What's the difference between tornado and straight-line wind damage?

Elyse Smith Image
Saturday, May 18, 2024
What's the difference between tornado and straight-line wind damage?
ABC13 compared Houston damage scenes with National Weather Service assessments to determine whether tornado or straight-line winds caused them.

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- The powerful storms that rolled through southeast Texas on Thursday prompted questions about the differences between straight-line winds and tornadoes. Both impacted the city of Houston and nearby areas.

ABC13 Meteorologist Elyse Smith compiled viewer photos and videos to compare to National Weather Service reports and radar data to describe the differences and where.

It's important to note that straight-line winds can be just as dangerous and impactful as a tornado. For example, 100 mph straight-line winds produced extensive damage in downtown Houston. That wind speed is equivalent to an EF-1 tornado or a Category 2 hurricane.

When it comes to deciphering straight-line wind damage vs. tornado damage, meteorologists use a few indicators to tell the difference. The physical damage a storm causes is then compared to radar data from the same time the damage was caused.

One of the more accessible examples is tree damage. If trees are damaged by straight-line winds, their branches could be snapped, the trunk may be split vertically or horizontally, and the entire tree could fall over to where the roots are showing. And while tornado damage could also include these, there are a few more telltale signs. Tree-related tornado damage usually looks like a tree stripped of its branches with the trunk still standing. The tree might have a "shredded" appearance.

Another noticeable sign that it could have been a tornado is if there were pieces of other debris in the tree. Keep in mind that these are not exact guidelines; they are just examples from previous severe storm events.

These storms were unfortunately deadly, with five confirmed fatalities across the greater Houston area as of Friday, May 17.

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