|This is an account of my first direct encounter with a major hurricane. I will begin this post with a video. The video embedded just below is long (almost one and one-half hours). It covers the passage of Hurricane Michael over the southeastern portion of Marianna, Florida during the afternoon of Wednesday October 10, 2018. This is unedited video and covers passage of the northern eye wall, the eye, and southern eye wall. The video cannot possibly do justice to the intensity nor the relentlessness of the storm for four hours. Due to the length, you may wasn't to skip forward, but there is some value in watching the entire video. Feel free to share this blog post on social media, via link, but please do not use the video via media without contacting me first by email at email@example.com.
I left my friend's house in Alabaster, Alabama at 10:08 a.m. on Tuesday 10/9/2018. I had been watching the tropical system named "Michael" develop for a few days and by this time it was pretty evident that it would make landfall in the vicinity of Panama City, Florida as a major hurricane in a little over 24 hours.
As I travelled south on Interstate 65 through Alabama, northbound traffic was bumper-to-bumper in Central Alabama between Birmingham and Montgomery. In the southbound lane, I saw numerous utility and emergency response vehicles on their way to assist during the aftermath of the storm.
My initial plan was to drive to Dothan, Alabama or Marianna, Florida. I wanted to witness hurricane conditions, but in a safe location. I made it to Dothan by 2:30 and decided to continue driving south. By 3:00 I was at the Alabama-Florida state line and continued driving south. I continued all the way to the northern part of Panama City, Florida, where I arrived at 4:30. There was very little traffic moving in either direction on US Highway 231 in Florida. Most, but not all businesses were closed on the way there. Upon my arrival at Panama City, I added a few gallons of gasoline and topped off my gas tank.
I pulled in to the LaQuinta Inn and decided to hang out in the lobby for a little while. The hotel receptionist said there were no vacancies but they were allowing people to stay in the lobby. There was a group of boaters who had stopped in Panama City on their "Great Loop" trek. One of the couples was leading the people in song. Many of the songs were hurricane related. I enjoyed meeting an older gentleman, also named Mike, who owned a successful businesses, who was helping captain one of the boats. He told me many stories of his travels. Between the music and Mike's stories, I was enjoying myself, but the hurricane remained on my mind.
I interrupted my conversation with Mike at 6:40 briefly to take a picture of the colorful sunset. It was spooky thinking about the contrast between the beauty of the sunset and the ugliness that would soon result from Hurricane Michael. As the evening progressed, I decided to stay in the hotel lobby. I spent much of the night using the complimentary computer to monitor weather and social media for updates on Michael. I think I slept about an hour and one-half in my car.
It was clear that Hurricane Michael was going to be devastating to the northwest Florida coast as well as areas to the north. I was debating whether or not to stay at this hotel or to head back north toward Marianna, which was my original plan. Overnight, Hurricane Michael continued to strengthen and there was no reason to believe strengthening would not continue right up until landfall, as it travelled over some very warm water with no significant influence from shear, nor intrusions of drier air. I also had some concerns about the projected path. The National Hurricane Center had consistently placed the center of Michael making landfall east of Panama City, near Mexico Beach, Florida. However, in order for that to happen, Michael was going to need to slightly change course and begin a move just east of due north. It seemed like that turn was slower to occur than I had hoped.
The primary reason the exact path of Michael was so critical to Panama City was storm surge. If Panama City took a direct hit or if Michael made landfall to the east, as projected, the storm surge would not be as high. On the other hand, if landfall was to the west, devastating storm surge would be inundating Panama City. As the night wore on, I decided that regardless of the exact path, Panama City was probably not where I wanted to stay, even though the hotel was about seven miles from the coast. I thought the hotel was tall enough and strong enough to protect us from storm surge or winds, but I was concerned about losing my car due to surge and/or flying debris, and I was also concerned about being stranded without food, electricity, communication, or transportation for a very long time. Because of those concerns, I decided to leave in the morning.
Early Wednesday morning before 6 a.m., I met Joey Krastel (@NimbusStorms on Twitter) and Jake Smith (jwsmith_056 on Twitter) who were young meteorologists from Iowa State University. They spotted me at the computer in the lobby and asked whether I was a meteorologist. We talked at length over the next two hours over breakfast regarding the storm and plans and strategies. They decided to stay at the hotel. I was leaving, but still deciding exactly when to leave. I wanted to stay in Panama City as long as I could while still being able to drive safely to Marianna without encountering severe winds or flooding.
When I finally pulled out of the hotel parking lot at 8:40 a.m., the eye wall of Hurricane Michael was a little under 60 miles from Panama City with maximum sustained winds of 145 miles per hour. It was moving north-northeast at about 13 miles per hour. We had been experiencing tropical storm force wind gusts since about sunrise (6:40 a.m.) in Panama City. I knew that I had reached the time that I needed to make a final call to stay or go, because the worst case scenario for me would have been to be caught on the highway during hurricane conditions.
As I drove north, I listened to local radio reports and occasionally pulled of the road to check on the progress of the hurricane. Two facts became apparent. First, it had begun the jog toward the northeast and it seemed to be aiming directly for a landfall near Tyndall Air Force Base and Mexico Beach east of Panama City. Michael was rapidly strengthening and that momentum seemed like it would continue all the way to landfall.
At about 10:05, I arrived at Cottondale, Florida, near Interstate 10, just a few miles west of Marianna. There I parked at the Loves Truck Stop and McDonald's. I considered staying there as I continued to monitor the storm. My cell phone signal was weak, so I was able to benefit from using the WiFi from McDonald's. Incidentally, like almost all businesses, the McDonald's was closed but the truck stop was rather busy. I decided to drive a few exits to the east on Interstate 10. I believed I could find a safe place to watch the storm there, and that the eye would likely move right over that area. By 11 a.m. I was in the southeast part of Marianna at the America's Best Value Inn.
This was an old hotel, but it seemed like a perfect spot to ride out the storm. The receptionist kindly gave me access to their WiFi password and I walked around the hotel. I found a strategic place to park my car where it was less likely to be hit by wind-driven debris. The hotel was one that had rooms opening to outdoor hallways and breezeways. I found a room on the southern side of the second floor that was ideal to watch the storm approach from. It was a small concrete room with an electrical outlet, ice machine, and no door. I decided I could watch the approach of the northern eye wall safely from that location.
I was keeping an eye on radar as the storm was making landfall between Mexico Beach and Tyndall Air Force Base. Hurricane Michael made landfall with maximum sustained winds of 155 miles per hour and a minimum central pressure of 919 mb as a high end Category 4 storm. The 919 mb pressure at landfall made Michael the third strongest hurricane ever recorded making landfall in the United States. The pressure of 919 mb is consistent with a Category 5 storm and the 155 mph sustained winds was only one mile per hour short of making Michael a Category 5 storm.
By approximately 1 p.m., hurricane force wind gusts had begun in southeastern Marianna. I took video and some still photos as Hurricane Michael passed directly overhead between 1 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. The eye passed directly over my location at the America's Best Value Inn, 2086 Florida Highway 71, between 3:00 and 3:30 p.m. Based on my observation from the surface and looking at radar images that were later sent by friends, it appeared the center of the eye of Michael passed over around 3:15 p.m.
Because my phone battery was weak, power was out, and my phone signal was weak, I turned off cellular service and took as much video as I could of the storm. The most impressive things I noticed were the length of time the winds were sustained at hurricane strength and the manner in which they relentlessly ramped up. The best way I could describe it is that winds ramped up to a certain "plateau" speed. Then a higher gust would move in (you could usually hear and see the higher gusts and heavier rain sheets coming before they arrived). The winds would again plateau at this higher level until the next gust approached and an even higher plateau was reached. This process repeated itself from about 1:40 p.m. until the eye arrived at approximately 3 p.m.
The approach of the eye was clear to see. I was without radar data so I was relying on extrapolating what I saw previously on radar and what I was observing. In the minutes before the eye approached, precipitation intensity decreased, although the winds remained high. I observed a lighter sky appearing on the horizon behind the darker clouds. As the rain and wind decreased rapidly, it became obvious that we were in the eye. People started walking around. Birds started flying. Since my battery was down to about 15 percent on my phone, I quickly walked to my car and tried to charge the phone. I received a few texts with radar images sent by friends. Those images confirmed what I observed regarding the eye. By the time the eye reached Marianna, it had filled in with cloud cover, but the rain and wind stopped, temporarily.
While in my car, I thought about what would happen after the eye passed. Winds would resume rapidly and come from the opposite direction, the west. The northern eye wall had produced considerable damage. Numerous trees were snapped off and uprooted. Parts of the hotel were removed and scattered about, along with other debris. There was a metal portable carport that had been blown into a position just west of my car. I decided to move my car, which proved later to be a good move! The winds from the southern eye wall came out of the west and blew that metal carport exactly where my car had been parked.
At about 3:30, the southern eye wall arrived. As expected, high winds arrived quite suddenly. Despite the fact I was aware this would happen, during the short time it took me to get from my car back to the hotel, I was hit by a small piece of debris on my leg. The southern eye wall was intense, but not as intense as the northern eye wall. Despite the lower intensity it was probably more dangerous. All of the debris that had been broken loose from the northern eye wall was now being blown back to the east by the southern eye wall. All of the people at the hotel who were initially excited by the extreme winds evidently grew tired of watching it. During the northern eye wall there were dozens out of their rooms watching the storm from their doorways, the walkway or the breezeway. By the arrival of the second eye wall, I believe I was the only one still watching.
By about 5:00, winds were still very strong, but I found a brief time window when I could make a dash for my car. I was soaking wet. My phone had lost power, so I took a few minutes to start the phone charging, eat a snack, and prepare to (hopefully) leave. My goal was to get all the way back to Alabaster, Alabama, but I didn't know exactly what obstacles I would face.
I left the hotel parking lot at 5:46 p.m. At this point I was very glad I topped of my gas tank the night before in Panama City. Hurricane Michael lost very little strength in the 52 miles from landfall at Mexico Beach to my location at Marianna. I was certain that it would remain strong as it sped to the north-northeast. As a result, I expected massive power outages and downed trees on my way back. Fortunately, I was very close to Interstate 10. Still, it took me almost two hours to travel the 12 miles along I-10 to get to the US 231 exit. This was because the interstate was littered with trees. They were being removed from the westbound left lane.
Once I finally made it to US Highway 231 at Cottondale, Florida, the coast was definitely not clear. There were trees in the road (especially the right lane, seen sporadically well into southeast Alabama. Because power was out and visibility was extremely limited, I had to drive very slowly to make sure I did not run into a tree. Once I arrived in towns such as Dothan and Ozark, Alabama, almost all power and street lights were out. One problem was that it was not easy to see intersections until you were right upon them. I feel very fortunate to have made it out of the area damaged by the storm without having an accident, mechanical issue, a flat tire from a nail or sharp piece of debris, or any other issues. This was certainly an answer to prayer. Fortunately, I had enough gasoline. This was significant because all gas stations were closed until I got to Troy, Alabama. After a brief stop in Troy, I made the rest of the trip to Alabaster and arrived at 12:38 a.m., about seven hours after I left Marianna. Normally that trip would take about four hours, but I am not complaining.
This was a trip I am glad that I made. I have never intentionally tried to "chase" or witness a hurricane before, although I've thought about it for a long time. I have always been concerned about safety, but also concerned about being trapped, losing transportation, etc. Fortunately, I was able in this rare situation, to witness Hurricane Michael as a Category two storm on the Saffir-Simpson scale (winds of 96-110) miles per hour during daylight hours, in a relatively safe place, away from the coast. While I was in the middle of the storm I was confident that I was witnessing wind gusts over 100 miles per hour. That was confirmed when I learned that a wind gust of 102 miles per hour was officially recorded at the Marianna airport, a few miles to my north. Unfortunately, I was not equipped with weather instruments. I would have really liked to document the changing wind speed and pressure.
Thankfully, the death toll (as of this writing) is not as bad as one might normally expect from a borderline Category four or five hurricane. No loss of life is acceptable, but this could have been much worse. Property loss was extreme, especially at the coast, but damage was extensive well into the Florida Panhandle, Southeast Alabama, and southwest Georgia and beyond.
This storm was surreal to behold and the power of God's creation amazed me. I have seen many, many storms, but this is the most intense storm I have ever actually been in. As I was witnessing the extreme winds I thought, "As strong as this is, it is only a very tiny, miniscule fraction of the amazing power of God."
On May 18, 1995, an F4 tornado struck Limestone and Madison counties in the Tennessee Valley of North Alabama.
To see storm survey data, photos, storm reports, maps, and other data from this event, vistit the NWS Huntsville page here: National Weather Service Huntsville Storm Survey
|Photo by Crandall McKey, via NWS Huntsville|In 1995, I followed the Anderson Hills tornado through Limestone County. I was one of the first on the scene of a major disaster at a trailer park northeast of Athens. I remember carrying a man out on a door who was bleeding from his neck and chest as I left the scene.
The Anderson Hills Tornado struck Huntsville, Alabama on May 18, 1995, killing one person and causing extensive damage and devastation, including the destruction of the Anderson Hills subdivision. It was rated an F4 when it made a direct hit on the subdivision. The tornado touched down just northwest of Athens. It tracked from that point through eastern Limestone County, through Harvest, Meridianville, and New Market in northern Madison County, Alabama, and ended near Princeton in northwest Jackson County, Alabama. The strongest portion of the tornado's path was near Harvest in northwest Madison County around the Anderson Hills subdivision and the Huntsville Dragway, which is the reason it is usually referred to as the "Anderson Hills Tornado".
|Birmingham NEXRAD, 5:32 p.m., one minute before touch down.|
The tornado first touched down at 5:33 p.m. approximately three miles northwest of Athens, just east of Alabama Highway 99. The tornado moved across Alabama Highway 127, then across I-65 near the interchange with U.S. Highway 31. From there, the tornado strengthened as it continued east, crossing Alabama Highway 251, where it destroyed 13 mobile homes at the Oakdale Mobile Home Park. At this point of devastation, one person received major injuries from the tornado and died two days later; Chuck Dale, 30 years of age, was the one fatality of the tornado. Around this time, a Tornado Warning was issued for Madison County to give residents on the northwest side of the county an opportunity to take cover; tornado sirens were activated at 5:43 p.m., one minute after the warning was issued. Meanwhile, the tornado began to move slightly north of east, moving across Mooresville Road and crossing through the Copeland community near the intersection of Copeland Road and East Limestone Road. It continued to strengthen as it crossed over Limestone Creek and approached the Madison County line. Overall in Limestone County, 35 buildings were damaged or destroyed, and 26 mobile homes were destroyed. Around 9,500 customers lost electricity in the county, where damage was estimated to be $1.5 million.
|Birmingham NEXRAD, 5:42 p.m., when Madison County Warning was issued|
At 5:42 p.m., the NWS Huntsville issued the following warning:
WFUS1 KHSV 182241
BULLETIN - EBS ACTIVATION REQUESTED
NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE HUNTSVILLE AL
542 PM CDT THU MAY 18 1995
THE NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE IN HUNTSVILLE HAS ISSUED A
TORNADO WARNING EFFECTIVE UNTIL 645 PM CDT
FOR PEOPLE IN THE FOLLOWING LOCATIONS...
IN NORTH ALABAMA
AT 535 PM CDT RADAR AT THE NATIONAL WEATHER SERVICE OFFICE IN HUNSVILLE
INDICATED A SEVERE THUNDERSTORM OVER WESTERN LIMESTONE COUNTY NEAR ELKMONT.
THIS STORM IS MOVING TO THE EAST AT AROUND 40 MILES PER HOUR.
...POSSIBLE FUNNEL CLOUDS SITED NORTH OF ATHENS IN LIMESTONE COUNTY.
The tornado crossed into Madison County around 5:50 p.m. on Love Branch Road, just north of the Yarborough Road intersection. It continued an east-northeasterly path across Carroll Road, Old Railroad Bed Road, and Wall Triana Highway, crossing just south of Harvest Elementary School. At 5:52 p.m., Madison County Fire dispatch reported that the tornado was on the ground near Harvest. It crossed Fords Chapel Road before taking a direct hit on the Anderson Hills subdivision along Alabama Highway 53. At this point, the tornado was at F4 intensity and the subsequent survey would also reveal evidence of it having multiple vortices. A total of 39 well-constructed houses in the subdivision sustained major damage, and 21 were destroyed. The Piggly Wiggly along Highway 53 also received damage. At 5:54 p.m., the Madison County Sheriff's Department confirmed the tornado had crossed Old Railroad Bed Road and Alabama Highway 53. As a result of these reports, tornado sirens were reactivated in Madison County one minute later. The tornado continued east-northeast making a glancing blow to the Huntsville Dragway before crossing Quarter Mountain Road and Bollweevil Lane on the northern face of Quarter Mountain. Next it crossed Hammond Lane (where is caused major damage to a few two story brick homes), Beaver Dam Road, Beaverdam Creek, and Pulaski Pike. It moved over Beaverdam Creek a second time at Mount Lebanon Road as it moved into the Meridianville area, then across Patterson Lane. Shortly after 6:00 p.m., the tornado crossed U.S. Highway 231/431 at Steger Curve - around Brier Fork bridge. Here, substantial damage was done to a cotton gin and a large farm house was spun off its foundation.
Video showing regional radar loop:
WHNT News 19 Huntsville report on how one family survived:
WHNT News 19
1953 was a bad year for killer tornadoes in the United States and Alabama was not immune. The nationwide death toll in 1953 was 519 and in Alabama it was 24. Tornadoes killed one Alabamian on February 20, 1953 and fourteen on April 18, 1953. The spring tornado season was not over, though, and nine were killed and seventeen injured in the state on Friday May 1, 1953.
|May 2, 1953 Florence Times|
The May 1, 1953 outbreak included two tornadoes which were considered to be F4 intensity. Officially there were four documented tornadoes in the state that day. But without the ability to detect and confirm smaller tornadoes especially in rural areas that we have today, it would not be surprising if there were additional tornadoes which were not documented.
Tornado #1 - Chilton County F2 - 5:15 p.m.
|Map of 5/1/1953 Tornadoes|
This tornado was on the ground for 1 1/2 miles and was about 100 yards wide in the Minooka community, five miles south of Calera and six miles north of Jemison, in northern Chilton County. One person was injured, five homes were damaged, and six barns were destroyed. Fortunately there were no fatalities.
According to the May 2, 1953 Florence (Alabama) Times, "Two awed Highway Patrol officers saw a tornado appear near Calera, 33 miles south of Birmingham. 'We watched it form and begin to pick things up, related W.L. Allen. When it got too close to us, we ran like hell.' A negro mother and child were injured and four or five homes were leveled in this section before the raging winds bounded toward the east....Old highway 31 south of Calera was blocked for a time by fallen trees and power lines. Traffic was halted until the road could be cleared."
Tornado #2 - Clay County F4 - 7:30 p.m.
This tornado was on the ground for 12.1 miles and was 440 yards wide in the Millerville-Lineville area. Seven people died and twelve were injured in this storm. According to the NWS Birmingham tornado database, 19 homes were destroyed, 50 homes were damaged, 36 other buildings were destroyed, and 57 other buildings were damaged. "Numerous chickens were killed and stripped of their feathers," according to the NWS report.
A user on the Tornado History Project website made this comment about the tornado, "Although it occurred three years before my birth, I often heard my parents speak of this storm. Late in the evening at dark while frying fish with another couple, my mother (who was pregnant with my older brother) heard an all too familiar roar much like she heard on March 21, 1932 as her home was destroyed in Paint Rock, Alabama. The others insisted that it was a train, but Mom insisted that it was a tornado. "Once you hear that sound, you never forget it." They stepped outside to look around and the funnel was less that two blocks away. Dad described it as a slender wedge with much debris aloft, the base of the funnel gyrating in a looping fashion. They jumped into the car to outrun it, but noticed it was moving away from them. Their perspective would have been on State Highway 49 just south of Lineville but north of the tornado's path. Dad was the local dentist and spent that night at the hospital in nearby Ashland helping treat victims of the storm. I am very thankful they didn't pursue outrunning the tornado, especially at dark! Strangly, this storm occurred at the same time as the Paint Rock Tornado."
According to the May 2, 1953 Florence (Alabama) Times, "The storm smashed upon a cluster of homes near Ashland just as night fell, killing seven persons in three family groups. The blasting winds and accompanying lightning storm knocked out all electric power at Ashland. The first injured brought to the tiny Clay County Hospital were treated by candlelight....the Clay County Hospital reported treating 10 persons."
Tornado #3 - Jefferson County F1 - 8:00 p.m.
This small tornado briefly touched down in Trussville and was only on the ground for 1/10th of a mile and was reportedly only 10 yards wide. No one was injured or killed, but according to the NWS tornado database five homes and one other building were destroyed and one other building was damaged.
Tornado #4 - Choctaw County F4 - 8:00 p.m.
On the ground for 10 miles and 200 yards wide, this tornado was responsible for the deaths of two people and injuries to three others in the Riderwood, Lisman, and Yantley communities. According to the NWS Birmingham, two homes were "disintegrated" at Yantley and the debris was thrown over a half mile.
NWS Birmingham - Alabama Tornado Database - 1953
"The Deadly Tornado Year of 1953" - Alabamawx.com
, by Bill Murray
Tornado History Project
Florence Times - May 2, 1953
5:10 p.m. 4/27/11, Tuscaloosa, Alabama
Memories of April 27, 2011 – My Storm Chase Account
* * * REPOSTING ON 7TH ANNIVERSARY * * *
This is a personal account of my experiences as a storm chaser on April 26 and 27, 2011 in Mississippi and Alabama. This is just my story, as best as I can tell it
. Over time, as information becomes available and my memories are triggered, I will periodically update this post with additional narrative, links, photos, or video.
I partially regret that I have waited eight months to compose a synopsis of my activities during the historic April 27, 2011 Super Outbreak of Tornadoes. The main reason we chase is to provide a public service by assisting in the warning process. My partner, John Brown
and I have been Skywatchers for ABC 33/40 in Birmingham for many years. James Spann, Jason Simpson, Brian Peters, and Ashley Brand have assembled a great system of communicating with and training storm spotters for Central Alabama. It has been an honor to serve with this group for several years. John, Rick Lipscomb
and I have spoken about our chase among ourselves and with friends, and we have all appeared on various local and national media outlets. Twenty four hours after the Tuscaloosa tornado, I spoke live by phone
TV in Texas. My most extensive interview was live on WHNT Channel 19
a few mornings later with Meteorologist Ben Smith. This is a shorter version of the interview as seen on the evening news
. John was interviewed by ABC News Nightline and other media outlets. We told our story on the Weatherbrains podcast. In these interviews we told the story, but eight months later, I feel ready to relive the day in detail and put my memories in writing. I know John and Rick agree that it was a day that we will never forget and it will haunt us the rest of our lives. I have also spoken about the day on a few occasions with close friends, especially some of my closer friends in the weather community. Frankly, like others who witnessed the tragedy unfold, I have found it easier to spend the last eight months avoiding the subject. I usually post about my chase accounts immediately on this blog, but to this day I have said very little about my experiences on April 27. Witnessing the Tuscaloosa tornado was a shocking experience. I remember the next day my friend and fellow chaser, Jennifer New
, asked how I was doing emotionally. I thought I was doing pretty well, but the depth and the shock of the tragedy really started hitting home in the coming days. She has encouraged me to tell the story. I think it is a story worth telling, and if I wait too long I will begin to forget details.
The story of my April 27, 2011 storm chase actually began eight days earlier. I pay close attention to forecast models, especially during the primary severe weather season. I also pay close attention to forecasters who look at the models closely who are much more knowledgeable than I. As early as Tuesday April 19, ABC 33/40 Chief Meteorologist James Spann mentioned in his morning “Weather Xtreme” video
(this is his map discussion that he usually produces twice a day) that severe weather was a possibility on the 27th. By the next morning, the 20th, James said it could be a “significant severe weather outbreak”
. On Friday April 22, James was mentioning the possibility of tornadoes
, as was the National Weather Service Birmingham in their Hazardous Weather Outlook. Models were quite consistent in portraying a setup favorable for tornadoes as many as five days in advance. I asked to be off work on Friday the 22nd. As April 27 approached, confidence continued to increase that there would be multiple waves of severe weather, including the possibility of long-tracked supercells. By Monday the NWS Birmingham was referring to the storm system as “dangerous” and predicted the possibility of “strong, long-track tornadoes”. I later wrote an extensive blog post
showing details of how local media and NWS offices forecasted this event.
With all of these ominous forecasts and the staggering severe weather indices that models were showing, Wednesday the 27th was obviously a day that I wanted to be out chasing. I was getting nervous, though, because I still had not been approved for leave at work. I finally received approval at 3:30 Tuesday April 26. I immediately texted my partner John Brown and we started formulating plans. He and I exchanged several texts and calls that evening. I also was contacted by my friend Rick Lipscomb, an Alabama native, who was going to drive up from South Georgia and tandem chase with John and I. The idea of the system coming in the form of two or three waves was still being shown by the models late Tuesday afternoon. By 4 p.m. portions of North Mississippi were placed in a "High Risk" area by the Storm Prediction Center. After leaving work, I immediately filled my vehicle with gasoline, drove home, studied every model and forecast I could look at, and called John and Rick.
The three of us decided to begin the chase that night. We decided to meet in Cullman around 11 p.m. at the Days Inn parking lot on the US 278 exit on Interstate 65. I drove from Huntsville and got there at 11:10 and caught about an hour of sleep in my vehicle while I waited for John to arive from Birmingham and Rick to arrive from Georgia. After Rick and John arrived just after Midnight we discussed our plan further. We didn’t necessarily expect to see a whole lot at night but we wanted to be positioned in the best possible location for the main events on the 27th. We decided to head west on US Highway 278. Around 1:15 a.m. the Storm Prediction Center issued a "High Risk" for North Alabama and surrounding areas. We saw our first storm in Hamilton, Alabama around 3:30 a.m. It was a strong thunderstorm with intense lightning and gusty winds. Jennifer Watson of WVTA Tupelo reported a severe thunderstorm warning for Lamar and Marion counties in Alabama until 4:30 a.m. with the possibility of winds of 70 mph. As we headed toward Tupelo on US 78, we encountered another storm between Hamilton and the Alabama State line. The lightning was almost constant between 3:45 and 4 a.m. These were the first of countless storms we would witness over the next 36 hours.
When we got to Tupelo we pulled into a Waffle House parking lot. I studied ongoing weather data as well as forecasts, and tried (mostly unsucessfully) to take a brief nap. Storms continued to fire that morning. Not long after breakfast, Pontotoc County, northwest of Tupelo, was placed under a tornado warning
. At 9:15 a.m. there was a brief tornado at Esperanza, Mississippi
, with minor damage. The clouds were impressive and very picturesque.
9:29 a.m., northwest of Tupelo, Mississippi
We saw what might have been a wall cloud, but nothing definite. As with all of the storms we had seen, the winds were very gusty and the lightning was intense. I recorded some video of the skies when we ate at Waffle House, along with the storm west of Tupelo on US 78 from 9:12 and 9:30. The video includes my discussion with Greg Nordstrom, Instructor of Meteorology at Mississippi State
who is also a phenomenal storm chaser
. He expressed grave concern about the nature of the environment, the type of supercells that we might see during the afternoon, and the danger it would pose to the public and also to any inexperienced chasers who might be out driving.
While we were in North Mississippi during the morning we were hearing about severe storms with numerous damage reports in Alabama counties such as Marion, Pickens, Fayette, Tuscaloosa, Walker, Jefferson, and Shelby. We later learned that the damage was more extensive than initially reported and that some of the damage was produced by tornadoes. After the storm we witnessed northwest of Tupelo, the temperature dropped into the 50’s in northeast Mississippi. We made the decision to drive southeast into West Alabama where the air was more unstable.
As we drove south through Marion, Fayette and northern Tuscaloosa counties that morning we began to realize that the morning round of storms produced a great deal of damage to the communications infrastructure. This would prove to be a significant problem later in the day as it hindered people from receiving warnings. Power, cell phone, and internet service was out due to the extensive damage produced by the morning severe weather events. John, Rick, and I were handicapped for several hours without access to much in the way of weather data. We pulled up to a gas station and couldn't purchase gasoline because they were out of power and the credit card machines were down. Our instincts told us that supercell storms that afternoon would move through the I 20-59 corridor, but now we had added reason to chase in that area. We did not want to be stuck in Fayette, Marion, or Walker counties without data or cell phone service. For quite some time, John and I were chasing "old school", relying on nothing but NOAA Weather Radio, scanner, and occasional reports on commercial radio. Driving south through northern Tuscaloosa County we saw numerous trees down from the morning storms on Highway 171. I received a call from my friend Craig Woodham. He and his wife were considering driving home to Tuscaloosa from Mobile that afternoon. I advised against it. Craig told me that a family we know, Reginald and Danielle Eppes, who live in Coaling in eastern Tuscaloosa County, had apparently been in a tornado that morning at their home. You can listen to their miraculous story on National Public Radio, here
. Here is another story on them in the UK's Daily Mail
. Craig didn't know all of the details at the time, but that was a sad precursor of things to come for the Tuscaloosa area.
Jim Stefkovich, Meteorologist-in-Charge of the NWS Birmingham gave a chilling and accurate prediction of what to expect after the morning storms passed, live on 100 WAPI's Matt Murphy Show
late in the morning of April 27.
John, Rick, and I stopped at the Burger King in Northport, across the Black Warrior River from Tuscaloosa just after Noon. The temperature was 20-25 degrees warmer than what we experienced near Tupelo. It was now up to the lower 80’s here! The air was very humid and turbulent. As we ate at Burger King, John Brown uttered these words, “Someone is going to die today. They just don’t know it yet
.” Those words hit hard but rang true to Rick and I. One thing I like about John and Rick is they take the public service aspect of chasing very seriously. It is our goal that we can play a part in the warning process so that loss of life can be prevented. John’s words were sobering, and sadly, all too true.
We stayed in Northport for nearly two hours, watching the satellite, radar, and mesoscale analysis page on the SPC site very closely. The severe weather parameters were off the chart! We felt like we were in the prime location, but all of North and Central Alabama was in danger. Finally, just before 2:00 p.m., we decided to head west towards Pickens County, near the Alabama/Mississippi border, west of Tuscaloosa. Storms were exploding in Mississippi.
By 3:30 we were on a tornado-warned storm in Pickens County
. This was the scariest part of the chase. John, Rick, and I debated as to what we needed to do to be safe. We were not really in the safest place relative to the storm. We were on the north side of Pickensville as the tornado formed to our east. After it formed and we drove east to follow it, we ran into tree and power lines in the road. This storm eventually produced EF4 damage in Cordova in Walker County. This is my video of the formation of this tornado, along with the location it touched down
When we came up on the initial damage (trees down on the road), our chase came to a major crossroads. Should we try to follow this storm or try to intercept a storm entering Greene County that was on a course for Tuscaloosa? John suggested hightailing it to Tuscaloosa. I was not confident that we could make it to Tuscaloosa ahead of the storm. But seeing that we had little alternative and considering that we always had the option of pulling back to be safe, I agreed with John. It was about 3:35 p.m. when we made the decision to go to Tuscaloosa. It was around this time that we were seeing ABC 33/40 cover a tornado live on towercam in Cullman. I tried calling my family there to make sure they were safe.
John was driving his truck. Rick was following us in his truck. We made our way to US Highway 82. This thoroughfare brings you into Tuscaloosa County from the west. We passed through the communities of Buhl and Coker, west of Northport. I was still unsure if we were far enough ahead of the storm to have time to get south in front of it. To make matters worse, Rick was behind us, and we didn't know how far. I told John we needed to hustle south over the Black Warrior River and get down I-359 as soon as we could. As we crossed the river, I looked west out of the passenger window. I saw an amazing display of cloud to ground lightning due west of Tuscaloosa. Bolts of lightning were striking in what appeared to be the same location repeatedly. Comparing what I was seeing to our Gibson Ridge Radar software, the lightning was striking out of the rain free base immediately ahead of what was later confirmed to be the tornado. It was a hectic time. We were having to navigate and keep track of the storm on radar and in the sky. John's GPS link to the radar software was a great tool in helping us get in a safe place relative to the storm. But it was not the only thing. Years of spotter training and a knowledge of the geography of the area served us well. We could not see the tornado at this point. We knew by now we were safely ahead of the storm but we were concerned about Rick. If he followed the same route, we wondered if he would run into the tornado. Frustratingly, I could not reach him by phone.
At this point, emotions and adrenaline were off the charts. I had a sense that this was going to be a major tornado by the time it approached Tuscaloosa. We then heard a report on ABC 33/40 that Meteorologist John Oldshue had streamed live video of a tornado leaving Greene County and entering Tuscaloosa County. Around this same time, Dr. Tim Coleman and Brian Peters were witnessing and reporting a large tornado on Interstate 22 in Walker County. I suggested to John that we go east on I 59-20 and pull off the interstate at the McFarland Boulevard Exit (U.S. Highway 82). We were on the ramp so in addition to having a great view of the sky we also had a very important escape route to the south or the east if we needed it.
After we pulled off, we grabbed our cameras and video cameras. While filming, I continued to try to reach Rick. I finally reached him by phone. He was seeing the tornado and seemed to be safe before I lost the connection again. Here is his video
. As I said in my video, we really were in the perfect spot. We saw the tornado gradually appear on the horizon. As it did, within seconds, it appeared massive as it approached Tuscaloosa. John managed to report this on the ABC 33/40 Skywatcher chat. This tornadic storm in Tuscaloosa was streamed live on Ustream from 4:40 until 5:20
. ABC 33/40's James Spann and Jason Simson covered the storm live as did The Weather Channel's Greg Forbes
Words cannot express what went through my mind as I witnessed this beast approach a town I love and lived in for eight years. As it approached I imagined someone was about to be killed while he walked to his car after paying for his gas. I imagined a little old lady who might lose her life as she walked out of the grocery store. My mind was racing with thoughts of people being unaware of the danger headed their way. I felt helpless! It was too late to even send another report to help Tuscaloosa residents. All I could do was pray!
If you watch my video, you will hear me say repeatedly, "Jesus help these people," or "Jesus help these people be safe." I have been amazed at the amount negative response to this on YouTube. There were so many hateful, derogatory, obscene, mean, and attacking comments about the fact that I prayed. I had many people ask that I turn the comments off on the video because some were so vile. I thought about it but I think it reflects the reality of this world and we should let people voice their opinions. Also, about the video, I took it down from YouTube for several days. It seems it was being stolen by certain media outlets and I was advised to bring it down until it could be protected. Thanks to Kendra Reed with KDR Media for help with this. It was a shame because John helped me get it online at his house within two hours of the tornado and it garnered a lot of interest. Not that it matters in the big scheme of things, but it would have had hundreds of thousands of more views.
John and I followed the tornado up 20/59 from Tuscaloosa to Birmingham. Some have asked why we didn't try to drive into Tuscaloosa to help assist victims. It isn't that we were unwilling to do something to help, but there was no way we could have been in a position to get to where help was needed. Back in 1995 I helped rescuse a tornado victim, but it was a rare situation where I just happened to have easy access. Once the authorities arrived I was no longer needed. We stopped near Bessemer where John shot some video and I took some still photographs. John and I noticed that the storm became more rain-wrapped as it approached Jefferson County. We saw the storm as it was tearing up places like Concord to our north.
The next day John and I witnessed the destruction at Concord. John was being interviewed by ABC News Nightline
. One of my best friends, Tom Windsor, lived in Concord for years. They were also affected by the April 8, 1998 F5 tornado. The destruction we witnessed the next day was unbelievable.
4/28/11 7:28 p.m. Concord, Alabama
After seeing the damage in Concord on April 28, I thought there was a lot of high end EF4 damage. There were a lot of bare slab foundations. It was very sad to witness. Four or five people (at least) died in that little neighborhood. If that was the only community affected in the state it would have been on the national news. Sadly, it was only a small fraction of the horror our state experienced. I hope I never see anything like this again. There was warning. But there was nothing these people could do to be safe from an EF4 tornado unless they had access to an underground shelter. Our minds will never grasp the magnitude of this tragedy. When I witnessed first hand the kindnesses given to those affected in the wake of the storms, I am prouder than ever to be an Alabamian.
Back to the chase. As we approached Birmingham, John asked me if I minded ending the chase. He was concerned about his family and wanted to check on them. Of course I told him that was a "no-brainer". As we approached his home in the Trussville area, we were very close to the area of circulation. We didn't know it at the time, but the tornado temporarily "lifted" just east of Fultondale. John and I tried to take shelter in a gas station but the employees had locked the door and would not let us in. We drove to John's house. His family was ok. I was finally able to get in touch and find out that my sons in Cullman were ok. By this point in the day cell phone service was becoming spotty in many areas. We uploaded my video and sent reports to ABC 33/40.
My vehicle was still in Cullman. John had to drive me back to Cullman. It was after dark and we began to wonder if the Cullman tornado hit the area where my vehicle was parked. The magnitude of the storm event was such that we had no idea, even by this hour, how many parts of the state were devastated. Everything was completely dark north of Birmingham. The North Alabama tornadoes had destroyed the power infrastructure. After we found my vehicle, surrounded by utility trucks, I drove home to Huntsville. With no power and no moonlight it was surreal driving home. The normal glow in the sky over Decatur, Madison, and Huntsville was missing. As I drove through Huntsville I only saw lights at the hospital and police station, which were running on generator power. As I pulled in my driveway, my garage door opener didn't work (of course), and as I opened the car door I heard the roar of generators in the neighborhood. I used the light of my Droid phone to get me to the back door of the house. Then I looked for candles and flashlights and a radio. I could tell from the radio that things were worse up in North Alabama than I realized.
Thus ended a very long and emotional day......
Here are some of other links of interest. I will be adding to this list over time.
The May 3, 2011 Weatherbrains, Episode 275
, was a two hour special. Regulars James Spann, Bill Murray, Dr. Tim Coleman, and Kevin Selle were joined by John Oldshue, John Brown, and Mike Wilhelm to simply share their thoughts on the horrible April 27, 2011 tornado outbreak that has killed over 300 people across the Deep South and injured thousands more.
Dr. Jon Nese of Penn State University describes the forecasting of the tornado outbreak as well as the warning process in his weekly program
, Wxyz (Weather Whys) which airs on Pennsylvania Public TV. In September 2011 I had the pleasure of visiting Dr. Nese as he gave me, Bill Murray, Ben Smith and other guests from Alabama a tour of the PSU Meteorology Department. Penn State people
did a lot to reach out and help Alabamians.
WHNT 19's Michelle Stark tells the story of this historic tragedy through YouTube videos
WSFA Montgomery's Rich Thomas showed radar history
of the Tuscaloosa-Jefferson tornado.
John Brown raised money for victims selling We Are Alabama
ESPN visited Tuscaloosa and did a special story
on the tornado recovery in May. My video was used in that story.
James Spann wrote a famous blog post
about the warning process that was even covered by the media in the UK
NOAA movie showing the rapid scan infrared imagery
from the GOES-East weather satellite from April 26-28, 2011.
Miraculous story of survival and recovery
of one Alabama student.
NWS Meteorologists "detective work
" in performing numerous, massive storm surveys.
someone took inside the Fultondale tornado.
Birmingham NWS Meteorologist in Charge Jim Stefkovich describes the event
|NWS Birmingham Map of Severe Hail Event - 4/25/2003
Severe weather, especially in the form of large hail, affected much of Central Alabama Friday April 25, 2003. Fortunately there were no injuries nor fatalities reported with this event, but property damage was significant. At least four supercells were responsible for this severe weather event.
This event included three confirmed tornadoes:
Pickens County: An F1 tornado, a landspout
(a tornado forming under an updraft in a thunderstorm), touched down in the southwestern Pickens County communities of Dancy and Cochrane, destroying one site-built home, a mobile home, and downing trees at 10:57 a.m.
Greene-Hale: An F0 tornado touched down near the Greene County Power Plant on the Greene-Hale county line and blew down trees, destroyed a mobile home, and damaged a church at 1:30 p.m.
Elmore County: An F0 tornado touched down northwest of Tallassee, blew down trees, and caused some roof damage to homes along its .6 mile path.
The biggest story of this severe weather event was not the tornadoes; it was the hail! There were at least 50 reports of severe hail (in 2003 the criteria for severe hail was 3/4" or greater. That changed to 1" or greater in 2010). Some of the largest hail in Alabama history fell in these storms and hail reports were widespread. There were 22 reports of golf ball-size hail (1 3/4") or larger in 15 different counties. Counties affected by golf ball-size or larger hail included: Bibb, Perry, Chilton, Autauga, Macon, Lee, Russell, Greene, Hale, Elmore, Dallas, Montgomery, Cherokee, Marengo, and DeKalb counties.
|Photo via NWS Birmingham by Chris Howard|
Baseball-size hail (2 3/4") or larger fell in four counties: Chilton, Macon, Lee, Elmore, and Montgomery. The largest hail that fell was softball-size (4 1/2"). This fell first in Bibb County from just south of the town of Brent to the Randolph, Pondville, and Lawley communities between 12:50 and 1:53 p.m. Several locations reported hail as deep as one foot in Bibb County! Numerous automobiles and homes were damaged. Funnel clouds were also reported with this supercell as it moved across Bibb County. Softball size hail also fell in Autauga County between 2:55 p.m. and 3:46 p.m.
National Weather Service Birmingham Storm Survey
NOAA Storm Data publication, April 2003
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