Today marks 10 years since the infamous 2011 severe weather that stuck the state of Alabama. On that day a decade ago, a series of long-track tornadoes tore through Alabama in three waves across 35 of the state’s 67 counties.
The unprecedented event claimed the lives of 254 Alabamians, injured more than 2,000 and devastated the state. It was one of the deadliest tornado outbreaks recorded in Alabama since 1932, with 348 people dying across several states. Here in DeKalb County it claimed 34 lives.
It is a tribute to our strength and resiliency that we were able to recover from such a horrific tragedy and rebuild our broken communities.
I recall that the weather was threatening all day long in wave after wave of severe thunderstorms and some of the strongest winds I’d ever seen. The trees in our yard were being tossed about like rag dolls.
I was working for MavTV at the time, telecommuting from my home in Fort Payne. The day stood out because it was the birthday of my ex-wife, from whom I’d been divorced for less than a year. Luckily, I had custody of my 9-year-old daughter that day. I say luckily because I would have been a nervous wreck if she’d been at her mom’s that day. At least with having her close, I maintained the delusion that I could protect her rather than feeling helpless.
I had just purchased an iPad 2 (the same one I just replaced a few weeks ago) and had fully charged it in anticipation of bad weather. It held a long charge back then and thank God. It provided much distraction for my daughter while the adults were nervously watching television and hearing reports of unimaginable carnage coming out of Tuscaloosa, where entire apartment complexes, warehouses and shopping centers were completely destroyed and 64 people died, including six University of Alabama students.
Tornadoes had hit the area early, between 6:30-7:30 in the morning as the line strengthened as it moved through Alabama, partially due to a high amount of low-level moisture from the Gulf of Mexico and increasing wind shear. This line of storms caused some NOAA weather radio transmitter sites to stop functioning for the remainder of the outbreak, leaving more than one million customers without power and no warning of any approaching tornadoes later that day.
Things revved up around 4 in the afternoon.
Another long-tracked EF5 wedge tornado passed through rural portions of Alabama and completely devastated the towns of Hackleburg, Phil Campbell, Mount Hope, Tanner, and Harvest, killing 72 people.
An EF4 tornado with 190-mph winds touched down in our county, killing 14 people and injuring 50 more. Thousands of trees were snapped and debarked, vehicles were thrown up to 50 yards in different directions, and barns and chicken houses were heavily damaged, along with the roof of a church. The tornado struck a farm, a home and two chicken houses were completely obliterated and swept away. A heavy propane tank was lofted and thrown 100 yards from one of the chicken houses, and 19 cattle on the property were killed. The tornado maintained EF4 strength as it tore through the rural community of Shiloh, sweeping away numerous mobile homes and block foundation homes and killing 5 people there. Thousands of trees were snapped, a log cabin was destroyed, livestock was killed, chicken houses were flattened, and a van was lofted and dropped into a field 400 yards away from where it originated.
At 6:19 p.m., a violent multiple-vortex tornado, rated EF5, began in the Lakeview community northeast of Geraldine, Alabama. Winds of more than 200 mph touched down on Sand Mountain – about 10 minutes from my home – and proceeded to cut a 27-mile path through the communities of Fyffe, Rainsville, Sylvania, Henagar, Ider and Cartersville, killing 28 people and injuring hundreds more.
Past Fyffe, the tornado’s width increased from around 50 yards to a half-mile wide as it entered eastern Rainsville, destroying numerous homes and businesses. A Huddle House restaurant, the Rainsville Civic Center, and a credit union were destroyed. Vehicles were also thrown, including a school bus that was completely stripped down to its chassis. Trees were debarked and mobile homes were completely destroyed as well. The tornado continued across the eastern fringes of Sylvania, where a church was completely destroyed, a section of sidewalk was pulled up, and additional homes were swept away and scattered. The tornado continued to level additional homes as it passed near Henagar and Ider. It tracked 3 miles into Georgia before lifting outside of Rising Fawn at 6:55 p.m. CDT. Damage in Georgia was limited to trees and power lines and minor structural damage to a few homes. This tornado came from the same supercell that produced the EF4 that hit the town of Ringgold, Georgia, about 30 minutes later.
The storms severely damaged Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA)’s power grid for transmitting electricity throughout the region. More than 300 power transmission towers that provided power to 128 regional distributors were mangled. That iPad got my daughter through much of the evening hours as we sat in complete darkness.
I tried to protect her from being afraid and told her we were playing a game and getting through the night without electricity “like the pioneers did” when the area was first settled. It worked as best I could tell.
On the morning of April 28, 2011, we drove about 45-50 miles away to Rome, Ga., to get gasoline for our generator. Then I rode to Atlanta with my daughter and sister, setting up my computers in a hotel room so I could have reliable internet to get work done. By then, my bosses in California were seeing televised accounts of the carnage and very concerned. I was able to do my job without sustained disruption, staying in Atlanta for the better part of a week before returning to Fort Payne.
My earliest memory as a child was huddling with family under a table on May 19, 1973, wanting desperately to join the menfolk who were gathered around a window remarking about the twister carving an 11-mile path through Fort Payne, destroying homes one block over from us. The next day we walked along Godfrey Avenue with my mother, sister and brother and I vividly remember this awful sense that it was the end of the world as we passed by obliterated structures. A two-story, 16-unit apartment complex was moved about 150 feet into the middle of main street. The building was still fully intact. The tornado completely removed the roof of a relative’shouse, collapsing one wall. A total of 40 buildings were destroyed, according to media accounts from the AP. The NWS rated it F4. There were 37 injuries but no deaths miraculously.
Less than a year later, in April 1974, a super outbreak of 148 tornadoes struck 13 states and became the first in recorded history to produce more than 100 tornadoes in under a 24-hour period, a feat that was not repeated in the US until April 2011.