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Severe weather rips through central states to East Coast

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Nearly two dozen people are dead after a storm system ripped through much of the central United States over the weekend, massive thunderstorms and tornadoes and hail the size of softballs. All this destroyed buildings. It took out power. And now that system is showering the East Coast. Here to tell us more about what has happened and what to expect, we have Matthew Cappucci, meteorologist with The Washington Post. Hey there.

MATTHEW CAPPUCCI: Hey.

KELLY: Hi. So I gather you have been taking all this in from Springfield, Mo. You're out there tracking the storm. So let's start with the what happened. What happened?

CAPPUCCI: Yeah, most definitely. So I've been in the field over the past month, tracking tornadoes. I've tracked down 12 of them from close range, intercepting their paths. But in this case, so many of the tornadoes either occurred at night or were rain wrapped, making it all the more difficult to not only see but for people to shelter from, of course, because it kind of sneak up on them.

We've had a multi-day storm system progress east across the United States. It began Saturday in Oklahoma, Kansas, down towards Texas. There were overnight tornadoes in areas north of Dallas and near Tulsa that moved east into Sunday, causing tornadoes across Missouri over towards Kentucky, Tennessee as well. And now it's set to reach the eastern seaboard, hence the severe weather risk on this Memorial Day.

KELLY: Is this kind of thing unusual for this time of year, late May?

CAPPUCCI: Historically speaking, late May is the peak of severe weather season. You have summer's warmth trying to build in, so you have repeated rounds of warm, moist air rush north across the United States. It's like summer's trying to win, but winter is not quite ready to give up yet. There's still some pockets of cold air in the Rocky Mountains. And so periodic insurgencies of cold air push east across the nation's heartland. That clash brews severe weather.

But the issue - the jet stream, a river of very strong winds in the upper atmosphere, moves overhead and helps these storms to spin. So May is usually the perfect overlap of all of these parameters. And unfortunately, it can lead to some very damaging results.

KELLY: Well, thankfully, it looks like the intensity of these storms is easing a little as they're moving across the country. I mentioned they're moving east. What are we in for here on the East Coast?

CAPPUCCI: On the East Coast, we've expected MCSs or mesoscale convective systems, basically big squall lines with a lot of lightning and wind. So winds gusting 50, 60 miles per hour in the strongest storms. There could be some quarter-sized hail in pockets, too. I think the tornado risk is lower but not quite zero. Two different areas we're really watching for a potential isolated spin-up tornado from, like, the Delmarva Peninsula towards New Jersey and then a second area near the eastern Carolinas.

But one thing I really want to emphasize too is lightning is dangerous. So many people are doing barbecues today or cookouts or are at the beach, for example. And lightning can actually jump more than 10 miles away from a thunderstorm. So really, anytime you can hear thunder, you are close enough to be struck. And it's not just something we say. I mean, I myself have had many close calls with lightning. We really want folks to take it seriously today.

KELLY: So what are we supposed to do? Remind us.

CAPPUCCI: Anytime you hear thunder, you'll want to get to a good location inside and just kind of hunker down there until 30 minutes after the last rumble of thunder. Folks should have multiple ways to get notified. They should have, you know, wireless emergency alerts on their phone. They should tune in to weather apps, anything they need to do to stay connected.

KELLY: OK. So you're telling me this is not shaped up to be an ideal day for picnics and gatherings on Memorial Day. What about travel? So many people are trying to get home after the long weekend. What should we be thinking about? How should we proceed if we're trying to get home?

CAPPUCCI: I always tell folks not to drive in conditions they deem dangerous, whether that be heavy rain, whether that be wind, anything like that. If you see threatening clouds, don't be afraid to pull over. And I have to say this month as a whole has been so incredibly active. So if it seems like the weather's been crazy, yes, everybody's tired. But we have just a little longer to go before the pattern finally settles down.

KELLY: Matthew Cappucci, meteorologist with the Washington Post and the MyRadar app. Thank you.

CAPPUCCI: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Megan Lim
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
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