Now confirmed: there were tornados on the ground in the DC area during Friday's set of storms

The series of storms that raced though the DC area on Friday, 1 June, were quite strong and had all the potential of spawning tornadoes. But, despite multiple “tornado warning” announcements during the afternoon and evening, I didn’t hear a single confirmation that a tornado had actually been spotted. Now comes confirmation that there were, in fact, tornadoes on the ground.

The National Weather service says seven confirmed tornadoes touched down in the area Friday afternoon.

All seven of the tornadoes were in Maryland. They all touched down between 2:30 p.m. and 7 :30 p.m.

The strongest tornado was in the Pleasant Hills area of Harford County. The county estimates the storms caused $1 million in damage.

There were also two in Damascus, another near Poolesville, another 3 miles north of Gamber, another near Fort Meade that moved across parts of property owned by BWI-Thurgood Marshall airport, and another in the Springdale area of Prince George’s County

A map showing those locations will give you an idea of the scope of the storms that night.

I had noticed a change in the reporting as I listened to the radio on Friday. In my youth, the weather service would issue a tornado watch if the conditions were ripe for a tornado. Only when a tornado was actually spotted would they issue a warning. The warnings would also give the location, heading, and speed of the tornado so listeners would know if they were in the path. On Friday, however, warnings were being issued left and right based on doppler radar readings that showed a given thunderstorm cell had characteristics that might indicate the presence or probability of a tornado. So, rather than a warning saying there was a tornado on the ground at Poolesville headed northeast at 30 miles per hour, you got an announcement of a tornado warning in Poolesville until 5:15pm. Such tornado warnings were issued for Centerville, VA as well as  Fairfax, Dale City, even parts of Arlington. But no tornado was actually spotted nor did one set down.

While I understand the desire to get people to safety as soon as possible, I am a bit uneasy with using a tornado warning in this fashion. When you hit the alarm for a tornado and tell people to immediately move to their bunkers only to have the storm pass and never have an actual tornado on the ground, you begin to teach people that a warning isn’t really a warning. It’s a “maybe” and it won’t be long before people factor that in to their response. By diluting the critical, immanent nature of the tornado warning, we might be setting ourselves up for a situation where people start to ignore it. That’s not the goal and we should make sure not to let good intentions produce unintended and unwanted results.

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