CENTRAL ILLINOIS (WCIA) – Central Illinois is no stranger to severe weather at any time of the year, but most often people focus on tornadoes and the impacts they bring.

While tornadoes do deserve our greatest attention, we often do not spend enough time focusing on straight line winds and the damage they can cause.

So, what’s the difference?

Tornadoes

  • Narrow corridor of extreme damage
  • Swirling motion with upward lifting motion
  • Winds up to 200 mph
  • Typically several hundred yards wide at the maximum, rarely can be a mile wide or more

Straight Line Winds

  • Large spread out area of wind damage
  • Wind motion is in one single direction
  • Wind gusts in extreme cases over 80 mph
  • Can cause a swath of damage multiple miles wide, dozens of miles long

The strongest tornadoes obviously cause the most extreme damage between the two. Winds from the strongest tornadoes can be over 200 mph. But, in the last 50 years, only a handful of tornadoes have had winds up to 150 mph, and the last violent tornado given a rating of 4 or 5 in our WCIA 3 Viewing Area was in 1976 with winds over 200 mph.

We’re not trying to discount the dangers from tornadoes. Even weak tornadoes can be deadly if caught unprepared and/or without shelter. But statistically, being affected by a weak tornado is much lower than the potential to be impacted by straight line winds. We’ve had a couple of towns impacted by strong tornadoes in the last decade (Gifford, Taylorville), but many, many towns have been affected by straight line winds causing widespread tree and power line damage. And, while tornadoes are often a narrow corridor of damage, straight line winds can affect entire counties.

The most common straight line wind gusts fall in the 60-80 mph range, but occasionally wind gusts of 80-100 mph+ have been recorded. This kind of damage can cause widespread power outages and knock down numerous trees. Structural damage can even occur, whether from the wind or from falling trees. If not sheltering properly, these winds can also become deadly, especially if outside and unsheltered or in a vehicle when trees are toppling over.

Recently, the National Weather Service adopted new criteria categories for severe thunderstorm warnings. A severe thunderstorm is considered any thunderstorm with wind gusts over 58 mph, and/or quarter size hail, and/or a tornado. The new categories separate severe thunderstorm warnings into three impact-based categories; “Base”, “Considerable”, and “Destructive”.

The category “Destructive” will trigger Wireless Emergency Alerts with winds expected of 80 mph and/or baseball size hail. Winds at these speeds can cause significant severe weather impacts, though wind gusts over 60 mph is enough to cause at least some damage.

The moral of the story is we need to respect severe thunderstorms and severe thunderstorm warnings more. Tornadoes still deserve our respect, but we often shy away from thinking severe thunderstorms can cause damage, when they can, do and often repeatedly do in our region.

When you receive a severe thunderstorm warning alert on your WCIA 3 Weather App, be sure to move indoors and stay away from windows. Keep alert for rapidly changing conditions and consider staying in the lowest floor of your home in the most interior spot, putting as many walls between you and the outside of your home. When severe storms are forecast, make sure to tie down or bring inside loose furniture and more to keep potential flying debris at a minimum. Even wind gusts of 30-40 mph is enough to send patio furniture flying and your trash can down the road.

For the latest severe weather information, visit our Weather Page.

To learn more about the WCIA 3 Weather App, visit our weather app information page.