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Here’s how destructive tornadoes can be

KathyKafka/iStock/Thinkstock tornado damage to homes
WICKED REMINDER: The debris scattered everywhere after a tornado is a wicked, haunting reminder of just how powerful these storms can be.
Weather Wise: The debris field left by a tornado underscores its power.

A young boy asked, “Where would you land if you were picked up by a twister?” He also wanted to know how far twisters can scatter things. And he wondered if there are records of anyone who was actually picked up in a tornado and survived.

Those questions sent us searching through information from various sources. While we didn’t perhaps answer all of his questions, we did document that tornadoes can do strange things with debris.

Tornado debris can travel great distances. A study done by the University of Georgia on the April 2011 tornadoes that struck northern Alabama and Mississippi found debris from Alabama as far away as Knoxville, Tenn. That is nearly 220 miles!

Plotting where debris from that twister was found in a graph roughly forms a bell-shaped curve. Only a small amount landed within a mile of where the tornado struck the building or structure. A large amount of debris wound up about halfway between where the tornado hit and the piece of debris found the farthest away. 

Obviously the size and weight of the object are major factors. Items less than 1 pound and paper will travel much farther than an automobile. But in terms of pure range, objects can travel hundreds of miles in severe storm systems. 

True stories
Over the years, many people have been documented to have been picked up and carried by tornadoes and lived to tell the tale. Just recently, in January, a woman from Texas claims to have taken shelter in her bathtub and was carried in the tub to some nearby woods unharmed.

In 2006, a Missouri man set the record for farthest distance traveled by a person in a tornado. He was sucked out of his home and deposited just over 1,300 feet away. That is about a quarter of a mile.

An ABC News report of the event also cites several other instances of people and livestock being carried large distances by tornadoes. 

In summary, tornadoes are capable of scattering debris over hundreds of miles, depending on the size and weight of the object. Tornadoes have lifted and carried things as large as entire houses for some distance. 

Even the scene in “The Wizard of Oz” where Dorothy’s house is still intact in midair isn’t impossible. In the early 1970s, an amateur photographer from Greenwood captured a pole barn pulled from the ground intact. It was still intact hundreds of feet in the air. Then it disintegrated, and pieces of the barn were scattered over more than 40 acres. Yet when the farmer visited the site, he found a pile of corn cobs he had stacked inside the open-front building was still intact!

Eggert works for the Indiana State Climate Office. He writes from West Lafayette. Tom J. Bechman contributed to this story.

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