Today of course marks the 5th anniversary of the historic April 27, 2011 tornado outbreak. Needless to say, I am not the same person that I once was 5 years ago, but this event is what really turned me in to the weather enthusiast I am today.
First off, let me tell you where I am now. I’m currently a full-time stock clerk at Publix Supermarkets. 5 years ago, I was a Junior in high school, and I was much afraid of the weather. Over the years, I have trained myself to learn about things that scare me. That does not mean I don’t get scared today when it comes to tornadoes, but at the very least severe thunderstorms no longer frighten me because I know what to expect. Anyways, on with the story…
Around 7 AM
Of course, this was the squall line event that moved across north Alabama and it packed a punch. Instead of an alarm waking me up, I was waking up to a weather radio blaring for a Tornado Warning and sirens sounding. The family was getting ready for work, deciding what to do with the day. Schools were delayed until 9:00 AM, but my dad made the decision that I was not going to school because it was going to be a “terrible and rough day”.
Before I go any further, at the time I did not have a smartphone that gives you all the alerts. Only one of us had a smartphone at the time and it was my stepmom who went to work that day. I received tweet messages from @48StormTeam at the time, which was the only way I could see when any Warnings were issued by the Weather Service. I was so lame at the time I didn’t even follow @iembot_hun.
I go to work with my dad in Decatur. Lots of people were talking about the weather… which was starting to look better. It was getting sunny outside. I may not have been a weather geek at the time but I did know that sunshine leads to instability which is a higher likelihood for nasty storms.
10:00 AM – noon
Things got relatively quiet while I was at work with my dad. The sun came out — which I knew was bad. Around noon, we went out to eat lunch at a Decatur Publix. While we were ordering from the deli, the sirens started going off and the lights started flashing in the store. I got really scared. I had no way to see what was going on. We went outside to the sirens going off but only a few rumbles of thunder.
We were thinking about heading back home after we heard on WZYP that “every storm today could produce a tornado”. Those words sent chills down my spine, all of a sudden I was shaking as my dad and I were in the car and it started hailing. We sat out a hailstorm for about 20 minutes. Once the storm passed, we decided that the day was over and we needed to go home.
Noon – 2:00 PM
I was receiving tweets about a Tornado Warning for Morgan and Madison counties. At the time, my family were volunteers at the Madison County Rescue Squad, which is where we were heading. We arrived around 3:00 PM.
3:00PM – 5:00PM
We were finally connected to the media as we heard about the tornado that went through Cullman/Joppa (Cullman/Marshall counties). There was coverage going on for almost every county, but the main focus was on the tornado that was on the ground in Harvest. We started hearing about the Piggly Wiggly being completely destroyed and people were buried inside. At that point the Squad went into rescue operations and I was… scared to the point of having difficulty breathing because I thought I was going to get left alone. I ended up staying at the operations center with someone I did not know. I knew she must have been a good person because she was willing to stay with me.
6:00 PM – we go dark
Around 6:00 PM, TVA (Tennessee Valley Authority) confirmed that their systems were crtically damaged, including the Browns Ferry Nuclear plant electrical system. At that point, they decided to cut power to the entire Tennessee Valley to avoid even further damage – and also potential fire spreads. I received a tweet from @HSVUtilities for customers to not expect power for at least 7 days.
7:00 PM – 9:00 PM
Very scary moment. I was receiving tweets from @48StormTeam that another tornado was approaching Harvest. All I could think was “oh God, please no, please… dad….”, I called him several times, but I couldn’t reach him mainly because the phone lines were tied up. It turns out, he knew there was another one coming and he ended up sheltering down in what was left of a closet in an almost already completely destroyed home. Around 9:00 PM, every returned to the operations center… I was able to breathe but I swear I didn’t eat anything all day.
It was time to go to sleep… as scared as I was. We went back home to the power out but at that point I wasn’t worried about me. I don’t know how I didn’t cry when I thought about everyone else that was affected. I ended up sleeping to WZYP with a shower radio..
Most of the day was me sitting around the house with absolutely nothing to do. Family was out assisting in search and rescue, and I was at home listening to a shower radio. Dark times. The whole time I was thinking “what can I do help those that need it more than I do?” I didn’t have a car at the time so I couldn’t go out.
I also received many phone calls from family members that day, some whom I hadn’t heard from in years, all making sure I was okay because they heard Alabama was hit hard. I was maintaining contact with my immediate family throughout the day.
April 29th – trip to Harvest
This is a day long remembered for me. I visited a community that was hit hard, we approached houses that were completely demolished. I would do simple things like hand people water and make plates for them. Things that I were told go a long way for those that have lost everything. I’ve never had such a “heart spike”, first it sinking as we approached and then becoming warm when I saw the smiles on those that were being helped.
The next few days are rather shady… I don’t remember much. We did all of our meals like we were camping or on the grill. Made some hot dogs, sandwiches, stuff like that. Not a lot but enough to get by.
April 30/May 1st – lights on
The city slowly started getting power back on these days. @waff48 was tweeting about areas that were receiving power along with @HSVUtilities. I don’t remember exactly when… but I know we got power back not a moment too soon because our frozen food was starting to thaw out and we were about to toss it. It was late at night when it came out when I heard a “chirp” from the smoke detector and my cable box turn on. I remember my next words “we have power! we have power!” We already had precautions to unplug the fridge/freezer so there wasn’t a potential blown circuit, so our first course of action was to get those back up and running.
From there on out, it was all about checking in with our relatives… getting back to school, work, and most importantly – learning.
Nowadays, we have smartphones, weather radios, much more to keep us informed about the event. We have amazing Weather Service Offices that let us know when there is a life-threatening storm and where it is heading. Things have only gotten better since 5 years ago.
I started the AWP Team as “Andrew’s Weather Page”, before evolving it into a Team with Ben. Now as a secondary hobby, I like to keep myself and other informed about the weather. No schooling, nothing. I learn on-the-fly mainly by asking questions or figuring it out myself.