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South Carolina Tornadoes

A tornado is a type of storm. The defining feature of a tornado is the fiercely spinning, funnel-shaped air columns extending down to the earth from the black thunderclouds tornadoes form. The winds within tornadoes are some of the most intense winds ever recorded on Earth. They rotate at extremely high speeds and are encircled by a large wind circle, giving the tornado its distinctive tube-like look.

These high winds are extremely destructive and dangerous to people and property. Tornadoes in South Carolina have been recorded to damage buildings, break bridges, collapse trains, and propel automobiles into the air. They can even remove tree bark and suck the entire contents of a riverbed.

The United States has more tornadoes than any other country. More than 1,200 tornadoes hit the country every year. Every state has had a tornado, but some states are more prone to this weather phenomenon than others. Because of the high frequency of tornadoes in the central United States, this area is called the "Tornado Alley." This Midwest region includes the states of Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Kansas, South Dakota, and Oklahoma, as well as Iowa and Kansas. South Carolina is not one of the states in this alley, yet it ranks twenty-sixth in the United States for the number of states struck by tornadoes.

Science Behind Tornadoes

Tornadoes, also called twisters, typically form as a secondary event in large thunderstorms and hurricanes. Most twisters are caused by supercells, which are massive thunderstorms with winds already rotating cyclically. However, only a small portion of thunderstorms result in tornadoes. Almost all supercells can cause some kind of severe weather, like huge hail or damaging winds, but only about 30 percent or less can cause tornadoes. These thunderstorms require a combination of wet warm air and dry cold air to form. They form when the air masses collide, making the atmosphere unstable, and causing warm air to rise over cold air.

When this warmer air rises over the cooler air, it creates an updraft or a shift in wind direction. In the lower atmosphere, a change in wind direction and increased wind speed with increasing height produces an unseen, horizontal spinning effect. When the rotating updraft continues to suck in additional warm air from the moving thunderstorm, the rotation speed of the updraft increases, forming an initially invisible tube of air called a funnel cloud.

A funnel cloud might take the shape of a cone, pillar, or tube. As the twister's intensity rises, so does the length of the funnel. Soon more dirt and debris become entangled in the funnel's rotation, making the funnel visible to people in the area. This phenomenon is most dangerous when it touches land.

Speed and Destructive Potential of Tornadoes

Tornadoes typically have wind speeds of less than 110 miles per hour(mp/h) (180 kilometers per hour(km/h)), a width of about 250 feet (80metres (m)), and can travel for several miles before disintegrating. However, some very severe tornadoes have been reported to produce winds of up to 300 mp/h (480 km/h), and they can occasionally travel more than 100 miles before dying out. A tornado will usually die as it passes colder terrain or as the clouds in the sky above it begin to break up. Despite their destructive power, twisters typically last around ten minutes, though some can rage for more than an hour.

The Enhanced Fujita Scale is used to assess a tornado's destructive potential. It is a set of wind estimates (not measurements) based on damage, extending from EF0 to EF5. Tornadoes that inflict the least damage are rated as EF0, while those that cause the most damage are rated as EF5. This scale is an update of the original Fujita Scale.

Classification of Tornadoes

The National Weather Service (NWS) classifies tornadoes into three broad groups based on their estimated wind speeds and potential damage:

Tornado Strength Classification Wind Speed
Weak EFO, EF1 65 to 110 mph
Strong EF2, EF3 111 to 165 mph
Violent EF4, EF5 166 to 200 mph or more

Consequences of Tornadoes

The intense winds generated by tornadoes and the flying debris caught up in them pose the greatest threat to the human population and their property. Tornadoes can wreak massive devastation and fatalities. In the U.S, twisters are estimated to cause about 400 million dollars in damage annually due to the destruction of businesses, homes, and other forms of infrastructure. They also result in an average of 70 fatalities every year.

  • Tornadoes result in significant economic consequences, which can be divided into direct and indirect losses. Direct losses include the destruction of assets, the accompanying decline in the value of those assets, and the revenue that is not generated due to the destruction of assets.

  • In contrast, indirect losses refer to more significant effects such as lost production and sales, longer travel times, greater transportation expenses, and decreased tourist activities. Regardless, tornadoes can reignite dying local economies through rebuilding efforts, the influx of money from insurance policies, disaster relief funding, and labor market benefits.

  • More worrisome is that tornadoes can contaminate the environment. A strong tornado has the ability to damage pipelines and destroy chemical containers, contaminating groundwater with oil, sewage, and other hazardous substances. Tornadoes also have the destructive potential to level large tracts of land and destroy many trees. This results in the loss of wildlife habitats as well as the ability of invasive species to move to forests close to those that have been destroyed.

South Carolina Tornado Threat Profile

From 1990 to 2017, South Carolina was hit by an average of 26 tornadoes per year. However, the damages and fatalities associated with tornadoes in the state have significantly reduced due to improved reporting that allows individuals in the tornadoes' paths to be better prepared.

Historical meteorological data from South Carolina Emergency Management Division (SCEMD) suggest that the tornado season in South Carolina is typically between March and May. Still, it is possible for this weather phenomenon to occur throughout the year. The number of tornadoes in the state each year is increasing. Studies show that tornadoes are growing more prevalent, stronger, and more likely to occur in clusters. So far, in 2022, the state has experienced 28 tornadoes that have caused up to $300,000 in damages.

Furthermore, South Carolina is one of the states in the United States most likely to be affected by hurricanes and other forms of tropical storms. Hurricanes can also trigger tornadoes, and as they have become more prevalent in the state, so have tornadoes. Twisters are less likely to form when a hurricane moves over water. But the air's friction increases when a hurricane or tropical storm makes landfall(moves over land). When this happens, the surface winds are slowed by friction, but the winds at the upper layers remain unaffected and continue to get stronger. This causes wind shear, which is a necessary component of tornadoes. Wind shear is the change in wind speed and direction caused by elevation. This causes the atmosphere to spin, contributing to the creation of tornadoes.

Notable Tornadoes in South Carolina

The South Carolina State Climatology Office tracks weather phenomena in the state. The agency's data collected up to date records the following occurrences, and consequences of tornadoes in South Carolina:

  • April 30, 1924

Two tornadoes struck South Carolina, resulting in the state's highest recorded tornado death toll. Their courses were extraordinarily long, totaling more than 100 miles each. The tornadoes caused 77 deaths and 778 injuries and destroyed 465 homes and several other structures. The damage cost tens of millions of dollars.

  • March 28, 1984

South Carolina recorded the second-highest death toll from tornadoes when eleven tornadoes struck a narrow zone stretching from Anderson County to Marlboro County in 1984. These tornadoes caused 15 deaths, 448 injuries, and more than $100 million in damage. The twisters were also responsible for numerous storm-related deaths.

  • August 16, 1994

On August 16, 1994, the remnants of Tropical Storm Beryl caused a tornado outbreak that confirmed 23 different tornadoes. Five of those tornadoes struck Lexington County. Even though no one was killed, at least forty people were injured, and the damage cost well over fifty million dollars. About 200 homes, many businesses, churches, and city buildings were damaged. Damage to five electric substations in the county left about 15,000 people without electricity.

  • September 6-7, 2004

Tropical Storm Frances produced a record-breaking 47 tornadoes when it rushed up the Appalachian spine in September 2004. Tornadoes within the state caused damage in South Carolina's Low Country, Midlands, and Pee Dee regions. Sumter County was the most hit, with an F2 tornado destroying 9 homes, damaging 55 others, wounding 3 people, and generating total damages of nearly $1.7 million. This unusual tornado outbreak injured 13 people and caused $2.77 million in damage to the state.

  • September 5-6, 2019

Hurricane Dorian was the most destructive storm of the U.S. 2019 hurricane season. On September 5, bands of showers and thunderstorms ahead of the storm's center spawned more than a dozen tornadoes throughout northeastern South Carolina and eastern North Carolina. Although these tornadoes predominantly struck eastern North Carolina, the counties of Georgetown and Horry in South Carolina were the most damaged by these storms. The event resulted in flooding due to heavy rain and storm surge, causing the whole city of Georgetown to lose electricity.

  • April 5, 2022

The NWS confirmed eight tornado touchdowns in the Midlands region of South Carolina. An EF3 tornado touched down in Bamberg and Orangeburg counties, an EF-2 tornado in Lexington County, and a second EF-2 tornado in Clarendon County. Tornadoes raced through the Midlands, yet just one person was injured, and no one died.

How to Prepare for Tornadoes in South Carolina

Taking the extra effort to prepare for a tornado can significantly reduce the damages, injuries, and fatalities incurred. Having an emergency plan is the most important part of preparing for a tornado in South Carolina. The plan must consider and account for household members, pets, valuables, finances, and the structure of the home or business.

South Carolina Tornado Emergency Plan

For household members and pets: focus primarily on choosing potential shelters, determining where to assemble if members get separated, developing safe evacuation techniques, and handling personal possessions and household pets in a tornado emergency.

As a result, the family's emergency plan should include the following:

  • Discussions about ensuring everyone knows what to do if a warning is issued. (Such meetings can also help reduce fear and anxiety, especially in younger children).

  • Easily accessible and carefully prepared emergency supply kits for every household member and pet(s).

  • Review of the tornado risk in the area and the preparedness measures in place.

  • Listening to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) radio broadcasts by streaming an online NOAA radio station, downloading an NOAA radio app, or buying ,a battery-powered or hand-cranked NOAA radio.

  • Lessons on how to administer first aid and how to use a fire extinguisher.

  • Identifying adequate shelter spots within the home or beyond if the house is not suitable to shelter in for a tornado.

  • Measures to keep household members together or reunite them if they become separated during an emergency.

  • Examining the emergency kit and replenishing any items that are either missing or running low.

  • Practicing the emergency plan and holding regular drills so that everyone knows what to do in a tornado emergency.

  • Maintaining lists of critical information, including emergency phone numbers (such as police, fire, paramedics, and medical centers).

  • Keeping essential documents that might serve as proof of insurance or identity in a safe place.

South Carolina Tornado Emergency Supply Kit

South Carolina residents must prepare for a tornado's aftermath by storing up numerous emergency supplies. These should include the following:

  • Food and water (up to 3 days' supply)

  • NOAA Weather Radio

  • Flashlight with extra batteries

  • First-aid supplies

  • Whistle

  • Local maps

  • A list of emergency services contacts.

It is vital to ensure that each kit meets each household member's needs. Pet owners should also prepare emergency kits for their pets.

How to Prepare Your House for a Tornado in South Carolina

No home is entirely safe in the case of a tornado. However, paying attention to the specifics of the building can limit damage and improve safety. South Carolina residents can protect their homes by taking the following actions:

Loose Items

  • Transfer all loose items into boxes or bags so they do not become debris

  • Clear the yard of any clutter and debris that may have accumulated so that they do not become projectiles.

Jewelry and Important Documents

  • Consider building a tornado safe room in the home.

  • Put all paper copies of vital financial and legal papers in a fireproof and waterproof box or safe

  • Keep copies of important documents in a bank safe deposit box.


  • Make trees wind-resistant by removing diseased or damaged limbs, so they do not become projectiles

  • Cut tree branches in strategic areas to create gaps for wind to pass through.

House Doors, Windows, and Roof

  • Install permanent shutters to cover windows

  • Reinforce garage doors to make them resilient

  • Using hurricane clips to reinforce the connection points between the wall studs and the roof rafters

  • Keeping roof overhangs narrow to maximize protection from the elements and resistance to wind.

Home Furniture and Appliances

  • Place heavy or bulky items on the lowest shelves, so they are less likely to crash when strong winds blow

  • Place seats and beds in parts of the house that do not have windows, mirrors, or picture frames.

Gas, Power, and other Utilities

  • Show family members where the major switches or valves for turning off utilities such as gas, electricity, and water are located and how to turn off utilities properly

  • Secure significant appliances with flexible cable, braided wire, or metal strapping.

Tornado Insurance in South Carolina

Tornado damage is among the most expensive that may be caused by natural disasters. Tornadoes account for approximately 57% of all catastrophic losses in the United States. Getting insurance can lessen the likelihood of being left with a significant financial burden in the aftermath of a disaster. Unlike hurricanes and floods, tornadoes are often covered by ordinary homeowners' insurance policies and do not require the purchase of an additional endorsement or rider.

The policy will typically cover the home's structure; however, the home's contents, including any personal belongings, must be insured separately. This includes automobiles. Individuals must have a comprehensive car or truck insurance policy to be eligible for compensation for tornado-related damage to a vehicle. Residents, particularly those in tornado-prone areas, are strongly advised to get complete auto insurance coverage.

How to Get Tornadoes Warnings and Alerts in South Carolina

Meteorologists use weather satellites and balloons to collect data during thunderstorms. These experts collect wind speed and temperature data and analyze it to anticipate where and when a tornado will form and its potential severity and length. These sensors can help experts predict when and where tornadoes may originate. This way, residents and businesses in the twister's path have early warnings and more time to prepare, execute their tornado emergency plans and seek shelter.

Research has revealed that certain climatic conditions are often favorable for producing tornadoes. When forecasters observe scenarios like this, they can make accurate predictions regarding the likelihood of tornadoes forming. When atmospheric conditions are ideal for a tornado, the affected region is issued a warning.

Tornado Alerts in South Carolina

Residents should pay close attention to their area's changing weather conditions to protect themselves in the case of a tornado. They are advised to stay tuned to local radio and T.V. stations or an NOAA weather station for weather information. Additionally, paying attention to any thunderstorm watches or warnings issued is critical because storms and tornadoes frequently occur together.

Tornado "watch," and tornado "warning" are terminologies used by meteorologists to inform the public of the possibility of an incoming storm:

  • Tornado watch: This alert warns residents to be prepared as tornadoes are possible in the specified area. When this warning is issued, South Carolina residents are advised to review their preparations; they may restock emergency supplies and review their evacuation plans.

  • Tornado warning: This alert implies that a tornado has been spotted or identified by weather radar. A warning may also inform residents of the tornado's proximity and suggest they relocate to safer areas. At this time, residents can often see a wall cloud or cloud of debris characterized by a dark sky with a greenish tint, large hailstorms, or hear rumbling sounds.

Cities Prone to Tornado in South Carolina

Tornadoes can strike at any time or location. However, certain parts of South Carolina may be more vulnerable to tornadoes than others. Tornadoes have been documented in all 46 counties of South Carolina, with the Midlands region having the most reported and strongest tornadoes compared to the rest of the state. The Midlands of South Carolina are roughly located in the state's geographic center. The region's principal focus is Columbia, which is the state capital.

  • Calhoun County
  • Fairfield County
  • Kershaw County
  • Lexington County
  • Orangeburg County
  • Richland County
  • Saluda County
  • Sumter County.

Tornado Alley in South Carolina

There are four tornado alleys in the United States: Dixie Alley, Hoosier Alley, Tornado Alley, and Carolina Alley. South Carolina is home to Carolina Alley, the country's fourth most active tornado corridor. The area originates in northern Georgia, travels through South Carolina in a narrow corridor a few hundred feet wide, and then enters North Carolina through Interstate 95.

The alley runs through the Carolinas, stretching from the Florence region of northeastern South Carolina to the Yancey County region in northeast North Carolina. Because most of the circumstances required for the storm to form exist in the area, all locations in this region are more vulnerable to severe and devastating tornadoes.

Individuals in these risk areas should prioritize emergency planning to safeguard themselves and their property. They are advised to install tornado-resistant structures and purchase tornado insurance. Overall, since tornadoes occur without warning, all Palmetto State residents are urged to adequately prepare for tornadoes.

What to Do During a Tornado in South Carolina

In the event of a tornado, it is vital to have a plan in place on where to seek shelter. Most injuries and fatalities during a tornado are caused by falling and flying debris. Although no location is guaranteed to be completely safe during a tornado, some areas are much safer than others. When a tornado is on the horizon, the safest place is in a basement or an enclosed room on the lowest floor with no windows. Examples include a bathroom or closet. After getting into the secure area, getting under anything sturdy, such as a piece of furniture, is essential for additional protection.

Find a Shelter if Your Home Is Unsafe

People who reside in mobile homes or houses without basements are strongly advised to find another location to evacuate to in the case of a tornado. This might be a community shelter, the home of a family member or friend, or even a church with safer facilities. During heavy winds, mobile homes are at risk of being blown over. Even mobile homes with tie-down systems are vulnerable to a tornado's destructive winds.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 76 people died during the 2020 tornado season, and several others were injured. When the tornado hit, 51% of the victims were in mobile homes or trailer parks. Hence, it is best to relocate to a nearby building, especially one with a basement. If there are no other options, people can lie on their stomachs in the nearest ditch, ravine, or culvert with their hands covering their heads.

If You Are on the Road During a Tornado

Because tornadoes can occur at any time, it is possible to be trapped in a car when one occurs. In this case, it is critical to remember that outrunning a tornado is nearly impossible. As a result, motorists are cautioned not to attempt to outrun a tornado. They must instead drive their vehicles to the nearest shelter or suitable building.

Persons who cannot reach a proper shelter should exit the vehicle and find refuge in a low-lying area. Otherwise, they may remain in their vehicles and shield their heads and necks. However, individuals who must stay in their vehicles must avoid bridges or underpasses since strong winds send debris under them.

Listening to local radio for updates is also essential because tornadoes can change intensity quickly. Residents who notice oncoming tornadoes can report them to the newsroom of a local radio or television station, which will alert others.

What to Do After a Tornado in South Carolina

Residents are advised to do these after a tornado to ensure their safety:

  • If evacuated, return only when the authorities permit

  • Listen to the local news or NOAA Weather Radio for the most recent information and guidance

  • Get any injuries treated, and help treat injured persons while waiting for emergency services

  • Use phone lines for emergencies

  • Steer clear of downed power lines and notify the proper local utility companies of destroyed lines

  • Keep a safe distance from damaged buildings

  • Keep all pets under direct supervision

  • Have a professional inspect any damages to the home's structure and utilities before moving in

  • Take pictures of damages to help file a homeowner's insurance claim

  • Wear protective clothing when cleaning and repairing the home, such as long pants, rubber shoes, and gloves

  • Consider installing tornado-resistant features to help protect the home from future disasters.