On April 10, 2009, a significant tornado outbreak raked across portions of the South. The strongest twister of this event was an EF4 that tore through Murfreesboro, Tennessee, and surrounding areas. Read more about this event here.
This summary will focus on a tornado that skipped its way through the rolling terrain of northeast Alabama. This event had initially been documented as a single long-tracked EF3. However, due to lengthy research and satellite analysis, we proposed two separate tornado paths, with an approximate 2.2-mile damage gap near and along the Jackson/DeKalb County line.
SPC coordinates: Start: 34.495 / -86.249 End: 34.5561 / -85.7754
Estimated corrected coordinates Based on Analysis of Radar, Aerial, and Satellite Imagery:
Start: 34.492925 / -86.260517 End: 34.512553 / -85.981186
Tornado #2: Start: 34.531472 / -85.950478 End: 34.555067 / -85.758383
Tornado #1 Stats
Path length: 16.34 miles
Width: 1000 yards
County: Marshall, Jackson
The tornado formed in Marshall County atop the small Gunters Mountain Plateau, beginning at 3:02 pm CDT, 2 miles south of the Grant community along Randles Road. Moving east-northeast, the twister downed a small line of trees along Campbell Mill Road. Minor roof damage also occurred to a few houses, and a couple of mobile homes were crushed by falling vegetation as the funnel continued across Elkins Road, Old Union Road, and Columbus City Road.
The vortex gradually strengthened as it crossed Cardessa Lane and encountered its first of two significant areas of elevation change. It eventually dipped 600 feet into the Tennessee River Valley, downing swaths of thick forest along the way.
At the bottom of the valley’s western side lay the lakeside community of Preston Island, where further intensification and widening took place. As the tornado crossed Alabama Highway 79, one woman was injured in her car by a falling tree near the Waterfront Grocery. Immediately to the east of Highway 79, the twister approached the western shore of Lake Guntersville, where many homes and boat houses were ripped apart. Substantial vegetation loss littered the narrow landscape, with pines snapped like matchsticks.
This video was filmed along Alabama Highway 79, driving southwest through Preston Island.
After quickly crossing a narrow inlet, the vortex slammed into residences along Preston Island Circle. Additional boat docks were wiped away, and a substantial amount of dwellings were left impaired by cascading timber, with two losing their roofs and suffering partial wall collapse.
In an April 10, 2009 article by AL.com, Gigi Parsons described what she experienced at her home along Preston Cove Road that day. “It wasn’t huge across, but it was touching the ground,” Gigi explained as she recalled the funnel descending towards her neighborhood. Her two children and their two friends were ushered into the downstairs closet alongside, fearing the worst. But curiosity led Gigi and her 14-year-old daughter Taylor to a window, where they watched the swirling winds narrowly miss their house. “It was like a big, dark, dirty cloud with stuff flying around in it,” Taylor described. Meanwhile, Gigi’s husband Shan was on his way home from work when the tornado was passing through. He had decided to begin following the twister but had second thoughts when a branch struck his car.
Now completely over Lake Guntersville as a waterspout, the towering cone widened as it descended upon the small lakeside community of South Sauty. During this time, the tornado became a spectacle for the few onlookers curious about Mother Nature’s fury.
Around the same time as the previous photo, this image was taken across Lake Guntersville from the backyard of a home along Stout Road in South Sauty, looking southwest. Moments later, the worst of the twister would pass less than a quarter mile south of this location.
At 1000 yards in peak width, the twister roared ashore into South Sauty along the eastern side of Lake Guntersville. Twenty small fishing boats and accompanying docks were laid to waste. Multiple well-built homes were damaged by significant tree blowdown along Menominee Road and Chilcotin Road. One two-story house with its roof completely removed, and a couple of large stone walls collapsed.
Now approaching the Marshall/Jackson County line and veering more to the east, the twister struck South Sauty’s Nick’s Point, where dozens of campers and recreational vehicles were destroyed, with many flung into Lake Guntersville.
This video was filmed along County Road 67, driving northeast through South Sauty. The damage featured in the majority of this video is of the campers and recreational vehicles at Nick’s Point.
Now over a small cove at the mouth of South Sauty Creek and along the Marshall/Jackson County line, the twister approached the south side of the neighboring community of Langston. During this time, the tornado crossed over the causeway of County Road 67/South Sauty Road, where sections of loose roadway shoulder were scoured away. As the funnel moved entirely into Jackson County, the Northshore Campground along the cove was swiped by the winds, damaging additional campers and recreational vehicles. It then moved back onshore for good along Coffeetown Road, where two structures were destroyed.
Upon its completion of traversing the Tennessee River Valley, the tornado encountered its second of two significant elevation changes. Scaling up the side of Sand Mountain, the now slightly less-intense twister narrowed considerably as it climbed nearly 700 feet to the plateau’s peak, still downing vegetation along the way. Once at the top of Sand Mountain, the vortex crossed County Road 44, where an old barn was destroyed. Gradually turning to the east-southeast along County Road 38/Langston Gap Road, strengthening resumed as a chicken house was smashed, and the winds crumpled three high-voltage TVA transmission lines.
Soon after, several mobile homes, and houses were destroyed along County Road 38/Langston Gap Road between County Roads 41 and 44. In the small community of Macedonia, additional light structure and tree damage occurred before the now-weakening funnel danced across rural farmland. It brushed over the Macedonia High School, then possibly lifted 1 mile east-southeast of town along County Road 167 at 3:21 pm CDT.
Tornado #2 Stats
Path length: 11.31 miles
Width: 820 yards
County: Jackson, DeKalb
Approximately five minutes passed before damage resumed just west of the Jackson/DeKalb County line at 3:26 pm CDT. Heading eastward from along County Road 38, 3 miles west of Powell, the twister quickly strengthened. Near the intersection of County Road 100/McGee Street and County Road 430, the narrow but intense vortex shifted a double-wide manufactured home off its foundation, leaving the front wall and roof ripped off.
In an April 11, 2009 publication of The Montgomery Advertiser, the Fernandez family described their harrowing experience that day as their mobile home met its demise. “The wind blew too hard. We were about to leave when we heard it coming so we jumped on the couch and then everything was blown away,” Thomas Fernandez Jr. recalled as he and his younger sister Anna suffered minor injuries. But the physical pain brought by the twister did not compare to what lay ahead on Fernandez’s road to recovery. Their father, Thomas Sr., explained, “it blew everything away. We’ve lost everything. What you see is what we’ve got.”
Now turning more to the east-northeast, the vortex began to enter Powell. It crossed County Road 158 and traveled down Thomas Avenue, where multiple chicken houses were turned into ruins. The tornado then crossed Alabama Highway 35, where a large, well-anchored, metal industrial building was left in a heap. It was at this location where the strongest estimated winds of the two tornadoes occurred. Northeast of Powell along County Road 47/Broad Street, a neighborhood suffered minor damage to homes, and substantial treefall.
Beyond Powell, the twister’s wind field expanded as it paralleled just southeast of County Road 572. It was in this area where significant tree fall began to occur, along with a few chicken houses destroyed. Other homes in the area sustained minor damage. The tornado eventually reached its peak width of 820 yards as it crossed Burnt Church Road, narrowly missing the home of Michelle Weldon.
Aerial imagery looking south at significant tree damage along Burnt Church Road, 2 miles west-southwest of Sylvania.
Next, the funnel slammed into the southwestern outskirts of Sylvania in the Stonebrook subdivision just north of County Road 91, where two homes suffered significantly along Pebble Lane. One of the homes was driven approximately four feet into the ground after being lifted from its foundation, while the other had its roof lofted and exterior walls collapsed. Beyond the Stonebrook subdivision, vegetation was leveled, and outbuildings were shredded along the County Road 91 and 4th Street intersection. On the south side of Sylvania, additional damage included the collapse of a cell phone tower.
The now-weakening tornado began to turn to the east as it crossed Alabama Highway 75. Immediately to the east, the vortex caused minor damage to homes and downed a grove of trees along Spears Street and Brandon Street. The dissipating funnel turned to the east-southeast, eventually crossing County Road 27/Blue Pond Boulevard, where a final chicken house met its end. At 3:37 pm CDT, the twister dissipated over a field just east of County Road 594, approximately 1.5 miles southeast of the Mahan Crossroads community.
Radar loop of the Preston Island-South Sauty-Powell-Sylvania tornado(es). Animation from GR2 Analyst.
A Tornado Family?
Upon diving deeper into this event, a few indicators sparked our suspicions of two tornadoes rather than one. Using archived April 10, 2009 data from the Huntsville/Hytop (KHTX) radar site, we followed the velocity couplet from its initial origin near Grant until dissipation just past Sylvania. We noticed a possible brief handoff on the radar (above) in rural Jackson County between Macedonia and Powell. Using National Agriculture Imagery Program (NAIP) and Google Earth imagery taken during 2006, 2009, and 2011, we carefully documented the tornado paths by comparing changes in vegetation and structural damage patterns. A final indicator touches on the beginning of the alleged second tornado’s track, where the site of the Fernandez family’s mobile home was located. This location was approximately 1.0 miles east of the plausible second funnel’s formation.
As it stands, our conclusions found strong evidence of there being an estimated 2.2-mile intermission between two tornadoes. However, we could not acquire ground truth and have lower confidence in weaker damage pattern detection around the suspected gap. Our statistical values should be treated as estimations. Official statistics from The Storm Prediction Center (SPC), National Climatic Data Center (NCDC), and the National Weather Service (NWS) Huntsville indicate one single tornado, with a path length ranging between 28 miles (NWS Huntsville) to 32.53 miles (SPC, NCDC).
The Discrepancies section elaborates on our estimated values of the two separate twisters.
The Discrepancies section elaborates on our estimated values of the two separate twisters.
Video footage of damage along Lake Guntersville between Preston Island and South Sauty.
Three part WHNT News 19 coverage of the event, featuring meteorologist Dan Satterfield.
We gathered information for this event from the SPC/NCDC Databases, the NWS Huntsville Event page, and analysis of radar, aerial, and satellite imagery, and found the following differences:
- NWS Huntsville and SPC/NCDC list a rating of EF3 for the entire tornado event.
- Due to our research, the estimation of two separate tornado paths, and pre-existing rating points provided by NWS Huntsville and SPC/NCDC, we determined the following:
- The Marshall/Jackson County tornado:
- No damage points are provided by NWS Huntsville or SPC/NCDC along the first tornado’s path, and the Damage Assessment Toolkit (DAT) was not utilized for this event.
- We have gone with an EFU rating, as no official rating points could be found for this suspected tornado segment.
- The Jackson/DeKalb County tornado:
- NWS Huntsville described a single damage point in their summary to an industrial building in Powell as an EF3, with winds estimated at 155 miles per hour.
- We will keep the original EF3 rating for this suspected tornado segment.
- NWS Huntsville lists a total path length of 28 miles.
- SPC/NCDC lists a total path length of 32.53 miles.
- Our research estimates:
- The Marshall/Jackson County tornado had a path length of 16.34 miles.
- The Jackson/DeKalb County tornado had a path length of 11.31 miles.
- NWS Huntsville lists a maximum path width of 1/2 mile (880 yards).
- SPC/NCDC lists a maximum path width of 440 yards.
- Our research estimates:
- The Marshall/Jackson County tornado had a maximum path width of 1000 yards.
- The Jackson/DeKalb County tornado had a maximum path width of 820 yards.
- SPC/NCDC lists a single tornado that began at 3:02 pm CDT, and ended at 3:35 pm CDT, with a total duration of approximately 33 minutes.
- Our research estimates:
- The Marshall/Jackson County tornado began at 3:02 pm CDT, and ended at 3:21 pm CDT, with a total duration of approximately 19 minutes.
- The Jackson/DeKalb County tornado began at 3:26 pm CDT, and ended at 3:37 pm CDT, with a total duration of approximately 11 minutes.
- SPC/NCDC lists a total of five injuries along the entire path.
- We were able to confirm through our research, three injuries, but there very well could have been more.
NCDC Storm Events Database Entry-Marshall County
NCDC Storm Events Database Entry-Jackson County
NCDC Storm Events Database Entry-DeKalb County
James Spann (ABC 33/40)
AL.com: Homes damaged in Marshall County’s Preston Island community from apparent tornado
AGU Blogosphere – Dan’s Wild Wild Science Journal: The EF3 Tornado Crossing Lake Guntersville
The Montgomery Advertiser 11 Apr 2009, Page 6 (n.d.). Newspapers.com
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cc3649 · February 20, 2023 at 4:16 pm
Interesting research! Based on the damage analysis, I would say that both segments should be rated EF-3.
Zachary Reichle · February 21, 2023 at 12:35 pm
Thank you so much!
As someone whose fascination for tornadoes was sparked by the event, this summary was fun. I was 12 then, living in Scottsboro just up the river. When the storm approached, my parents urgently directed the rest of the family to the basement, saying that nearby communities had been hit and people were hurt. At the same time, we had a metal roof. The hail from this storm sounded like a dump truck had parked over our house and unloaded a hefty amount of gravel on top of us. After the storm passed, we went outside and admired hail at least the size of quarters.