Tennessee tornado devastates Morgan County town: What to know the storm's path, strength

All of East Tennessee was poised for severe weather after a storm set to hit late Tuesday afternoon was upgraded to an enhanced risk by the National Weather Service. A tornado watch for much of the region kept residents on edge, with a tornado warning issued for Morgan County a little after 5 p.m.

Within 15 minutes, the worst-case scenario came true as a tornado ripped through the tiny town of Sunbright.

Wednesday morning, the town was struggling to assess the damage, while residents gave thanks that no one was seriously injured or killed.

"It's devastating," said Sunbright Mayor Karen Melton, who was the only one answering the phone in City Hall.

Where is Sunbright? Morgan County?

Sunbright is a city in Morgan County with a population of 519 as of the 2020 census. The Sunbright area was first settled in the early 19th century and became an oil shipping hub after an oil field was discovered nearby in 1916.

The small town is about an hour northwest of Knoxville, just north of Frozen Head State Park. It sits along U.S. Route 27, which connects the city to Wartburg and Harriman to the south and Lexington, Kentucky, to the north.

When was a tornado warning issued for Morgan County and when did the tornado hit Sunbright?

The tornado warning for Morgan County was issued at 5:07 p.m.; National Weather Service meteorologist Sam Roberts said the tornado warning gave about 15 minutes of lead time for residents to take cover.

Morgan County E-911 reported on its Facebook page around 5:30 p.m. that it was getting multiple reports of a tornado. It warned that Highway 27 through Sunbright had been closed to traffic, and that the storm brought down power lines and trees, and scattered debris on the roads.

TORNADO NOW!!! SUNBRIGHT. All media outlets may use with credit.

Posted by Justan Spurling on Tuesday, April 2, 2024

The National Weather Service's Morristown office posted just after 5:30 p.m. that radar had confirmed a tornado near Sunbright with strong rotation continuing to move near Lone Mountain, Norma, Robbins and Huntsville in Scott County.

"We've heard of no injuries or deaths," the mayor said Wednesday morning.

What was the path of the tornado that hit Sunbright? how strong was it?

The National Weather Service office in Morristown completed its damage survey late Wednesday afternoon.

"An EF-1 tornado occurred around Sunbright in Morgan County at 5:20 PM EDT on April 2, 2024 with max winds of around 105 mph," the office posted on Facebook. "It tracked for 2.86 miles and had a max width of around 150 yards."

The National Weather Service office in Morristown released its survey of a tornado that struck Sunbright, Tennessee on Tuesday, April 2, 2024
The National Weather Service office in Morristown released its survey of a tornado that struck Sunbright, Tennessee on Tuesday, April 2, 2024

The survey found that the supercell thunderstorm developed in Cumberland County and quickly strengthened as it moved northeast into Morgan County. A tornado warning was issued at 5:07 p.m. for Morgan County, including Sunbright, due to the likely tornado development. At 5:21 p.m., a tornado debris signature was observed on radar in the vicinity of Sunbright, the weather service wrote.

The tornado track produced EF-1 damage in downtown Sunbright with damage to numerous residential and commercial structures, the report stated. The tornado then continued northeast across White Oak Creek, crossing the railroad tracks and causing damage to some metal building structures, hardwood trees and barns in this area. The tornado re-intensified and tracked along Mill Creek Road, damaging several homes and barns before dissipating.

The Enhanced Fujita Scale or EF Scale is used to assign a tornado a rating based on estimated wind speeds and related damage. The scale goes from EF-0 to EF-5, with EF-5 the highest. An EF-1 tornado has wind gusts from 86-110 mph.

How did the National Weather Service determine the tornado's rating?

National Weather Service personnel from its Morristown office were on the ground April 3 in Sunbright, working to assess the rating of the tornado that had devastated the small town the night before.

The team was quantifying the damage to determine the wind speed rating and the path, width and length of the tornado, Roberts said Wednesday morning.

Structures were assessed for the type and severity of damage to help determine wind speed, Roberts said. The crew also worked to locate the outer edges of the damage to determine the path width.

"We will be going west (initially) to see if we can find any other touchdown points," Roberts said, adding the team then would head east to fully map the track of the tornado.

The team saw significant damage to buildings, although none were completely destroyed, along with some snapped trees, he added.

How rare are tornadoes in East Tennessee?

While tornadoes are somewhat rare in Tennessee, they do happen. About 90% of East Tennesseans believe the region is protected by the hilly terrain and the Great Smoky Mountains, but according to Roberts, we are not protected just because of our location.

“We can get tornadoes and we can get them at any time of the year," Roberts told Knox News last year.

On average, East Tennessee does get fewer tornadoes than the middle and western parts of the state. But there have been 252 tornadoes in East Tennessee since 1950, according to the National Weather Service.

Liz Kellar is a Tennessee Connect reporter. Email liz.kellar@knoxnews.com.

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This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: East Tennessee tornado path: What to know after Morgan County town hit