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April 27, 2011 – An Etowah County Perspective

April 27th, 2012

Words can hardly describe the disaster that occurred on April 27, 2011. Alabama lost 253 people in the morning and afternoon storms that spawned 62 tornadoes, many of which were large and extremely violent (EF-4 and EF-5). Many homes were completely destroyed or severely damaged. The landscape was scarred and will remain so for a long time in areas that took a direct hit from the tornadoes. In the days that followed, many residents in Etowah County would uncover debris in their yards from Tuscaloosa County and Jefferson County. Some of this was building materials, but much of it was personal items such as letters, photos, bills and bank statements. This essay is a remembrance of that day and is dedicated to those who were affected by the disaster on April 27, 2011. 

 

Preparing for the Outbreak

One thing that is not in doubt is that this event was well forecast by the National Weather Service.  On Friday, April 22nd, the National Weather Service in Birmingham released the following statement:

“THE BIG EVENT IS STILL SHAPING UP FOR TUESDAY AND WEDNESDAY. THERE IS FAIRLY GOOD MODEL CONSENSUS WITH REGARD TO TIMING AND POSITION OF SURFACE FEATURES. THERE STILL APPEARS TO BE TWO WAVE OF STORMS THAT WILL AFFECT THE AREA. THE FIRST WAVE MAY BE MORE OF A HEAVY RAIN EVENT…AS FIRST LINE OF STORMS SLOWS WEAKENS AND BECOMES STATIONARY OVER NW ALABAMA ON TUESDAY. THERE WILL BE ENOUGH INSTABILITY AND SHEAR FOR THE POSSIBILITY OF SEVERE STORMS…BUT BETTER FORCING AND SHEAR WILL HAPPEN ON WEDNESDAY AS UPPER LOW AND SURFACE LOW DEEPENS UPSTREAM OF ALABAMA.”

Confidence remained relatively high over the Easter weekend that a severe weather outbreak would occur in the middle of the following week. On Monday morning, two days before the event, the Storm Prediction Center highlighted North-Central Alabama for a moderate risk of severe weather on Day 3 of their outlook, a rare occurrence that far out. On Monday afternoon, the National Weather Service in Birmingham released the following statement:

“LOOKING AHEAD TO WEDNESDAY…SOME OF THE SYNOPTIC PARAMETERS ARE LOOKING DOWNRIGHT DANGEROUS. IF THINGS GO ACCORDING TO THE NUMERICAL OUTPUT…THE CAP SHOULD CONTINUE TO GROW AND DEVELOP DURING THE EARLY MORNING HOURS…WHILE ENERGY BEGINS TO BUILD AS BREAKS OF SUN HEAT THE SURFACE THROUGH MUCH OF THE MORNING AND EARLY AFTERNOON HOURS. CAPE VALUES ARE SIGNIFICANT AS THEY LOOK TO RANGE ANYWHERE FROM 1000 TO 3000 J/KG. THE CAP IS RATHER WEAK AND CONTINUES TO TREND WEAKER WITH TIME SUGGESTING THAT IT WILL EASILY BE BROKEN BETWEEN 1 AND 3 PM. THAT IS ABOUT THE SAME TIME THAT THE JET MAX BEGINS TO NUDGE IN FROM THE WEST…OR AS THE 0 TO 6 KM AND THE 0 TO 8 KM BULK SHEAR VECTORS INCREASE TO GREATER THAN 60 KTS…AND MORE IMPORTANTLY THEIR ANGLE OF ATTACK SUGGESTS SUPERCELLS AND LONG-LIVED ONES AT THAT. MY FINAL QUESTIONS SURROUND THIS LOWEST SHEAR LAYER FROM 0 TO 1 KM. SYNOPTICALLY…WOULD LIKE TO SEE MORE CONSISTENCY BETWEEN MODELS AND INDIVIDUAL RUNS ON EXACTLY HOW MUCH VEERING WITH HEIGHT WILL EXIST. THIS IS DIRECTLY RELATED TO THE MESSY SURFACE PRESSURE FROM THE DOUBLE HELIX LOW AND FROM VARYING DEGREES OF THE STRENGTH OF THE LOW. ADD TO THAT…EVEN MORE UNCERTAINTY OF WHETHER THIS FRONT BEGINS TO GO LINEAR. OVER THE PAST SEVERAL FORECASTS…WAS THINKING THAT WE START SUPERCELLS THROUGH MUCH OF THE AFTERNOON AND EARLY EVENING ONLY TO TRANSITION LINEAR AFTER SUNSET…BUT A RE-EXAMINATION OF THE VECTOR ANGLES SHOWS THAT IT MAY NOT HAPPEN UNTIL FURTHER EAST INTO GA AND NORTH FL. SO…WHILE IT MAY BE A LINE…IT MAY ACTUALLY BE A BROKEN OR MORE CELLULAR LINE AS THE EVENT TRANSLATES EAST OF I65. REGARDLESS…MY BEST FORECAST IS THAT THE GREATEST OPPORTUNITY FOR SUPERCELLS AND TORNADOES WILL LIKELY BE ALONG AND WEST OF I65 FROM 1 UNTIL 6 PM WEDNESDAY. PLEASE STAY TUNED TO THE WEATHER EVENTS THROUGH WEDNESDAY EVENING. THIS IS A DANGEROUS SITUATION THAT WARRANTS ATTENTION. DO WHATEVER IS NECESSARY TO PROTECT LIFE AND PROPERTY…NOW IS THE TIME TO REVIEW SAFETY RULES AND PLANS AS IT MAY SAVE YOUR LIFE.”

By Tuesday, there was little doubt of a major severe weather outbreak. The Storm Prediction Center continued their moderate risk for North-Central Alabama. The National Weather Service issued the following statement:

“NOT MUCH HAS CHANGED IN RELATION TO PARAMETERS THAT WE HAVE BEEN ADVERTISING OVER THE PAST FEW DAYS. ONE WORD COMES TO MIND AFTER LOOKING AT SEVERAL SOUNDINGS. DANGEROUS. A WEAK CAP SHOULD BE IN PLACE THROUGH THE EARLY MORNING HOURS…THEN RAPIDLY ERODE DURING THE LATE MORNING AND EARLYAFTERNOON. AMPLE TURNING OF THE WINDS WITH HEIGHT…DRY AIR ALOFT…AND STEEP LAPSE RATES WILL BE PREVALENT ACROSS ALL OF CENTRAL ALABAMA TOMORROW AFTERNOON. THE MOST UNSTABLE AREAS WILL BE GENERALLY ALONG AND NORTH OF INTERSTATE 20…BUT I MUST STRESS THAT ALL OF CENTRAL ALABAMA WILL BE UNDER THE GUN. MOST SEVERE WEATHER PARAMETERS ARE OFF THE CHARTS TOMORROW AFTERNOON. THE CRAVEN/BROOKS SIGNIFICANT SEVERE PARAMETER…WHICH INCORPORATES 100MB MLCAPE AS WELL AS THE 0-6KM SHEAR…IS BETWEEN 60000 TO 80000. USUALLY YOU WILL SEE SIGNIFICANT SEVERE EVENTS OCCUR WHEN THE VALUE IS ABOVE 20000. THAT ON TOP OF ALMOST 3000J/KG OF SBCAPE IS A VERY DANGEROUS MIXTURE. 0-6KM SHEAR OF 60-80KTS…WITH VECTORS SUGGESTING SUPERCELL DEVELOPMENT REMAINS IN PLACE AHEAD OF THE FRONT. ALONG THE FRONT…SHEAR VECTORS CONTINUE TO INDICATE THE DEVELOPMENT OF SUPERCELLS UNTIL LATE IN THE EVENING AS THE FRONT APPROACHES EASTERN ALABAMA. THE SHEAR VECTORS THEN BECOME SLIGHTLY MORE PARALLEL TO THE FLOW…INDICATING A MORE LINEAR DEVELOPMENT…BUT TORNADOES ALONG THE LINE WILL CONTINUE TO BE POSSIBLE. ONCE AGAIN…THE DEVELOPMENT OF STORMS TONIGHT WILL HAVE A MODEST IMPACT ON THE MESOSCALE MORROW…AND HOW THE EVENT PLAYS ITSELF OUT. I MUST ALSO STRESS THAT NOW IS THE TIME TO REVIEW YOUR SEVERE WEATHER PLAN TO PROTECT YOUR LIFE AND PROPERTY…TOMORROW WILL BE TOO LATE!”

 

April 27th

Again, there is not much that can be said to accurately describe how awful this day was. It began with an intense line of thunderstorm which rolled through Alabama during the morning. This line spawned several tornadoes, and caused extensive damage to homes, utility infrastructure, and trees.

Etowah County was placed under a Severe Thunderstorm Warning at 6 a.m. The line of thunderstorms reached western Etowah County around 6:20, causing structural damage to homes and damaging trees in the Altoona and Walnut Grove area. The line arrived in Attalla, Gadsden, Sardis City and Rainbow City just ten to  fifteen minutes later, leaving more damage to homes and trees in its wake. Between 6:45 and 7:00, the storms reached Southside, Glencoe and Hokes Bluff, toppling trees and destroying three residences. At 7:05, the line exited the Ballplay area ending the initial round of severe weather. During and after the morning round of severe weather, the Gadsden/Etowah County EMA recorded four incidents of structural damage to homes, and 73 reports of tree and power line damage. In addition, thousands of people were without power. This damage was believed to have all been caused by straight-line winds. First responders, local utility providers, and social service organizations worked to respond to the damage caused by this line of thunderstorms.

Most severe weather events in Alabama come and go in a single wave. This was not the case on April 27, 2011. A second line of severe thunderstorms moved over the northern part of Alabama, beginning around 10:25 a.m. This line stayed well north of Etowah County. It spawned eight weak tornadoes (EF-0 to EF-1) in the Tennessee Valley.

In our area, the atmosphere recovered quickly during the day until severe weather parameters were off the charts. At 12:30 p.m., the storm that would spawn the Cullman tornado developed over Sumter and Greene Counties. At 2:10, a tornado warning was issued for Walker County, beginning the afternoon round of the outbreak. Between 2:10 p.m. to 10:25 p.m., there was at least one tornado warning somewhere in the state of Alabama. The peak of the outbreak occurred between 4:10 and 5:10, when eight different storms simultaneously were tornado warned. 

At 2:54 p.m. a thunderstorm developed over Newton County, Mississippi. The storm would gather strength and not dissipate until it reached Macon County, North Carolina at 10:18 p.m. Along its 380 mile path, it would spawn four large tornadoes which accounted for 87 fatalities, over 1500 injuries, and millions of dollars in property damage. This storm spawned only the second EF-4 tornado (Altoona, 2001 was the other) to directly impact Etowah County. 

 

The tornado that affected our area was actually not the same one that affected Tuscaloosa and Birmingham. As the tornado was moving through the northern suburbs of Birmingham, it began to quickly lose strength, and eventually lifted at 6:14 p.m. The storm quickly regenerated and dropped another tornado 14 minutes later near Argo. The tornado remained relatively weak until it reached Shoal Creek Road, a few miles southeast of Ashville. Here, it quickly strengthened to a mile-wide, EF-4 tornado, causing at least 14 fatalities. The tornado maintained its strength as it moved into Calhoun County, causing eight fatalities in Ohatchee, Wellington and Webster’s Chapel.

Residents in Etowah County were shocked by what they were seeing on television, and maybe even more shocked by what they were finding outside. Just after 6:30 p.m., EMA began receiving reports of debris falling out of the sky. As people in the county prepared for the worst, responders prepared to go into action.

At 6:50, the National Weather Service issued a Tornado Warning for almost all of Etowah County. The National Weather Service upgraded the Tornado Warning to a Tornado Emergency at 7:04. A Tornado Emergency is only issued by the National Weather Service when a destructive tornado is confirmed. This was the first time Etowah County was placed under a Tornado Emergency.

At about 7:30 p.m., the tornado moved over the ridge north of Webster’s Chapel into extreme southeastern Etowah County. The tornado moved across Happy Hollow Road, Pamridge Road, and Mountain Way Road in the county before moving back into Calhoun County. Several injuries occurred in this area as the tornado moved through. Eight homes were completely destroyed. Amazingly, none of the residents in Etowah County were killed. Unfortunately, the tornado did claim one more victim just across the county line in Piedmont. 

 

Response and Recovery

Fire fighters, medics, and law enforcement were dispatched to assist those in need immediately following the tornadoes. In many cases, Etowah County responders were dispatched to areas outside the county to support other communities in their response efforts. Local hospitals and medical care facilities tended to those who were injured. Local non-governmental agencies, many of whom comprise the Etowah County Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD), reached out to individuals who needed assistance with food, water, shelter, crisis counseling, and many other personal needs. The Gadsden/Etowah County EMA coordinated state and federal assistance coming into the county from the Alabama Emergency Management Agency and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Not surprisingly, many citizens filled in the gaps by donating their time, money, ideas and resources to the relief effort. To that end, we say thank you to everyone who helped. The response to the tornado outbreak was enhanced by your generosity.

Recovery continues today. The Etowah County Long-Term Recovery Committee meets monthly to discuss nine ongoing cases of individuals who are rebuilding their homes in Etowah County. The Long-Term Recovery Committee consists of local governmental organizations, non-governmental organizations, businesses and volunteers. This committee seeks and manages grants to assist these individuals in getting back to their “new normal.” The Long-Term Recovery Committee also seeks and manages volunteers who are part of the rebuilding effort. Many of these volunteers have come from other states, such as Georgia and Florida.

The EMA continues to manage and administer funds from the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program, which is related to the federal disaster declaration (FEMA DR-1971). Through this program, individuals and businesses in Etowah County were offered the opportunity to apply for federal assistance in purchasing or constructing a tornado safe room. As of April 27, 2012, 86 individuals and businesses in Etowah County have been approved for this program. Of these 86 individuals and businesses, 29 have installed their safe rooms and been reimbursed up to $4000 from the federal government. Another 52 applicants are waiting on an approval decision from FEMA.

 

The Future

The outbreak on April 27, 2011 has been referred to as a “once-in-a-lifetime” event, or a generational outbreak. A look back at the statistics shows the worst outbreaks in Alabama (in terms of fatalities) to have been in 1932, 1974 and 2011. Based on this evidence, and outbreak of this magnitude may not occur for another 30-40 years. Unfortunately, we cannot rely on this to hold true. Most severe weather episodes do not begin to approach the level of the April 27th outbreak. However, it does not take an outbreak of that magnitude to cause strong tornadoes. A tornado that moves over your home is your “April 27th”.

Tornadoes are survivable, if you take the proper precautions. Now is the time to take the necessary steps to protect you and your loved ones from tornadoes. 

  • Stay weather aware. Pay attention to the weather forecast, especially in months where severe weather occurs regularly (February, March, April, May, November and December).
  • Have multiple sources for receiving weather warnings. This includes weather radios, cell phone services such as Nixle and Baron Saf-T-Net, smart phone apps, computer and local media.
  • Never rely on outdoor warning sirens inside your home or business.
  • When a tornado warning is issued, seek shelter. Do not go outside and look for the tornado.
  • If you do not have a tornado safe room, the best place to go will be indoors, on the lowest floor, away from windows and outer walls. Leave mobile homes and automobiles for permanent structures.
  • Know where you are going ahead of time. Do not wait until the day of a severe weather outbreak to determine where your tornado safe place is.
  • Protect your head. Head trauma accounts for the most injuries and deaths associated with tornadoes. Consider a helmet, especially for children.

At the local level, the EMA continues to work with first responders and social service organizations to prepare for our response to the next severe weather episode. Emergency managers, broadcast media, and the National Weather Service are working at the state level to determine how we can better prepare for and respond to severe weather outbreaks. We will continue to work to get better…we have to.

Our opinion is that one of the best ways you can honor those who were affected by the tornadoes on April 27, 2011 is to prepare yourself and your loved ones. Learn the lessons from that day, and apply them to the future. If you know severe weather is approaching your area, take the necessary precautions. Continue to volunteer your time, money and resources to the relief effort. There are still a lot of people who need your help. You can donate by clicking here. When severe weather or emergencies occur, stay in touch with local media to get information on how to volunteer and what to donate. Stay safe and be prepared!

Event Date: November 6th, 2014
10 a.m. LEPC meets at the Gadsden/Etowah County Emergency Operations Center (Gadsden City Hall - Police Building - 90 Broad Street).
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