Local News

February 19, 2014

Out of the freezer, into the thunderstorm

Edge of rare ‘panhandle hook’ system could bring tornadoes tonight

“Batten down the hatches.”

That’s the warning from Claude Craig, director of Whitfield County Emergency Management, about a storm system moving through the area tonight.

Whitfield and Murray counties “have a very strong possibility” of seeing severe thunderstorms between midnight and 3 a.m. Friday, Craig said, adding that the storm is expected to bring frequent lightning, damaging straight-line winds that could reach 80 mph, hail and tornadoes.

 Craig said the potentially bad weather is tied to a wide-reaching and rare weather system called a “panhandle hook,” which could potentially produce blizzards in the Midwest at the same time it produces thunderstorms and tornadoes locally and in parts of the country as far north as Ohio. Historically, panhandle hooks have created some of the worst storms recorded, according to the National Weather Service.

The system is developing from a chance alignment of the jet stream against the flat geography of the Texas Panhandle, forecasters say. Add on the unusual Arctic weather that continues to dip down from the North, along with warm, moist air from the Gulf of Mexico, and you get storms of huge proportions that hook toward Lake Michigan.

“The biggest problem for us here is going to be the straight-line wind,” Craig said. “People need to tie down anything outside they don’t want to blow away. It could be 50 mph or as high as 80 mph and that’s something people need to prepare for, on top of the chance of isolated tornadoes. The tail end of the squall line (a line of thunderstorms that develops ahead of a cold front) will hit us and hit us very strongly (Thursday night).”

Craig said people should practice “weather awareness” by making sure they have a weather radio or by signing up for the CodeRED weather alert system from the county if they haven’t already. The free text service can be found at www.whitfieldcountyga.com. Click on the CodeRED logo and enter an email address and a cellphone number.

Craig said families should discuss a plan in case a tornado forms in the area.

“Always be in the center-most part of the house when there’s a tornado,” he said, adding that people should stay away from windows that could shatter.

The storm comes after two massive winter systems impacted much of the state last week and in late January.

“A week ago, we had a foot of snow,” Craig said. “Today? I’m walking outside in a short-sleeved shirt (the high today is 71). I don’t know what’s going on (with the weather). We are preparing for the worst, hoping and praying for the best.”

Craig said there is a chance next week could bring more snow, but stopped short of “making predictions.”

“It’s too early to say,” he said. “Weather models change 10,000 times before they’re solid. There’s thousands of them to look at. But let me say this, a couple of the computer models suggest that — keep in mind they’re not forecasts — we could see more wintry type precipitation with accumulation.”

The biggest factor on whether the area will see more snow is the temperature, Craig said. If it drops down below 32 degrees, which he said some weather models are expecting, snow is likely.

“We will have to see,” he said. “It could mean rain, it could mean more snow.”

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