Tornado researcher recalls deadly storms of 1985

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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. (WHTM) – It was Memorial Day weekend, 1985. Thunderstorms were in the forecast. Little did anyone know a day of historic severe weather was just around the corner.

Paul Markowski had no idea the impact the day would have on him.

“Baseball was mostly on my mind at that age, but I remember it was a Friday,” Markowski said. “In the Harrisburg area where I grew up, it was a cloudy, cool day with a lot of fog around, but then it was that night on the news when I first saw the alerts about a tornado watch being in effect, not for the Harrisburg area, but I think the very northern fringes of the viewing area.”

Now a leading tornado researcher at Penn State, Markowski has studied the significance of the twisters that touched down that day and night.

“This was an unprecedented event for this part of the country in terms of the magnitude of the tornado outbreak,” he said. “There were approximately 90 people killed, roughly 65 of them were in the state of Pennsylvania alone, which in a few hours we equaled the death toll of the previous half century of tornado fatalities in the state. This was a high end outbreak by any objective measure.”

The next day, people really saw the devastation – especially in the western part of the state.

“It was from that point on really that I became intrigued about tornadoes and meteorology in general,” Markowski said. “Here I am, one of the lucky few who have actually found a way to make a living learning how tornadoes work.”

Humid and warm days can lead to thunderstorms, but on May 31, 1985 all of the ingredients came together for a disastrous recipe.

“Getting the right overlap in conditions is actually fairly rare, but it’s not impossible and it happened that day,” Markowski said.

Our major severe weather takes place in late May through early June. Some may think the mountains protect us, but they didn’t 30 years ago.

“In some cases, the mountains seem to be pretty much irrelevant,” Markowski said. “Like May 31, 1985, those high-end tornadoes – F4, F5, extremely violent tornadoes – are essentially completely unaffected by the terrain.”

The damage in Pennsylvania can still be seen in the forests where scores of trees were torn apart. For over 25 years, the death toll from this outbreak was not surpassed by any other in the United States.

“Two days since then have had more tornado deaths, and those were both in 2011: the April 2011 Mississippi and Alabama events and then the Joplin tornado the same year,” Markowski said. “Those are the only two events since May 31, 1985 that have been deadlier from a tornado standpoint.”

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