Sunday, April 24, 2016

Remembering 4/27 (Part 1 - My Personal Experience)

9/11 is a common household name across the country and even much of the world. Ask anyone about that day and there is a good chance most will have some memory from that day whether they were directly affected or not. Ask those same people about 4/27 and you aren’t guaranteed to get the same response…many may not even know what you are talking about. Ask anyone in the Southeast, though, and you will likely get many stories/memories. It’s hard to believe it has been this long, but five years ago many people from Mississippi to New York had their lives turned upside down…literally in some cases.

As we approach the five year anniversary of this widespread and damaging event, I thought I would make a few posts over the coming days, looking back at my experience as well as some things that stuck out to me from that event. For part 1, I would like to rehash the events of that day as it may help to explain my thoughts later this week. Some of you may have read or heard my story before, but for those who haven’t, I would guess that many similar or worse stories played out that day. NOTE: as you read my story, you may pick up on some mistakes that I made regarding preparation for the event and with some of my responses during the event. Later this week I will look at some of those mistakes and what I learned from them in the hope that others will make better choices than we did…

April 27, 2011 Tornado Outbreak

My Personal Account

Wow, where to begin?? Well, honestly, the craziness of that event started days in advance. In the days prior to that Wednesday (April 27th), I was watching severe weather and flooding hit areas from Arkansas to Kentucky day after day. Many nights that week (starting Sunday) I would stay up late talking with friends of mine from college (we all studied Meteorology) as we all watched the storms parade across the same areas causing a lot of damage. Some of these storms would edge closer and closer to Alabama each night, but they were mostly in a weakened state. I mention all this because with such an active weather pattern, I was not getting a lot of sleep at night leading up to that Wednesday.

So now we come to Tuesday night (April 26). Again, a lot of storms to our west, but nothing in Alabama. However, late in the evening a line of storms began developing well to our west that I figured would come through north Alabama in some form or fashion with a severe weather threat. Like a lot of my other weather friends, I stayed up until about 1am to see the Storm Prediction Center's (SPC’s) Day 1 Outlook. And, as I expected, north Alabama was put under the rare High Risk of severe weather. As hard as it was to go to sleep, I forced myself to lie down for a few hours knowing I would need the rest.

My "nap" didn't last long. Around 2:30am (yes, only 1.5 hours of sleep), my weather radio went off. The first tornado watch of the day was issued. The squall line was just entering western AL, so I thought maybe I could lay back down for at least another 30 minutes or so. Right about that time, tornado warnings went up for a couple of counties to our west. So, I decided to get up and turn the TV on to watch the wall to wall coverage that I knew would start soon. The squall line continued to race eastward and areas of rotation continued to be seen in the line. As it approached I-65, a tornado warning was issued for Madison County. Much to my wife's dismay, I ran into our bedroom to wake her up around 5am and we got in the center of our house. You could hear the wind howling outside, but no sounds of things breaking. The storm passed, we still had power, and things seemed to be ok. Jen (my wife) went back to sleep.

As I got back on my computer, I saw something that I haven't seen many times before. A meso-low/vortex had developed south of here and was plowing through counties to our south causing a lot of damage. I watched as this "tornado-cane" continued to spin northeast towards Chattanooga (where a lot of my family lives). When I realized it would hit them dead on, I called to get them into their basements. I had to watch the radar for what seemed like eternity as I anxiously awaited to hear from them. Maybe 30 minutes later, I finally got a call from one of my aunts. She said the storm was crazy. She had no power and trees were down everywhere, including one that narrowly missed her house. Other houses in her neighborhood were not so lucky. There is a highway that runs a decent distance beyond her house. You normally can't see the highway because of all the trees in her neighborhood. You can see it now. But, all my family was accounted for and alive! Whew.
Back here in Harvest, things had quieted down with just some light rain falling for a couple of hours after the squall line passed. After talking with a friend of mine (Matt) who also works for the National Weather Service (NWS), we thought the rain MAY keep the atmosphere stable over north Alabama. As it turns out, it didn't. Shortly after talking with Matt, the sun came out and things began to warm up. Not to mention, there was an 80kt LLJ (Low-Level Jet) developing across Alabama that continued to advect warm, moist, and unstable air back into the area and it was making me nervous.

Later that morning, around 9am, more storms began developing to our west across MS. These storms formed into a line and began marching towards AL for round two. At the same time, an isolated storm developed out ahead of the line (which usually means trouble). This storm had some rotation with it and it strengthened some as it moved towards Madison County. And, again, tornado sirens started blaring. I began watching out my window to see the storm. As it approached, I began hearing a loud sound that I originally thought was a possible tornado or at least some high winds. I could see the rain shaft approaching and figured it could be a rain-wrapped tornado. Then it hit. Fortunately, that loud sound was NOT a tornado. It was actually hail. The hail was not that big (only about 0.75"), but it was the loudest hailstorm I have ever experienced. Hail was raining down hard and fast. The hail was so loud that it could be heard from far away as the storm approached (the loud sound I heard). The ground was covered in a broken layer of white. Wow! That was storm two.

Then, around 10am, the 2nd squall line came through. Again, sirens blared as a tornado warning was issued. I was watching the storms approach from my garage with the door open. The sky to the west was dark and green so I figured it would at least have some hail. Then it hit. Strong winds over 50mph began hitting the house along with hail. The lights began flickering. At that point, I tried to close the garage door. But, as Murphy's Law would have it, the power went off before the door shut. So I ran over and closed it manually then ran back into the house. The wind continued strong for a bit longer, then quit. With no power, I had to rely on internet on my phone and radio in my car. I listened as storm reports began coming in from Madison County, specifically the Madison and Harvest areas. Reports of trees and power lines down everywhere. Later, NWS surveys determined that some of this damage was tornado-caused. I did a quick check on our house and determined that no damage had been done. But, now I was stuck in my house because my car was stuck in the garage with a door that I assumed I could not open manually.

For the next couple of hours I continued to get updates from Matt, my phone, and the radio in my car. I listened as the first of many tornadic supercells began moving into Alabama with Cullman County getting hit first. Then I got a call that I will never forget. Matt called and said that reports of a 1/2 mile wide tornado on the ground were coming in from near Phil Campbell, AL. Matt said, "Roger, if this storm holds together, it will hit northwest Madison County within the hour." Oftentimes, tornadic storms will produce multiple tornadoes, but not necessarily one continuously. However, I knew that today the conditions were such that any tornado that developed could be large, possibly violent, and long-track. When Matt told me this, I started getting concerned. I told him the car was stuck in the garage and he said I should figure some way to get it opened. See, I live in a wood house which would most likely not survive a direct hit from a tornado. I knew I couldn't stay. So, I went through the house and began getting some important things (legal docs, medical history, etc) and put them in my car. Around that time, Matt called again and said the tornado was holding together and was headed straight for Harvest. About this time, my weather radio went off as the NWS in Huntsville issued the tornado warning for Madison County ahead of the approaching tornado. Eerily, though, all I heard after the warning tone was static (instead of the normal voice that comes on with the wording of the warning).

I ran to the garage and was finally able to get the door open manually. As I pulled out of the garage, I was struck with a fear I have not experienced before. The lightning was ridiculous and the sky was an eery green, AGAIN. But, the fear came from what I saw when I looked up. There were pieced of debris (mostly small) flying around in the air above me and landing in our yard. Not any huge pieces, but small pieces of wood, paper, insulation, etc. I knew that the tornado had to be close. I honestly thought I was too late. I kept trying to call Matt frantically wanting to know what was going on. Keep in mind, the power never came back on at the house, so I didn't have all of my normal sources for weather information that I use to follow storms. All I had was the car radio and Matt. And, I couldn't use the internet on my phone because my battery was dying (I had no car charger at the time). 

I finally got through and he told me that I may be too late. He said I should drive as fast as possible if I wanted to leave. I was in a bit of freak out mode at this point. So, I pulled out of my driveway, and started going about 80 mph down Harvest road headed east. I thought I was driving AWAY from the tornado, but little did I know I was driving towards it! As I was driving, small pieces of debris continued to hit my car as it fell from the sky. Then I hit traffic on Jordan Lane. It was around 4pm and some people were getting off work early due to the storms. It was chaotic because none of the traffic lights worked due to the previous power outage. Also, with all the rain we had, roads were beginning to flood. I could barely see because of the rain, so I pulled into a gas station south of the storm's path near the Jordan Lane / Research Park intersection. I was able to call Jen real quick. I told her to stay at work and to NOT come home (if we even had one still).

Then, a second tornadic storm developed south of the original one. This storm was headed straight for the gas station I was at. So, I tried to get away from that storm. It was so hard to see…lightning was flashing everywhere and there was a lot of hail coming down.. The hail sounded like it was at least golf ball sized. Crazy doesn't even describe the feeling. I pulled into a neighborhood and tried calling Matt again. He said I was stuck and that he didn't know what I should do. The hail started getting worse and I knew this could be the hail core that often proceeds or is near a developing tornado. I figured I wouldn't survive in my car so I ran into the nearest house and began banging on the door. No answer…lightning getting worse. I was ready to just crouch down and ride it out on this porch. I was honestly afraid for my life (AGAIN). Then, I heard a noise, the door opened! This amazingly nice, young couple let me in and we spent the next hour together in their bathroom as storm after storm trained over the area. You could hear the hail hitting the roof. I imagine the hail was a bit bigger than what hit our house earlier. Then it calmed down finally.

Then we heard a new sound. A continuous stream of cops, ambulances, and fire trucks were headed north on Jordan Lane towards Harvest. Reports of people being trapped were coming in. I assumed I didn't have a house anymore. But, I wanted to get home to see. About 2 hours later, around 7pm, I finally got back to my neighborhood after driving through street after street of flooding and damage. Many roads were impassible. Much to my amazement, when I got to our street, I could see our house still standing! Wow. We were so fortunate compared to other parts of our county and state. When I got home, the last of, I can't even remember how many, storms hit. More strong wind and hail, but no damage to the house. It was now around 8pm and I had not heard from Jen (she usually gets off at 5). My goal now was to try to locate her. With all the impassible roads, I knew I couldn't drive around to find her. Cell phones were mostly useless as towers were damaged and the ones working were clogged with so many people trying to make calls. Little did I know, the call I made to her from the gas station around 4pm was the last time I would be able to call her that day.

At this point, I had been running on pure adrenaline. I had only gotten about 2 hours of sleep the night before and I hadn't eaten since breakfast that morning (too many storms and no power). I was exhausted, my head hurt, and I wanted to hear from Jen. Then, I got a text. She said she was at a friend's house! Relief. So, good decision or not, I was determined to go be with her. I drove to her friend's house which was only a few miles away. However, that three mile drive took over an hour. I got to her friend's house, only to discover she wasn't there. When I tried to get back home, the roads had been closed. Now I had to find somewhere to spend the night. I was so tired, I knew I would just have to continue my search for Jen in the morning. So, I drove to another friend's house in Huntsville. I finally got word from my Mom that she had spoken with Jen and that she was safe! God was so good to let me know this before going to bed. 

I slept for a long time, then made the trek back home the next morning (April 28). There was devastation everywhere. Whole buildings and houses were severely damaged or gone altogether. It was a much different Harvest than I once knew. I finally made it home and there was Jen!  We hugged for a while then shared stories from the day before. And, I ate again for the first time in 24 hours. In the days after, we stayed at many people's houses and did a lot of grilling out. Power was out across all of Huntsville. The main transmission lines that carried power into the area had been taken down by the tornado that passed through Harvest. Power finally came back on a week later (the following Wednesday). Harvest will never be the same...Alabama will never be the same...much of the Southeastern US will never be the same…I will never be the same. I now have an even greater appreciation for severe weather. As a Meteorologist, I thought I was prepared; I wasn't. Next time, I will be even better prepared.

I have to thank a few people. First, God. God, thank you for protecting me and Jen and our house! Thanks to all those who housed us that week (you know who you are). I’m so thankful for Matt keeping an eye out for Jen and I and for keeping us updated during the event! Thanks, too, to all of the EMA, media, and NWS folks who spent tireless hours working hard to warn, protect, and serve the people of north Alabama. Thanks everyone else who called and checked on us during the event and thanks for the prayers.

A few of my pictures from the event below:

A look at one of the early supercells that came through (this is the one that only had hail with it). Small cell, but it had a well-defined structure to it. Notice the hail shaft off to the right of the picture. There was so much hail falling, I could already begin to hear the hail as I took the picture.

 A short video I took as the hail storm moved through (I would adjust your volume down before hitting play...)

This is the NWS Huntsville's path map of the Hackleburg to Harvest tornado that passed about 4 miles south of our house (I added annotations of where our house was at the time)

No damage at our house, but it was quite a different story a few miles to our south where the tornado moved through.

Amazing how these brick walls were just folded over like this.

Then came the slabs. Many more slabs in this area than I expected (ie. slab only, because the houses were completely ripped off).

A look at the Piggly Wiggly in town where we shopped some. 17 people were trapped in the back of the store, but were later rescued

Here is a look at those transmission lines that bring power into the Huntsville area...they were twisted and dropped

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