The weather phenomenon that ripped through Mthatha on Tuesday night and left at least three people dead, dozens hospitalised and properties damaged, was a multicell cluster storm.
There are also strong suggestions that an EF2 or EF3 tornado touched down between 5pm and 6pm.
This was revealed by a team from the SA Weather Service, which spent Wednesday studying what hit Mthatha and large parts of the OR Tambo District Municipality and surrounding areas.
According to DispatchLIVE, the storm killed three people, including an 8-year-old. The minor girl from Mhlontlo municipality was crushed to death when her home collapsed on her.
The same fate befell two women from Mthatha, the publication reported.
The storm left a trail of destruction as dozens of schools and homes were destroyed by winds of up to 140km/h.
Mthatha Airport’s glass doors were also damaged by the storm.
At the time, Garth Sampson from the Port Elizabeth office of the SAWS, said their national office was trying to establish whether it was a tornado or a storm that battered the area.
Residents on social media reported that hundreds of livestock died in torrential rain or drowned in floods.
The disaster that befell Mthatha came after the SA Weather Service (SAWS) issued a severe thunderstorm alert, warning of bad weather over the eastern half of the Eastern Cape and most of KwaZulu-Natal.
The SAWS reported that it maintained this alert after reassessment on Tuesday morning, following early morning showers over central areas of the Eastern Cape.
Explaining what had happened, the SAWS team, Puseletso Mofokeng, Lehlohonolo Thobela, Lulama Pheme, Garth Sampson and Kevin Rae, reported: “After a period of daytime heating, a cluster of thunderclouds developed at around 14:00 South African Standard Time (SAST), ranging between Graaff-Reinet and Cradock in the Eastern Cape. An hour later, these storms coalesced into the relatively strong thunderstorms (multicell storms) just to the southeast of Cradock, while another notable storm was 100km to the north (to the southwest of Burgersdorp).
“Near 16:00 SAST, the multicell storms moved through Tylden (to the south of Queenstown) and were associated with at least two overshooting tops: another strong indication of an imminent severe thunderstorm. This intensification could be associated with the shortening of the distance between these multicell and another thunderstorm cell which moved southeastwards, in the direction of Dordrecht (south of Jamestown).”
The multicell thunderstorms travelled to the east and during the following three hours, travelled almost 280km from Graaff-Reinet to Bofolo (nearly halfway from Queenstown to Mthatha), while an intensifying storm (located south of Burgersdorp) moved for about 78km to the southeast.
At this stage, a secondary merger began to take place, further intensifying the storm.
The storm then changed its direction of movement, migrating towards the northeast, moving a further 68km to Mbolompo (northwest of Mthatha) but at a significantly lower speed of about 33km/h (compared to an earlier average of 94km/h).
Shortly after yet another change of storm movement, very high winds from the enhanced multicell storm resulted in damage to homes, vehicles and the nearby airport, while also uprooting trees and resulting in heavy downpours which led to localised flooding.
The impact, as evidenced by the photographs, and the short distance travelled between 17:00 and 18:00 SAST, strongly suggests that there was an EF3 tornado.
“The storm is rated as an EF2 to EF3 tornado because of the supporting damage: torn-off roofing sheets, peeling of roofs at the corners over a relatively large area as well as photographic evidence of a vehicle which appears to have been tossed into the air by the strong winds.”
In some images, roof sheeting had been torn back partially on two houses, but in opposite directions.
“It is evident that the clockwise spin associated with the tornadic vortex tube resulted in the damage of the property.”
Meanwhile, Gift of the Givers said it was on its way to Mthatha to help about 20 villages where homes, clinics, schools and places of worships were damaged, leaving thousands homeless.
The NGO called it the “biggest tornado in recorded history” for the region.
“Urgent requirements include shelter, plastic and corrugated sheeting, blankets, mattresses, clothing, food parcels, bottled water, hygiene and dignity packs,” said CEO Imtiaz Sooliman.
“Gift of the Givers teams from Adelaide, the Free State, Graaff-Reinet and Pietermaritzburg are en route, carrying a range of supplies, including water purification sachets, given the drought and absence of clean water. PPEs (personal protective equipment) will be distributed at the two hospitals.”
“Given the scale of destruction, public support is welcome.”
For those wanting to donate to Gift of the Givers, they can reach Mandy at 0800 786 911 toll free. Donations are tax deductible.