Foreword

To the best of my memory, this is a story of my experiences leading up to, during, and after the day of April 27, 2011, the most active day of what would become known as the 2011 Super Tornado Outbreak. This day would go on to transform my simple fascination of weather, into a passion that spearheads my career goals. I further present my steady growth of knowledge on this event over the following years, which is still ongoing. I consider this opportunity an honor and extend my thanks to Tornado Talk for allowing me to use their platform to tell my story. I also acknowledge that many others experienced far worse than I could ever imagine. I extend my condolences to those who lost loved ones to the tornado outbreak, especially around Scottsboro, Alabama, where I was raised, and love dearly.

Mother Nature’s Alarm

My fascination with meteorology began at an early age, years before the 2011 Super Tornado Outbreak. Some of my earliest memories stem from when I was 6 years old. I would watch Jim Cantore narrate Storm Stories or put himself in the immediate path of a major hurricane to broadcast to the public on The Weather Channel. My first memory of tornadoes came from around this period as well. My family and I were searching for the best pumpkin I could carve in a pumpkin patch near Huntsville, Alabama, on an October afternoon. What seemed like out of nowhere, a storm rolled in nearby and produced a small tornado which we watched dance around in the distance. On other occasions throughout my childhood, while on family beach trips, summer storms would spawn harmless waterspouts out in the ocean. Without fear, I was captivated by these mystical phenomena rather than scared of them. Ironically for some reason, I grew up terrified of bees and wasps but would give anything to get as close to a tornado as possible.

As I grew older, reality shifted my view of tornadoes from harmless funnels whipping up some dust from the ground, to realizing the dangers they posed. The first tornado I remember tracking was the Yazoo City, Mississippi EF4 tornado from April 24, 2010. The Weather Channel painted this pretty picture on radar as the storm zipped across the state of Mississippi for over 100 miles. That day I learned the destructive nature of these monsters, as images of sheer destruction began populating my television screen. A year later, the 2011 Super Tornado Outbreak would speed up that reality check of just how terrifying tornadoes actually are.

On the morning of April 27, 2011, the shriek of tornado sirens replaced the sound of my alarm clock at around 6:30 AM, soon followed by my mother barging into my room, ushering the rest of the family and me to the basement. We flipped to the local news channel on our basement television. All I could remember seeing on the screen was a radar showing a big line of swirling storms barreling towards our home and the rest of Scottsboro, Alabama. The calm meteorologist on air began repetitively pointing at multiple highlighted areas of rotation hiding within the line of storms.

Radar capture of the morning quasi-linear convective system storm and associated tornado warning as they move northeastward (GRAnalyst).

We soon huddled ourselves into the corner of our basement closet, which was our designated safe room for such instances. On one side of our basement, one could walk out into our backyard. The basement closet we were in was partly underground. On the other side of the two back walls was dirt, with the other two walls only separated by a few rooms from the outdoors. We sat there listening as the winds began to shriek outside with frequent crashing sounds of lightning nearby.

After what felt like an eternity at the time, the noise subsided. We ran out of the closet to the television, checking to see if the danger had passed. And to our relief, the storm had moved on, only scattering small branches and fresh green leaves across the yard. But little did we know, the morning storm and tornado warnings would only just be the first of many and that my family and I would become all too familiar with our safe room that day. In the moments immediately after the morning storm, life carried on. We went back upstairs and got ready for school as if the worst had passed for the day as if nothing had happened.

Once I arrived at my first eighth-grade class for the day at the Junior High School, everyone just seemed to have this look of confusion. I wasn’t sure if it was because people were worried about the bad weather forecasted for the area later on that afternoon or if everyone was just wondering why we were even at school in the first place. At the age of 14, by no means was my weather knowledge the equivalent of a seasoned professional meteorologist. But I was well into my love for weather. I knew we were supposed to see worse weather later that afternoon. How bad was it going to be? I had no idea. And neither did anyone else in the school halls. I recall my English teacher, in particular, talking to another faculty member in the hallway about how “…we had tornadoes in Guntersville and on The Mountain this morning… and the weather is somehow supposed to get worse today?”

At that point, it seemed pretty clear that Mother Nature had only served her appetizers and that we were in for a long Wednesday afternoon. Based on all the chatter going on between the faculty and staff, I also got the feeling we weren’t going to be at school much longer. About two hours later, we got word that school was dismissing early. The line of anxious parents who had left their work early, ready to floor it home, grew in an instant. Of course, many of my classmates were excited about getting out early. And to an extent, I was too. But more so because I would rather be in the safety of my basement tracking these storms than in a school huddling in the hallway full of panic, should a tornado come roaring through my hometown.

Face to Face

Upon arriving back home, I went straight to my WeatherBug app, which I planned to stalk for the remainder of the day. The radar on WeatherBug began to look like someone had spilled a bucket of red and yellow paint across northern Alabama and parts of Mississippi as I watched the storms grow and start pushing eastward towards my location. I looked out my window across Lake Guntersville to the east towards Sand Mountain (better known locally as “The Mountain”), and for the first time that day, I stared as the clouds outside raced by like cars on an interstate highway. To this day, this is the fastest I have ever seen clouds move through the sky.

With my still-young and developing mind easily distracted, I hadn’t noticed how close the storms had gotten to me. Just before noon, my cloud gazing was interrupted. The tornado sirens were blaring once again, with rumbles of thunder hiding in the dark horizon off to our west. At that moment, the tornado warning onslaught began, which would last with little absence for the next 9 hours, pushing our tornado sirens to their limits. At first, the sound of the sirens softly blaring in the distance was eerie, echoing off nearby mountains and hills across the lake to make for a reverb-ish tone. However, throughout the day, we started getting used to them, wondering if anything was actually going to happen or if the sirens were just flat out malfunctioning. Confused, my family and I watched a couple of storms pass in the early afternoon, not giving us even one raindrop. But make no mistake. For every alarm, there was a rotating thunderstorm close by.

I watched the radar as one isolated red blob after another began racing to the northeast, with the first two missing our town. I remember looking at the next storm on radar situated between Cullman and Arab, Alabama thinking, “that one is heading straight for us.” Around that time, a family friend racing home from work to beat the storm called. He said that the storm I was watching looked bad off in the distance, and that there were small pieces of what looked like wood falling from the sky. Little did I know at the time that the “wood” falling from the sky was debris from the city of Cullman, which had just been struck by an EF4 tornado, which was barrelling towards my hometown. A steady growth of concern began setting in as the storm quickly approached, and the tornado sirens began firing up again. Only this time, the tornado warning was a tornado emergency.

A snip of the tornado emergency text which included my hometown (Iowa Environmental Mesonet).

I began thinking about my town and how all of the places I knew all too well could forever be changed, or ever destroyed. I thought how if such a tornado hit my town, that the place that had raised me would never look the same, suffering the same fate as many other towns in Alabama. Lastly, the lack of knowing whether or not some of my friends would ever be in the same room with me cutting up jokes again. I thought my childhood memories would be erased from the face of the Earth and up into the clouds. I began recalling all of the Storm Stories episodes and the tales by survivors explaining that they had lost everything, loved ones, but were grateful to be alive.

Radar capture of the supercell thunderstorm producing the Cullman, Alabama tornado and associated tornado emergency as they move northeastward. (GRAnalyst).

That concern only grew when the sound of heavy rain and lightning turned into hail crashing into our metal roof. The only way I can describe that noise is by imagining that a dump truck had decided to unload its gravel onto the house. The sound was deafening. My family once again began congregating in the basement, but my curiosity overcame fear. I wanted to stay upstairs and watch for the spinning beast that could present itself at any moment. My family was understandably worried, but trusted in my limited meteorological knowledge and judgment. Leaving the rest of my family to the basement closet, I stayed upstairs. My family knew that if I saw spinning clouds coming towards me, that I would quickly run to the safety of the basement closet. Would I have made it to safety in time? Who knows. And I was very fortunate that I didn’t have to test that theory. But the decision had been made. I wasn’t going anywhere. Going against every piece of advice a meteorologist has to offer, I was in an exterior room, pressed up against my parents’ bathroom window on the second floor. I had a perfect view which I couldn’t pass up, perched on a hillside overlooking Lake Guntersville to the southwest. I knew good, and well, that’s where the storm would come from. Images of tornadoes I had seen in videos out in the Great Plains came to my mind. If there were a tornado, I would easily see it, right? If only things were that simple.

As clear as day, I remember a particularly dark mass revealing itself as it moved along the Tennessee River valley. Day turned to night in an instant. I knew then I should’ve gone to the basement and began second-guessing my decision to stay upstairs. But I was stuck in awe. You hear these stories from over the years about people seeing tornadoes as solid black walls rather than funnels. And those descriptions perfectly matched what I was witnessing; a solid wall rumbling up the river valley along the edge of Sand Mountain.

I still wasn’t quite sure exactly what I was looking at. It’s as if something was pushing this one section of clouds towards the ground, surrounded by layers of ragged sheets of rain. I kept looking in awe when I suddenly realized what I was observing. A bolt of lightning shot from the wall of the spinning mass’ side, revealing evil tentacles rotating behind the shield of rain. I was witnessing the beginning of what would be a violent tornado, which began moving up the mountainside too close to my home. Even if I wasn’t in imminent danger, I felt as if I was in the developing twister. I was watching ancient stories come to life, myths about tornadoes on mountains shatter, all in an instant. I didn’t realize that something so sinister could be so captivating. The dark mass continued to expand in size as it eventually disappeared out of my sight up the mountainside, leaving me amazed.

Radar loop of the supercell that produced the Flat Rock, Alabama tornado (NWS Huntsville)

Silence

The rest of the day became a blur. The sirens continued sporadically as the sun began to set behind the continuous storms that rolled on into the early evening. At some point, the power had gone out, which would persist for nearly a week. We pretty much spent the rest of the day in our basement, listening to all of the noise outside, which would usually be replaced with the sounds of electricity. My family and I went through at least 9 tornado warnings from the moment I had woken up to the tornado sirens. There were plenty of other tornado warnings scattered throughout Jackson County, Alabama. Other locations in Alabama had received at least 15 tornado warnings.

Data plot showing cumulative tornado warning polygons in Alabama from April 27, 2011 (Iowa Environmental Mesonet).

My hometown had escaped Mother Nature’s wrath that day. But many communities within 20 miles of my hometown in northeastern Alabama had been hit, including three violent tornadoes. On the heels of the violent Flat Rock tornado I had witnessed, another struck rural communities northeast of my hometown, including the town of Bridgeport. The precursor of this funnel passed right over the northern Scottsboro, before laying waste to the beautiful countryside. Another tornado would later cause the most catastrophic damage northeastern Alabama had ever seen on Sand Mountain, hitting the town of Rainsville and its surrounding communities.

Photo of the funelcloud of what would become the Bridgeport, Alabama EF4 tornado. Taken by my friend Haley Smith from her neighborhood in north Scottsboro, Alabama.

When the last storm passed, my family and I peered out of the basement and noticed the landscape was pitch black. There was no electricity as far as my eyes could see. At around 9 PM that evening, the only source of light came from the final round of storms giving their encore in the form of lightning in the distance over Sand Mountain, as the day’s events had finally come to a close. A gut feeling that a lot of bad things had happened that day began to set in. I was left wondering if people died, how many, whether or not a tornado had actually hit my hometown, and whether or not the days’ events were actually over.

There were no phone calls from friends or relatives for days since the widespread power outage had completely knocked out cell phone service and landlines throughout northern Alabama. I spent the following days biking over to my nearest friends’ homes to check and see if they and their families were okay. The silence continued as all I could hear were the sounds of my rubber tires hugging the pavement as I navigated through patches of small branches littered about my neighborhood. At some point the day after the storms had rolled through, I noticed a number of small unnatural specs littered throughout my front yard. Upon further investigation, I realized that these specs were pieces of broken dreams, memories, and livelihoods. Debris that in some cases had been carried over a hundred miles across the state of Alabama. I knew this was the case when I stumbled across a piece of paper that turned out to be some sort of certificate of service document from Jasper, Alabama, a city about 90 miles to my southwest near the town of Cordova, Alabama. Bits of two by fours, pieces of shingles, shards of metal roof, and large pieces of fiberglass were among the pieces I picked up as I sifted through the grass. These were shards of homes, businesses, and valuables that people had worked so hard for, originally located hours away, all in my front yard. Realizing that nothing in the debris field was returnable at the time, for memory’s sake, I took it upon myself to pick up these pieces and keep them in a box for myself.

Debris I collected from my front yard over the days following April 27, 2011.
A document I believe originated within the vicinity of Jasper, Alabama, found amongst the debris I collected from my front yard over the days following April 27, 2011.

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