southern end of the Appalachians.
“Since air can’t blow into the mountains, it rotates around,” Forbes said. “It gets lifted above the mountains and there is strength in the rising motion, which can intensify (storms) a little bit. It’s hard to exactly prove that for an individual tornado.”
Having been at ground-zero of the tornado himself, Forbes said he was amazed there were no deaths in Gordon County.
“There was one fatality in Adairsville and it was a bit of a fluke,” he said. “A tree fell on a mobile home. The trees there were mostly protecting the structure underneath. Winds in some areas caused worse damage.”
Though the tornado occurred out of season, Forbes pointed out that tornadoes can occur during any month of the year and in every state.
“Every state in the union has had a tornado, even Alaska,” he said. “It’s just a matter of frequency. To some extent there are myths out there about a tornado alley and that all the tornadoes occur in Oklahoma and Kansas. This is perpetuated by the Wizard of Oz. Those areas are great for storm chasers because there are not a lot of trees and you can see for a long distance.
“But when you get right down to it that is a chaser alley,” he added. “The more defined season is mid-April through mid-June. A big area for tornadoes is from the Rocky Mountains to the Appalachians; south and east makes up the true tornado alley.”
A lot of the reason for an increased number of tornadoes in this “true tornado alley” has to do with proximity to the Gulf of Mexico, he said.
“When weather is favorable and moist air from the Gulf of Mexico travels east of the Rockies and when you get a storm approaching and strong winds from the South or Southwest, you can have these type of outbreaks for the gulf coast states,” Forbes said.
“The Gulf stays warm all year long and can be warm and moist in the middle of winter like we saw on (Jan. 30) and moisture like it’s spring can be fuel for formation of the thunderstorms. A place like Georgia, by virtue of its proximity to the gulf, can have tornadoes any month of the year. Now, if you live in North Dakota, it is rare get a tornado in January.”
Gordon County sustained the greatest total structural loss from the Jan. 30 tornado.
More than 260 structures were impacted and eight people were left injured in Gordon County after the tornado, which had estimated peak winds at 160 miles per hour.
Three survey crews from the National Weather service reported that 268 structures were impacted by the storm, 202 of which were single-family homes, and 66 were mobile homes. Thirty structures were completely destroyed, 110 had major damages, and another 70 had minor damage.
The tornado lead to one fatality in Adairsville as well as 95 structures damaged, of which 31 were destroyed, 17 sustained major damage and 47 sustained minor damage. According to the report, most of the damage done in downtown Adairsville was a result of trees falling on homes in downtown Adairsville.