My April 27th story started early. It began on the previous Thursday, April 21st. That evening, Jim Stefkovich, the Meteorologist in Charge at the National Weather Service in Birmingham, and I were meeting with James Spann at ABC 33/40 in Birmingham to plan for the upcoming National Weather Association Meeting. We were the Co-Program Chairs for the event, and planning was in full swing.

I distinctly remember James walking in and asking Jim what he thought about the double-digit Significant Tornado Parameter values for Alabama progged by the models for the following Wednesday, April 27th. Jim said he was very worried. In fact, our forecasts had already started pointing to the 26th and 27th as being very bad days.

James had commented in his afternoon discussion that showers and storms were likely in the Tuesday-Wednesday time frame and that the main threat of severe weather would come late Tuesday night into Wednesday, and could pack quite a punch.

Two mesoscale convective complexes had impacted Alabama on Wednesday, April 20th, with the nighttime event packing very high winds in association with a gravity wave. Even the morning event had overperformed expectations, producing damage in West Alabama.

In fact, the whole month had overperformed in the severe weather department in Alabama. On April 11th, an EF1 tornado hop-scotched across my community of Vestavia, south of Birmingham. Then on April 15th, Alabama recorded 29 tornadoes, which was the largest single count of tornadoes in state history to that date. That outbreak would become the forgotten outbreak by the time April 27th rolled around

Map showing all of the tornadoes in Alabama, on April 15th. Photo via NWS Birmingham.

On Good Friday, the 22nd, I was anxiously waiting for the cable internet repairman to come because storms on the 15th had knocked out the internet to our neighborhood. He saw the multiple computer screens in my home weather office and asked if it was really going to be as bad as we were beginning to say. “I am afraid so,” I told him.

I planned to go to bed early on that Tuesday evening the 26th, so I could get up as the squall line dealing fits in areas to our west rolled in later that night. There were indications that the line of storms would weaken as it moved into Alabama, but that didn’t seem to be the case through the evening as reports of tornadoes and baseball size hail came in from the Mid-South.

The line of storms just kept coming, and there was no chance that I was going to get any sleep. A tornado watch was issued for the northwestern quarter of Alabama just before 2:30 a.m. I gave heads ups for several west Alabama counties before the first Tornado Warning for our state. Then it was a steady stream of severe thunderstorm and tornado warnings for the next several hours.

Winds gusted to 72 mph at the Tuscaloosa Airport at 5:02 a.m. It was evident this powerful line of storms with embedded tornadoes wasn’t weakening at all. In fact, it seemed to be strengthening! I had several business associates in town at a hotel in the Colonnade on the southern side of Birmingham. I called the General Manager just after 5 a.m. and told him that he needed to enact his tornado plan immediately when a warning was issued. By 5:28 a.m, strong rotation was indicated near Vance in Tuscaloosa County. A tornado warning was issued just a minute later. By 5:38, we were warning that there was a high potential for widespread wind damage along the I-459 Corridor from Bessemer and McCalla to Hoover and points to the northeast.

Even as all of the guests at the Hampton Inn huddled in stairwells, an EF1 tornado was touching down a few miles to the southwest of the hotel. It would lift just a mile or so west of the hotel, knocking out power. An even stronger tornado touched down about a half-mile north of the hotel 2 minutes later. This EF2 would cause substantial damage in the Cahaba Heights community. The once tree-filled neighborhoods there still bear the scars of the significant tornado to this day, the treeless landscape incongruous to the gorgeous tree canopy that adorns much of Central Alabama.

By 7:30 a.m., tornadoes were still ongoing across North Alabama and the line of intense storms was about to push out of Alabama into Georgia. Power was out to hundreds of thousands of stunned Alabamians who were picking up the pieces after the storm. Beyond the immediate storm response efforts, the question became whether or not the morning storms had stabilized the atmosphere sufficiently to prevent a bigger outbreak later in the day. There still was a high-risk severe weather outlook for a large part of the northern half of Alabama, eastern Mississippi, and southeastern Tennessee.

Severe weather outlook for April 27, 2011, via the Storm Prediction Center (SPC).

I wrote the following on the blog at 8:24 a.m.: “So, as much as I would like to tell you the event is over…it actually has only just begun,” following with an explanation of why the sunshine-filled skies foretold bad tidings. I reached out to my business colleagues at the Hampton Inn, telling them to cancel their meeting and depart for their homes in Georgia immediately. I think they could hear the urgency in my voice as I warned them, because they didn’t protest at all and left right away.

As we analyzed how the atmosphere was going to play out over the next several hours, more tornadoes were affecting parts of North Alabama. Between 11:30 and noon, tornadoes were developing in the Huntsville and Decatur areas. A new PDS Tornado Watch was issued to our west. Dew points over Mississippi were rising at a rapid rate. The 11:30 Severe Weather Outlook from the SPC was very detailed and sobering.

By 1:30 p.m., a new PDS Tornado Watch was being prepared that included Alabama. Then the first tornado warning was issued just after 2 p.m. By 2:25 p.m. there was a tornado warning for Cullman County. Within twenty minutes we were watching a large and violent tornado forming live on the Cullman Skycam and a Tornado Emergency was issued for the City of Cullman. It was on. There would be no time for us to breathe until late that evening.

Even as that was playing out, a very dangerous storm was approaching Pickens County from the Southwest. Another tornado was approaching Marion County. The Cullman Tornado was moving into Marshall County. The warnings were frantic and rapid-fire. A tornado on the ground heading for Reform! Exclamation points became the norm. Two frightening storms were heading toward Tuscaloosa.

My son Chris was a student at the University of Alabama at the time. Around noon, I had reached out to see where he would be between 4 and 6 p.m. He reported that he had a test before that but would be at home by then. I went over his safe place and told him to pay attention to the warnings.

At 4:02 p.m., I posted on the blog: “I don’t know that I have ever seen a radar like this one… Multiple tornadic supercell thunderstorms all capable of producing strong to violent tornadoes….”

At 4:12 p.m., a storm was roaring toward Walker County, and it was wound up like a top. Cordova was specifically mentioned in the post. The downtown part of Cordova was heavily damaged by the tornado with a wide swath of EF3 damage. At 4:35 p.m., I posted that it looked like what April 3, 1974 must have looked like, with multiple tornadic thunderstorms in progress simultaneously.

At 4:48 p.m., Brian Peters could see two tornadoes in Walker County from I-22 with debris evident…. John Oldshue was reporting a large tornado on the ground southwest of Tuscaloosa…. A tornado warning was issued for Tuscaloosa… We called it a Tornado Emergency immediately because we could see the tornado live on John’s feed!

At 5:06 p.m., I stared in disbelief at our Tuscaloosa Skycam clearly showing a huge tornado bearing down on the city. I looked at one of my associates who had been pressed into duty helping to post warnings on the blog and said, “I am afraid I am going to be heading to Tuscaloosa to pick up a body bag tonight.”

Chris called. They were in their safe place in a home just off 15th Street in Tuscaloosa. I knew the tornado would pass very close to them. I calmly told him to stay on speaker phone so I would know if they were ok. It was a very selfish request, but I just had to know what was happening so I could keep on passing on vital life-saving warnings.

Even as the massive tornado roared past the SkyCam, we were pounding out frantic warnings. I knew that the tornado was nearing Chris, but they stayed on the line. By the time the next volume scan showed the tornado over Alberta City, I knew they were fine and asked Chris to go outside and tell me what he saw. No damage at his location, good. Walk south. His voice rose in alarm, “Dad, it’s bad. I have to go help.” “Go,” I told him. We wouldn’t see him until Friday. He still texts me every time he sees any threatening cloud.

Damage in Tuscaloosa, via NWS Birmingham.

By 5:20 p.m., it was setting in that Birmingham was up next… And another large tornado was on the ground along the Cullman/Blount County line… Another in northeastern Marion County… Major damage in Tuscaloosa… A large and violent tornado approaching the Birmingham area… Another tornado over Greene County, moving toward Bibb County… Tornado EMERGENCY for Birmingham… It was almost overwhelming, but we just kept hammering the message for people to be in their safe places.

Knowing we were in the path, I asked my team to pull desks together in a center room in our office and prepare to get under them. I stepped outside for one minute to a frightening scene. The air had a heavy, sulphur smell. The lightning and thunder was continuous. Pieces of insulation and debris were falling from the sky. I looked up to watch something fluttering to the ground. It was a big piece of siding. A piece of someone’s home to my southwest. I ran out to grab it as a frightening momento of the disaster.

We lost radar data for a couple of minutes. I wrote from under a desk that we were heading to shelter and that I hoped we would be back soon. When a subsequent volume scan showed the mesocyclone just to our north, we emerged from our shelter. We could see the wall cloud right where the radar showed it. We immediately wrote that there was an imminent tornado passing just north of downtown Trussville based on the rotating wall cloud and the wind shift at our SkyCam there. The instinct was right, as another tornado was forming and would touch down near Deerfoot Parkway and roar into St. Clair County.

The frantic pounding out of warnings never stopped. We named community after community. It just seemed it would never end. Still several tornadoes in progress at 7 p.m… A Tornado emergency for what would turn out to be the Shoal Creek Tornado… At 7:56, the NWS Birmingham was forced to go into shelter… Tornado warning after tornado warning…

Then the inevitable. A heart-stopping report just after 9 p.m. that the Alabama death toll was at 40. A short time later, it was up to 53. Then the type of warnings changed to all severe thunderstorm warnings as the squall line marched eastward, finally ending the threat. The clear radar allowed for a fitful sleep. And then the morning after arrived. The death toll stood at a heart-stopping 123. That couldn’t be real. It would go much higher. We had done everything we could the night before, and it wasn’t enough. It was the same shock I had felt 37 years earlier on the morning of April 4, 1974, as news reports pegged the Alabama death toll at 82 from the first Superoutbreak.

I had fallen asleep that night in 1974, fully expecting to die. The fear I felt that night was gone the next morning, replaced with a drive to study and understand these killer storms. That same drive powers me still today.

Map showing all of the tornadoes in Alabama, on April 27th. Photo via NWS Birmingham.

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