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Ripping Trees Out of the Ground
What’s with all this crazy weather?
By Terri Akman

At times this summer, it felt more like we were in the deep South rather than South Jersey. The stormy season brought intense thunderstorms, flash flooding and even two tornadoes in Mount Laurel. Between the fierce wind and the downpouring rain, it was easy to imagine we were all on a farm somewhere in Kansas (and maybe a witch would go flying by on her bicycle).

We experienced the unusual micro-burst – that’s an intense downdraft within a thunderstorm – as well as a cold-air funnel, which comes from cold air high up in the atmosphere. And of course it rained, a lot. Then it rained again. And then again, a lot. Homes lost power. Trees were turned upside down. It seemed the weather was beating down on us, and that was a little jarring. So since we don’t live in Kansas, we asked Fox 29 Meteorologist Kathy Orr to shed some light on what exactly is going on with the weather.

Q: Why is the weather suddenly so severe? 

There are a few things happening. The earth is warming and, whether or not you believe in global warming, the climate is changing. So now, any time you get a thunderstorm, when it rains, it pours. Summer and winter storms are stronger because the atmosphere is super charged. It’s not unusual anymore to have thunderstorms, isolated tornadoes and many 90-plus degree days.

Q: How does a tornado hit Mount Laurel?

That is unusual, although we have had eight tornadoes in New Jersey this year, which is above normal. We usually only get two in the state.

Any time you have a thunderstorm and there’s rotation in the atmosphere – it’s called wind shear – you can get a tornado. But even though we’ve had eight, you shouldn’t expect to see that type of activity continue. 

You’re getting more tornado warnings in the area because the technology is now available for the National Weather Service to issue them when something is suspicious. And now, with cell phones, people are more aware of what’s going on. People may have seen severe weather in the past but were never able to take a picture of it. Now they can.

Q: What exactly is a flash flood?

Flash flooding is when it’s sunny one minute and, all of a sudden, there’s such a torrential downpour that you can’t see in front of you. It happens when a storm produces so much rain in such a short period of time that drainage cannot keep up. You see it happen in areas where there is a lot of concrete, in low-lying areas like underpasses. And there are the usual suspects where it floods quickly, like the Admiral Wilson Boulevard in Camden. Flash floods contribute precipitation to the streams, creeks and rivers.

Q: Is the flash flooding problem getting worse?

Yes, flash flooding is definitely something we’re going to see more of. In the summer, you have more humidity anyway, but our storms seem to be stronger. When you have more storms producing more rain in a shorter period of time, you’re going to be getting more flash floods.

Q: What should we do when those storm warnings appear on our phones?

Heed the warning. If it’s a severe thunderstorm or you hear thunder, get inside. If you’re close enough to hear it, you’re close enough to be struck by it. If you’re driving, the safest thing to do is pull over to the side of the road and stay put in a safe place until the storm passes. Not all severe thunderstorms will turn into a tornado, but even without a tornado there can be plenty of thunderstorm damage with winds at 75 or 80 miles per hour. You don’t need a tornado to have a tree come crashing down into your house.

Q: What should you do if you’re driving, or you’re outdoors, and there’s sudden lightning and thunder?

Seek shelter immediately. Sometimes you just have to find someplace to take cover, although you should avoid going under a tree. Lightening will strike the highest point so it could go through the tree, through the roots and you could be struck. Take a look at the radar on your app to see if you’re in the worst part of the storm. Fox 29 has a great weather app.

Q: What is the biggest mistake people make when encountering a storm?

It’s thinking they can drive through water. If you’re in a car, turn around, don’t drown. That’s why we see so many car rescues. You have an SUV and you think you can make it through, but it only takes a couple of feet of water to make your car buoyant. It’s extremely dangerous and it’s one of the leading causes of weather-related deaths. We never had flash flood warnings as frequently as we have in the past couple of years, and a lot of people don’t know how quickly a road can flood.

Q: Have the unusual conditions made it harder to predict the weather?

In some ways. Now we have to factor in the effects we’ve seen from a more charged atmosphere. We know the time of day that something will typically happen. Usually there is some kind of front coming through, like a change in the air mass that’s going to help to instigate these storms. So we can time them. We know the window of when we’re going to have a line of storms happening, so it’s definitely forecastable. Sometimes you have storms that just pop up because of heat and humidity, and they can create heavy downpours as well. There has been a lot of accuracy with these warnings, so pay attention and make sure you get to a safe place.

September 2019
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