Could a Tornado Capsize a Cruise Ship?

Could a Tornado Capsize a Cruise Ship?

Two powerful tornados touched down around New Orleans Tuesday night, trashing several communities, killing at least one person and injuring dozens more. It also gave us this awesome video of a cruise ship ominously passing by the massive storm on the Mississippi River like some sort of booze cruise of the damned.

First, these terrible storms raged through both the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans and St. Bernard Parish. The storms flattened homes and businesses and tossed cars and structures around like they were toys. Rescue workers and clean-up crews are working today to identity if anyone is still trapped in the rubble, the New York Times reports:

“We don’t know how many and we don’t know the severity of the injuries at this time,” Guy McInnis, the president of St. Bernard Parish, said in an interview as officials were struggling to determine the number of people displaced or hurt and the extent of the damage.

“There are houses that are missing,” said James Pohlmann, the sheriff of St. Bernard Parish. “One landed in the middle of the street.”

In Arabi, a hard-hit community in St. Bernard Parish, the streets were littered by small pieces of wood and wire, tufts of grass from the nearby marshland and puffs of pink insulation.

There are whole houses straight up missing. This was a hell of a storm. It will take a long time for the people of the Ninth Ward to rebuild, but residents of the neighbourhood once flattened by Hurricane Katrina have proven their resilience time and time again.

The video comes from a local and was posted on Twitter by WGNO Metrologist Brantly Keiek last night. Since then, the footage has garnered hundreds of thousands of views:

This massive tornado actually makes this large cruise ship look somehow small in comparison, but this ship doesn’t seem to be in any danger from the storm besides some high winds and rocky waters. But it did get the staff of Jalopnik wondering, would a tornado have enough force to take out a cruise ship?

Well, first off, tornados can indeed migrate to the water from dry land as well as jump from being formed over open water back to earth, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Called tornadic waterspouts, these formations come with all the characteristics of a regular tornado, like gale-force winds, lightening, hail and dropping down out of thick, flat storm clouds. But the forces of tornadic waterspouts are less of a concern for cruise ships as they are rather easily avoidable, especially in open water.

Cruise ships are massive, heavy objects designed to sail through the worst that the water can throw at them. Not only that, cruise lines maintain sophisticated systems to keep ships out of harm’s way. CNTraveller too a look at one of these command centres in 2019:

Safety is a priority for all cruise lines, and even with these on-ship set-ups, many companies add additional layers of precaution. In January 2017, Royal Caribbean hired James Van Fleet as the first-in-the-industry dedicated cruise line meteorologist; he previously worked as a TV meteorologist for more than 20 years. During the hurricane and typhoon season, which is June to November, he’s in the Miami headquarters monitoring a 7.62 m wall of weather screens and sharing information with the company’s 26 ships and the executive team.

In most cases, he says, he can see storms seven to 10 days out, and advise ships on avoidance strategies. “I know what the models are suggesting, and they [the crews] are getting the word sooner so they don’t have to scramble,” Van Fleet says. “If there is a typhoon in the western Pacific and we may need to reroute a couple of ships, I can be talking to them two or three times a day.”

Cruise ships would rather switch up ports or head out to sea for an extra night to avoid bad weather, but even if the ship does get into a bad spot, folks on board generally don’t have to worry about much expect some seasickness and the outdoor pools being closed. In really extreme cases, the captain might sequester vacationers in their cabins for the duration of the storm, but ships are designed to take a beating, as the Telegraph pointed out during the ferocious 2017 hurricane season:

At 198ft (60.5m) across at maximum width (and 154ft/47m at the waterline), Oasis Of the Seas is too big to fit into the Panama Canal but its broadness means it can withstand the most unfriendly waves. This was proved in November 2009, on its delivery voyage from the Finnish shipyard where it was built to its new home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. En route, it moved through what officers recorded as “almost up to hurricane force” winds, and swells in excess of 39ft (12m) – but coped admirably.

This same hardiness is true of smaller vessels. You can find footage online of another Royal Caribbean ship, Anthem Of The Seas – which is around two-thirds the size of its giant sibling – slipping blithely through the Atlantic in September of last year, even as Hurricane Hermine strikes its 14th deck with a surge.

Even a freak wave of a size conjured in popular imagination by movies such as The Poseidon Adventure would be unlikely to unduly trouble a modern cruise ship. Discussing the Atlantic’s sour welcome for Oasis Of The Seas in 2009, Matthew Collette, a professor of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering at the University of Michigan, told the journal Live Science: “If [a ship] was struck by [a freak wave], I would expect there to be local damage at the point of impact – maybe some broken portholes or bent railings. But little else.”

That doesn’t mean that getting tossed around in such conditions isn’t dangerous for those inside of the ships. Passengers can be injured by tripping as well as falling items like slot machines, decor or furniture. In very rare cases a few windows might break. Sure, it’s no picnic, but the ship is going to stay upright, and that certainly counts for something.