When the storm hit Athens County on Sept. 16, 2010, many people assumed it was a tornado that ripped through the area. Based on the vast damage incurred, it’s not an unreasonable assumption. But what actually hit Athens County that fateful evening? Some people say it was a tornado, others call it a downburst. Interestingly, the answer is both.
“There was some confusion because people were calling the damage in The Plains and in Athens city proper a tornado, when in fact it was a downburst,” said Ryan Fogt, director of Ohio University’s Scalia Lab, a weather-forecasting and research center.
According to the National Meteorological Society, a tornado is a rotating column of air, in contact with the surface, pendant from a cumuliform cloud, and often visible as a funnel cloud and/or circulating debris/dust at the ground, while a downburst, or straight-line wind, is a strong ground-level wind system that emanates from a point above and blows in straight lines in all directions from the point of contact at ground level.
Though 11 tornados were recorded in Ohio on the day of the storm, only one true tornado actually hit Athens County. The tornado touched down on Matheny Road, 4 miles south of Nelsonville.
The tornado that went through the area was recorded as a 2 on the Enhanced Fujita scale, which rates the intensity of tornadoes. The scale has categories zero to five, representing increasing degrees of damage. Wind speed is also represented on the scale.
An EF2 rating means that considerable damage would be likely to occur, with roofs torn off, foundations of solid framed homes could be shifted; mobile homes completely destroyed; large trees snapped or uprooted; light-object missiles generated; and cars lifted off the ground. The majority of these occurred in Athens County.
The EF2 tornado in Athens County was recorded as having a wind speed of 111-139 mph.
The tornado that touched down was the first one to do so in Athens County since May of 1980.
“Getting a tornado in Athens County is quite rare,” Fogt told the Columbus Dispatch at the time. “We don’t have as much training in how to respond.”
Though the tornado only hit one specific area south of Nelsonville, the rest of the county suffered significant damage due to the downburst.
The National Weather Service lists The Plains as experiencing winds around 100 mph and the City of Athens experiencing 80 mph winds.
Downbursts are commonly thought to be tornadoes, as both can inflict severe damage to the area that is hit. Neither one is necessarily more extreme than the other, rather they are simply two different forms of strong-wind weather event. Both occurred in Athens County tens years ago, bringing with them severe damage.