Computer forecasts had predicted at least 5 days in advance that April 27 would be a day of severe thunderstorms and tornadoes, and it turned out that the two days in advance also had severe weather. At The Weather Channel (TWC) we had very high Tornado Condition Index (TOR:CON) values for the 27th going into the day. There were severe thunderstorms and tornadoes in northern AL in the morning. When I got to The Weather Channel in late morning and saw that these storms had laid out a mesoscale boundary that would likely serve to focus storm development, intensification, and rotation, I upgraded TOR:CON to 10 after consultation with my supervisor Stu Ostro. It was the first time that we had used that top TOR:CON rating.

The TOR:CON map from April 27, 2011.

Both instability and wind shear conditions were upper echelon and it did not take long for storms to turn into long-lived supercells as the afternoon progressed, especially in eastern MS, AL, and TN. I was on-air reporting on the storms, trying to keep viewers informed of where the dangerous supercells and tornadoes were heading. One of the most memorable events was a supercell that moved from MS into AL shortly after 5 PM CDT and became tornadic as it approached Tuscaloosa, AL. It developed a debris ball and Tornado Vortex Signature (TVS) and reports of damage quickly came in. Our reporter Jeff Morrow was live in Birmingham, AL, and soon reported pieces of shingles falling from the sky there – apparently transported by the strong winds aloft all the way from Tuscaloosa. The tornado itself soon followed, causing major damage and casualties all the way between the two cities.

From then on it was tornado pandemonium, with more than 20 tornado warnings simultaneously at times in AL, GA, and TN. I tried to cover the handful of storms on-air that appeared to be most dangerous on radar or were heading toward communities, working in as many of the other tornado-warned storms as time permitted. The frenzy of trying to keep up with the tornadoes and concentrating on trying to keep people safe normally prevented me from thinking emotionally about the death and destruction, but it was hard to keep from breaking down when word came in that relatives of one of our TWC employees – Jim Wilson – had been hit in northern GA.

The next day TWC sent me via helicopter to take video of and assess the damage done by the Tuscaloosa tornado. I was impressed not only by the terrible structural damage in town, but also by the continuous damage path to the northeast. In many places, virtually every tree was blown down toward the southwest – on the front flank of the tornado and “backward” into it – presumably by inflow into the tornado even before the strongest winds on the southeast flank of the tornado reached the area. I had seen this in a few of my previous surveys of wide, violent tornadoes. The tornado also downed a railroad bridge. The tornado was ultimately rated a high-end EF4 (190 mph), but four others in the outbreak were rated EF5.

The downed railroad bridge, via NWS Birmingham.

I had helped Dr. Fujita survey the damage paths of the tornadoes of the April 3, 1974, Superoutbreak and examined their radar signatures as part of my Ph.D. thesis research. Now I had seen the live Doppler radars of Superoutbreak 2011 and covered them live on air. My goal when I headed to graduate school at The University of Chicago was to become a severe weather forecaster and save lives. Hopefully, I did that during my TWC career.

Dr. Forbes (left), and Dr. Fujita (right).

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