of April 3/4, 1974, I wanted to reflect back to remember those that lost their lives (322), were hurt and lost property. I also wanted to take a moment, the first since the event, to write down my remembrance of the events of the day. I will highlight some key events but for more specific details of the event that I may not mention here please be sure to visit the National Weather Service Huntsville Forecast Office's special look back page. Additionally, I will look at some of the education we received and what we should all have learned and be doing going forward.
One thing about this tornado outbreak that was a positive was the fact it did not occur as a complete surprise. As a meteorological community, this event was something initially detected as a possibility about a week in advance in some of the long range forecast models. As we drew closer and within a couple days, it was becoming clearer to the likelihood of a dangerous weather event in the near future. In fact, the Storm Prediction Center (SPC), began to issue Moderate Risk of Severe Weather for a large area of the Southern Plains beginning on April 25th with the highest risk centered for the 25th over Arkansas. On the 26th, the risk was shifting eastward and was centered across the Mid-South. And on the 27th, a "High Risk" was issued, centered over the Tennessee Valley. The risk for tornadoes was also shown as 30% and later increased to 45%!
Because of the good handle we were having on the event in the days to come, we were well prepared as a meteorological team at WAAY-TV. We had a plan in place and new it was a day to have all hands on deck. Chief Meteorologist (CM) Brad Huffines and myself worked the evening prior and knew the upcoming day was going to be quite active. However, we were anticipating the event to begin in the afternoon hours. As a result, we were planning on getting as much rest as possible the night of the 26th into the morning of the 27th and then were expected to arrive at the station around noon. This changed, though, during the morning of the 27th.
I happened to arrive just as the atmosphere was quieting down for the first time. This did not last long, though. The activity began to redevelop and organize again around 10 am and by 11:15 the next round of tornado warnings began with the first of the day being issued for Limestone County. Because we had seen the storms redeveloping in the hour prior to our midday news, we decided as a team to go on air in weather coverage. With Haley Baker anchoring, CM Brad Huffines and I sat at the news desk with meteorologists Chris Davis and Gary Dobbs anchoring from the weather center. This allowed for us to keep a good handle on this next wave of storms. My responsibility was to monitor the information coming into the NWS from storm spotters and to do some analytical work to try to stay ahead. That left the other three meteorologists to do more of the on-air work and radar control.
Buckhorn H.S in northeast Madison County. Luckily, it did not cause any injuries to the students. Finally, shortly after noon this event was winding down. CM Huffines was talking with me thinking that maybe this had worked the atmosphere over and would prevent the Major Outbreak we were concerned with. At the time, I was in the process of doing some new analytical work and it quickly became apparent to me that the atmosphere was not worked over and in fact was rebounding like a rubber band. Key values that we look at work for severe weather, which had briefly gone down, were now rapidly rising including the forecast tornado potential. At this point, we quickly chugged down some lunch while we had a brief break. We also agreed as a team to send home meteorologist Gary Dobbs who had a nearly hour commute ahead of him to his home in Mt. Hope. Little did we know this would be something we wished had not happened. Additionally, by this time, already 40 tornadoes had struck across central Alabama to southern Tennessee and 28 of those had been in the Tennessee Valley!
Our rest did not last long. The main event was on the way and it started with a tornado developing in Cullman county around 2:30 pm. This tornado was well videoed because of ABC33/40's cam in the city of Cullman. As we were covering this tornado attention quickly had to also go to a storm that was developing and producing a tornado in east-central Mississippi. This storm then would become the EF-5 that would strike a path of nearly 107 miles and impact several communities including Hackleburg, Phil Campbell, Mt. Hope, Tanner and the Anderson Hills subdivision in Madison County.
I remember that at this point, I felt helpless. I was concerned about a colleague and I was watching on radar a storm that I knew was causing horrific damage and possible loss of live. All we could do was say where it was, where it was going and for anyone in its path to get to tornadic shelter. The debris signature continued with the storm right through highly populated Madison County. A pure helplessness continued to bear down on me but I knew I could not so my feelings and had to keep a clear mind and continue to do what I could: continue to track as accurately as possible its track and motion and warn to get to shelter. One thing that was learned from this tornado alone, if you did not get below ground you had a very low chance of survival. A reason why a tornado shelter is so important here in north Alabama as basements are a rarity.
The challenge of keeping a clear mind would continue for several more hours as another 10 tornadic storms would impact our viewing area through 9:15 pm. And of those 5 would again be EF-4/EF-5 rated with more fatalities and destruction.
Finally, when it was all done, around 10 pm, I realized I had been involved in something very rare and historic. I also was angry that I could not do more to save more lives. I tried to reach my wife and couldn't because of the widespread power outage across north Alabama due to the fact one of the large tornadoes to pass near Tanner had impacted to the TVA facility. As a result, I did not know how she and my family were and now some personal concern was setting in. Around 2 am, I departed the station into a very dark abyss. It was so weird not to see any lights of any kind. No street light, no stop lights, no nothing. I drove very slowly because you could not tell an intersection until you were on top of it. I did not know, either, where debris may be in the road. When I finally reached home I knocked on the window of our bedroom to awaken my wife. I was glad to be home and to see my wife and family were safe. It was time to get a bit of rest before the post-storm coverage was to begin. While the worst was over, the work was just beginning.
God bless the more than 300 individuals who lost their lives in this event from Arkansas to Virginia. One thing we should all have learned from this event is the importance of being weather prepared. Knowing what to do, where to go and having emergency supplies on hand is a MUST. More than ever I recommend WeatherCall as the way to stay aware of warnings specific to you. This way you know which storm is impacting you and you don't get complacent by being over warned for storms that are no where close. Please take some time, TODAY, to get your plan in place, and be ready for any future severe weather as it is not a matter of IF it will occur by WHEN!
AND GET WEATHERCALL