If it feels like you hear about tornadoes more frequently the past couple years, you're not imagining things. Better early-storm detection — including sharper radar technology, more well-trained storm spotters, and stronger communications — is allowing meteorologists to see twisters coming from further afield. That means we hear more about more tornado systems, including the weaker ones.
We're also hearing about tornadoes in places outside the well-known "Tornado Alley," where storms are known to terrorize a north-south swath of the American heartland from Iowa to Texas. This area still beats all others in pure number of twisters. But when it comes to expensive property damage — and number of deaths due to tornados — another area has it beat: "Dixie Alley."
Eastern Texas, most of Louisiana, all of Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi, and much of Arkansas and Tennessee are included in this area.
On March 3, 2019, several tornadoes ripped through southeastern Alabama and central/west Georgia — killing more than 20 people, destroying homes and businesses and ripping apart trees. It was the deadliest tornado in Alabama since the 2011 tornadoes that killed 253 people in the Tuscaloosa/Birmingham area.
More storm damage... about to totally dark, I still hear helicopters and emergency sirens. #tornado in Bearegard pic.twitter.com/nWm1bRNeHW
— Scott Fillmer (@scottfillmer) March 3, 2019
According to Bloomberg, "Since 1997, on average, tornadoes in Dixie Alley have caused more than $600 million in property damage annually (accounting for inflation) and killed more than 40 people a year, compared with $470 million in damage and 13 deaths a year in Tornado Alley. And that’s despite almost 3,000 more twisters touching down in Tornado Alley during that time."
Part of the reason so many lives were lost was because in the Southeast, these storms often form quickly (some in just 15 minutes) and often occur at night when the distinctive cone-shape of the twister can't be seen, and people may be asleep.
Mother Nature can produce one at any time
Technically, tornadoes can strike anywhere, anytime; whether they form is purely dependent on atmospheric conditions. How much damage they do once they touch down can be affected by topography, but tornadoes can form almost anywhere.
While most tornado damage and deaths in the Northern Hemisphere happen in the spring, from March to May, Dixie Alley also experiences a second uptick in tornado energy in November. That's because moisture from the Gulf of Mexico collides with the jet stream that's moving down from the Great Plains.
Damage is seen from a tornado in Beauregard, Alabama. 'The devastation is incredible,' Lee County Sheriff Jay Jones told the local CBS affiliate. 'I cannot recall at least in the last 50 years... a situation where we have had this loss of life that we experienced today.' (Photo: Tami Chappell/AFP/Getty Images)
The impact a tornado has isn't all caused by atmospheric conditions: The states within Dixie Alley have a higher population density than the Great Plains and Tornado Alley. There are a number of fast-growing cities in the Southeast, so more people are affected when a twister passes through. (Atlanta, for example, has grown by 40 percent since 2000.) Also, more people live in mobile homes in Dixie Alley, and this type of housing is more vulnerable than houses with foundations and basements.
Despite the seeming increase in tornadoes, it's more about perception than reality. Since the middle of the 20th century, "there is no discernible trend in either the frequency of or fatalities associated with strong and violent tornadoes," according to the Southeast Regional Climate Center.
Editor's note: This article has been updated since it was originally published in June 2018.