💡 Get Philly smart 💡
with BP’s free daily newsletter

Read the news of the day in less than 10 minutes — not that we’re counting.

It was almost painful listening to the TV weather personalities talk about Tuesday night’s storm. They reported about a large, ominous cloud and played viewer videos and pictures. But they couldn’t call it what it looked like: A tornado. You wouldn’t hear the “t-word,” because that’s not allowed.

While a massive storm can generate a funnel cloud that looks like a tornado, moves like a tornado and is really scary like a tornado, it is not officially a tornado until the National Weather Service says so. And that’s usually not until the next day. Wednesday afternoon, 6ABC finally reported that the scary cloud they’d been showing earlier was, in fact, a tornado.

The process of deciding whether a tornado has hit starts when local municipalities or counties report damage to the NWS and ask their field team to investigate. They survey the scene, checking how the debris is spread. Valerie Meola, a meteorologist for the NWS, says if the damage and debris is spread in a circular fashion, they can classify the storm as having a tornado. Straight-line winds will knock debris into, well, more or less a straight line.

Meola says it’s necessary to canvass the damage, no matter how convincing radar, video and pictures are during the storm.

“Even with the videos you can’t see the ground level,” she says. “You can’t always tell if it’s made ground contact. The only way is to come out and look on the ground.”

Thanks Alyssa. You’re now part of The Action. https://t.co/1RdERhySW5

— Jim Gardner (@Jim_Gardner) June 30, 2015

Here in the Northeast especially, TV people really need to be careful about what they call the ominous clouds they’re reporting on.  Accuweather senior meteorologist John Feerick says in the Plains states, where tornadoes are more common, it’s possible to call a funnel cloud a tornado based on radar readings.

“In the Northeast, it’s kind of a luck of the draw type thing,” he says. “I just mean you can issue a tornado warning on a storm and sometimes it’ll have a funnel cloud and the rotation that is necessary to produce a tornado and just for one reason or another won’t touch down.”

A tornado must also reach speeds of at least 65 mph, the minimum to be considered an EF-0. Straight-lines winds can be any speed, but Feerick says it would be unlikely for them to surpass 100 mph.

And though it might sound funny to listen to TV personalities talk about big clouds and dance around the t-word, Feerick warns that funnel clouds always have the potential of becoming a tornado. He happened to be out on the road in Chester County Tuesday when the storms were going on.

“I checked the radar,” he says, “‘and said ‘You know, what we better get the heck out of here.’”

Featured image from Echo Top Storm Chasers on Facebook.

Mark Dent is a reporter/curator at BillyPenn. He previously worked for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where he covered the Jerry Sandusky scandal, Penn State football and the Penn State administration. His...