28 April 2011

Deadly Tornado Swarm Pounds Alabama

Posted by Dan Satterfield


I write this post from a hotel in Birmingham tonight. My flight was diverted coming back from a climate change seminar in Oklahoma and  it was one wild ride into Alabama.  I rarely get nervous on a plane, but I did this time.

Click image to see home video of the mile wide Tuscaloosa tornado.

My last post was about the high risk outlook from the Storm Prediction Center and it is quite obvious that the warning was a good one. There are around 50 dead in Alabama and I am told most of Huntsville will have no power for a week. Never, in 32 years forecasting, have I seen as many violent tornadoes indicated on radar at one time as I did today.

Four tornadic storms on the same radar scope. Click for larger version. Ctsy. Penn. State radar archive.

Sometimes you are uncertain as to weather a storm is producing a tornado but other times, you just know. Today, was one of those “I just know” days. Phil Campbell, Alabama is gone, and so are several other communities. The tornado at the top of this post was a killer as well.

Thirty  years ago, it was not possible to give 3 days warning of a major tornado outbreak, and tell folks where it would be and when it would hit. It is now, and despite the death toll, there is little doubt it would have been much higher without the advance warning. There were no school buses sharing the roads with a violent tornado today. That is what advance warning is about, but until we can get people to leave trailers during a tornado warning, we will have deaths.

The Huntsville NWS office had to be evacuated as a tornado approached, and our weekend meteorologist Alan Raymond tracked a tornado right over his house. It blew out his windows and did mainly superficial damage, but after checking on his house went back to work tracking the deadly tornadoes.

A mile wide tornado hit Tuscaloosa killing at least 15, and it will be days before the number of deaths and the actual number of tornadoes is known. In 1932 there were 500 dead in Alabama from a tornado outbreak, and this event was probably very similar, but warnings make a difference. Kudos to the folks at the Storm Prediction Center in Norman for an outstanding forecast ahead of time, and to the NOAA forecasters who gave advance warning of every single tornado today.