Tornadoes in Memphis

What to Expect and How to Stay Safe


 Getty Images / john finney photography

The Mid-South region—Tennessee, Mississippi, Kentucky, and Missouri—does not get as many tornadoes as the Midwest (KansasNebraska, and Oklahoma). This sounds promising for Memphis, Tennessee, but the threat still exists. History has shown that the Memphis area is not immune to tornadoes.

USA, Tennessee, Beale Street at twilight
Dan Reynolds Photography / Getty Images

Tornadoes in Memphis

Very few tornadoes ever touch down in the city of Memphis; in general, tornadoes are more likely to strike in an open area like plains and fields rather than dense urban areas with buildings. The odds are much lower due to the small areas covered, but paths can go anywhere, including over downtown areas. Tornadoes are enough of a threat that schools and city-wide drills are common in Memphis (weekly on Wednesdays during the season).

Tornadoes most commonly hit outlying areas of the Memphis metro area. In recent years, tornadoes have struck Covington, Bartlett, Germantown, DeSoto County, and Jackson, Tennessee. Bartlett and Germantown are essentially suburbs; DeSoto County is in Mississippi; and Jackson is about 85 miles from Memphis.

The last tornado to hit Memphis was part of the "2008 Super Tuesday Tornado Outbreak," so named because nearly half of the country was holding Presidential primary elections and caucuses.

The 2008 outbreak occurred spanning two days in February. There were 87 tornadoes confirmed during that time that caused 57 fatalities, 425 injuries, and $1.2 billion in damage—and the region included the Memphis metropolitan area, the Nashville metropolitan area, and Jackson, Tennessee.

Other Tornadoes in the Mid-South

One of the largest and deadliest outbreaks was the 2011 super outbreak, which killed 324 people. There were 360 confirmed tornadoes during that outbreak, which struck in April over three days. This storm supercell traveled along the eastern state line of Tennessee and was outside of the Memphis region. It caused more than $10 billion in damage—one of the costliest storms on record.

Memphis Region Statistics

Analysis of the Memphis area severe weather statistics reveals that June is the peak month for damaging wind reports, May is the peak month for hail reports, and April is the peak month for tornado reports.

Traditional severe weather season in the Memphis area is thought to be March through May, but according to national weather service data, the most active season actually extends from April through June. The most severe weather reports peak in the late afternoon and early evening hours of the day. This is typical since it follows the expected trend of convective activity that usually occurs during the daylight hours.

Tornadoes are found to pose a significant threat to the area, with an average of 14 striking the region each year. The majority of tornadoes in the Memphis area are weak, but a significant number of deadly strong and violent tornadoes affect the region each year. In fact, the number of strong and violent tornadoes in the Mid-South exceeds national averages. Violent tornadoes, while relatively rare, kill more Mid-South residents than weak or strong tornadoes combined.

What to Do If There Is a Tornado Watch

When there is an increased possibility of a tornado, a tornado watch is issued by the National Weather Service. In the event that a tornado is spotted in the area, a tornado warning is issued and the tornado sirens will sound. In addition, keep an eye out for these signs of an impending tornado:

  • Continuous rotation in the cloud base
  • Debris or dust whirling around beneath the cloud base
  • Greenish tint to the sky
  • Sudden stillness after rain or hail
  • Loud rumbling, often compared to the sound of a train or a jet

What to Do If There Is a Tornado Warning

In the event of a tornado warning, it is important to take shelter and follow some common tornado safety procedures.

  • If you are in a house or in a sturdy building, avoid windows and seek shelter in the center-most room on the lowest floor of the house. Use a mattress or heavy piece of furniture as protection against falling debris.
  • If you are in a mobile home or automobile, go outside and lie down on low ground or in a depression or ditch.
  • If you are outside, seek shelter in a sturdy building if one is accessible. Otherwise, lie down outside on low ground. Avoid trees and cars which could injure you during a tornado.
  • No matter where you seek shelter, use your hands and arms to protect your head from flying debris. If possible, put on shoes before seeking shelter. If a tornado does strike, you will be better able to climb over debris if you are wearing shoes.
  • Keep your identification on you. If you are hurt or disoriented, this can help emergency workers to identify you.
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