Without Warning: Why the Loris High School tornado took everyone by surprise

Updated: Jan. 30, 2020 at 7:00 AM EST
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LORIS, S.C. (WMBF) - A tornado ripped through the Loris High School parking lot on Jan. 13, leaving behind a trail of damaged cars.

Just yards away was a school full of hundreds of students and staff, many who had no idea of the potential danger just outside their classrooms.

“I could see it was raining really hard and hear the wind, but I couldn't tell the magnitude of it cause that's in the center of the building,” said Greg Lee, the school resource officer.

A student on the other side of the building said her teacher saw the tornado approaching.

“We have a big glass wall with a door that leads outside and she looked, and she saw the tornado and the teacher next to her said, ‘That’s it. Everybody let’s go. You need to run.’ So we all ran and we took cover,” said Loris High School student Ashton Norman. “We just held hands and put hands over our head.”

Loris Police Chief Gary Buley said when he got the call minutes later, he couldn’t believe a tornado had touched down just miles away.

“At first, I was like, ‘No way,’” Buley said. “We don't ever get that here in Loris.”

Lee said he was shocked when he walked outside to see cars stacked on top of each other.

WATCH: Video shows the moment a tornado swept through the parking lot of Loris High School, damaging a number of vehicles.

Posted by WMBF News on Tuesday, January 14, 2020

“I’m just pretty blessed that it happened at the time frame and didn’t impact the school directly,” Lee said. “If it had to happen sometime around 3:15, we would have had students out in the parking lot and it’d have been much worse.”

More than 70 cars were damaged from the tornado, but no one was injured.

The city does have an outdoor tornado siren but on that stormy Monday, it was silent.

The National Weather Service never issued an official tornado warning. If it had, officials would have activated the outdoor siren, cellphones would have chimed with Code Red alerts, and the entire school would have sought cover.

“If any type of warning is issued, we know there is a serious weather concern that is out there and we’re better able to prepare. Again, that will not always be an opportunity that we will get but that would have helped,” said Lisa Bourcier, a spokesperson for Horry County Schools.

Bourcier said because the tornado developed so fast the district was not “overly prepared” for it.

Buley said a warning would have allowed his police department to be more prepared as well.

The same hour the tornado struck the National Weather Service issued a special weather alert. The 12:23 p.m. statement warned of excessive winds, possible funnel clouds and recommended staying indoors.

At 90 mph winds, the Loris tornado touched down at 12:45 p.m.

“It’s really rare these days for a storm to hit without warning,” said WMBF Chief Meteorologist Jamie Arnold. “You think back to just Hurricane Dorian with all the tornadoes that we had with Dorian, or even with Hurricane Florence, and every single one of those had warnings on them.”

Official tornado warnings aren’t issued by schools or TV stations; they come from the National Weather Service.

“We always have someone monitoring and sometimes multiple people monitoring the radar, looking for certain patterns, a velocity, you know, anything that the radar gives us to help us make a decision to warn or not to warn,” said Steven Pfaff with the National Weather Service in Wilmington, N.C.

He said those ingredients weren’t strong enough to add up to an official warning on Jan. 13.

“We needed to issue something to the public, but it wasn't strong enough really for us to jump on the tornado warning without more information,” Pfaff said. “We don't want to issue a tornado warning for a little bit of rotation because just think of how desensitized the public would be over time.”

We're watching strong thunderstorms with weak rotation in northern Horry County.

Posted by WMBF News on Monday, January 13, 2020

Arnold explained the atmosphere that day was not favorable for any severe weather.

In addition, the speed at which the tornado developed - mere minutes - didn’t leave officials much time to identify and alert others.

“All tools have limitations and that includes Doppler radar and, you know, one limitation is that between the scans you can have a rapid spin-up and have a brief tornado,” Pfaff said.

The speed and size of tornados in the Carolinas set the natural disaster apart from the tornados seen in other parts of the country.

“We don't get the tornadoes like you see in Kansas, where you can see it from 20 miles away. It's on the ground for an hour, you can see it coming. That doesn't happen here. Our tornadoes are hard to see. They're usually wrapped in rain, hidden behind trees and clouds. By the time you see it, it's too late,” Arnold said.

While the Carolinas’ tornados aren’t always as severe as ones in other parts of the country, they have caused significant damage.

In 1984, 24 tornados touched down across the Carolinas, killing 57 and injuring 1,200.

Twenty-four people died in 2011 from 39 tornadoes.

In the last two years, hurricanes Dorian and Florence have contributed to an uptick in tornadic activity, according to Pfaff. He said each hurricane caused 18 tornados.

The risk for intense tornados is smaller but the threat still exists. Despite this, many parts of South Carolina do not have outdoor tornado warning sirens.

Derrec Becker, with the South Carolina Emergency Management System, said it would cost around $1 billion to install a statewide system and maintenance would be costly. He added that outdoor alert systems aren’t as effective in the 21st century.

Locally, Horry County Emergency Management officials agree.

“How effective is it going to be? Because here in this area, it would take a great amount of education for folks to understand if they hear a siren that's the tornado siren, which you know, that would take a big lift for people to understand,” said Horry County Emergency Management spokesperson Thomas Bell.

The county does not have any county-controlled outdoor tornado sirens.

“I think last year we saw an uptick in tornadic activity here in Orange County, but generally it is so low that to have an expensive siren system in place and then maybe to use it once or twice a year,” Bell said.

The spokesperson said the alerts on the phones that give information along with the noise is more effective for alerting people on how to respond.

Nearby, Marlboro County used to have a siren, but its emergency management director said the county stopped using it in 2016.

“After testing we found that its range is insufficient to provide proper warning,” Steve Akers, Marlboro County’s emergency management director, wrote in an email.

Most smart phones automatically receive alerts when weather warnings and Amber Alerts are issued. South Carolina residents also rely on broadcast stations and local social media outlets to receive crucial alerts even when weather hasn’t escalated to the level of an official warning.

However, this system relies on people being near their cellphone and having service, or being tuned into other media outlets.

That’s why some areas in the state are making the investment in outdoor signals to add another layer of warning.

Beaufort County officials are moving forward with plans to install more than 20 sirens.

It is estimated to cost $970,000 to install 27 sirens. The county received federal funding for the project, but officials have to decide whether they are willing to contribute local dollars

Lt. Col. Neil Baxley with the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office said they plan to strategically place the sirens near schools and beaches to alert people outdoors.

Baxley said the sirens aren’t the ultimate solution but are part of the initiative to alert the public.

Closer to home, Coastal Carolina University installed an outdoor mass notification system in 2016 and are working on completing the second phase of that project.

The system cost more than $1 million, but half was federally funded with a Federal Emergency Management Agency Hazard Mitigation Grant.

“If the National Weather Service issues a tornado warning for our area, the DPS Communications Center will utilize not only the outdoor MNS but also CCU Alert, the University’s text alert system, and other methods of communication,” said CCU Emergency Management Director Carissa Medeiros in an email. “Using multiple methods ensures that the University community is aware of the risk, no matter if they are in a classroom or outdoors on our campus.”

While Horry County doesn’t utilize any outdoor sirens, Loris has had one for decades.

“We have a lot of elderly in this community, so the text alerts are good and we have that through the city where we can push it out, but we still need some other ways of communicating with the elderly that may not be tech savvy,” Burley said.

Pfaff said he could see outdoor sirens working in some places but other areas of the state have nuclear outdoor sirens, so there would have to be education about the difference.

“You can have the best warning in the world, but people don't know what to do. Then we still run into problems,” Pfaff said.

Arnold said another issue with a county or statewide outdoor alert system is it might be difficult to isolate that warning to a specific area.

“Tornado warnings are only issued for small portions of counties now. So, are we gonna sound sirens all over the county and unnecessarily warn people that aren't in the path of the tornado?” Arnold asked.

Pfaff said a big part of his job is developing relationships with communities to make sure communication flows easily both ways.

“If people don't know how to get the information or how to respond to information or respond to what they're seeing, we're still going to have problems,” Pfaff said.

And even if sirens were available, an officially warning needs to be issued to activate them.

“It was happening so fast that it probably wouldn't have made a difference at all,” Arnold said in the case of the Jan. 13 tornado.

Despite the lack of warning, school and local officials said the tornado was handled appropriately.

“You expect a chaotic scene, but it was really very organized thanks to the staff and our SRO who kept (it) organized as best as possible,” Burley said.

Horry County Schools students practice tornado drills every spring and each school is equipped with a weather radio.

Lee said the teachers who did notice the tornado put in action what they practiced. He noted that tornados are not something he trained for.

“This is something we were not trained for before. So, you know, we just learned,” Lee said. “I don't see how things could have gone any better.”

While no one was injured, Bourcier said the district is reviewing its response to the tornado.

“We always look at our emergency plan at things we could do better. We take incidents like that and kind of review procedures and see if there is anything we can change and tweak along the way,” she said.

The National Weather Service is also reviewing how it handled the incident.

“In the case of the Jan. 13 event, we've archived

He explained the Loris tornado may help experts gain a better understanding of the bigger picture environment prior to its development.

Pfaff said technology is continuing to evolve to help increase the probability of detecting tornadoes sooner. He said 20 years ago it could take 10 minutes to get a warning issued, but now an alert can be pushed out in under a minute.

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