Year of the Twisters (Part 1)

I wrote, but did not publish, the following on May 19th:

It’s been three weeks since April 27, 2011, and to this day, as a self-proclaimed tornado NERD, I still can’t get over what happened on that day. The picture is becoming clearer: 150 tornadoes, 300+ fatalities, a combined 1000 mile path of scorched Earth. Over 70 dead in a super-tornado, the strongest of the day, that traveled 132 miles, the longest continuous path of the day. Over 60 dead in another, 2/3 of them in the town that the University of Alabama calls home, the other third in the central hub of Alabama. 7 dead in a few hundred yard radius up in the corner of rural northwestern Georgia, where houses exploded. Some towns lost nearly 2% of their population, others, their economic base, and yet others, both. Haunting images of destruction, where the power of mother nature collided with the prides of mankind: friends and family, buildings, livelihoods. Entire families were wiped out. A family of five in Marshall County, AL; a family of four in Catoosa County, GA. There are others, stories told but unseen. These are the most tragic.

There is a precedence for such a storm, on April 3rd, 1974. That used to be the benchmark. I had assumed that a similar tornado outbreak today would inflict a fraction of the fatalities we saw on that day. Never did I expect that fraction to be improper. Because like most everyone, I was assured the warning systems would do their job. And they did. But population increases in rural areas mean tornadoes hit more people. If those tornadoes are violent, many of those people would die. Warning systems do nothing to protect a population that cannot seek below-ground shelter when a violent tornado outbreak strikes. No basement, then it’s all about luck. Good luck – homes in the Southeast have no basements.

We’ve been incredibly lucky in the past few decades. Before April 27, the deadliest tornado swarm in the past 25 years occurred on Februrary 5th, 2008. The so-called “Super Tuesday” outbreak killed 57 across four states, and I vividly recall watching the death toll creep up during that event. Morning shocked me and many others. We had not seen that type of tornadic death toll since the 1980s.

Well, two SINGLE tornadoes on April 27 EACH surpassed the death toll of that entire outbreak. The feeling was different this time however. This time, we expected over 100. Just not 300. In many ways, it’s like Katrina. An anomalous event, well anticipated, well warned, but it was just too much. Statistics will cringe at these types of events. Outliers they are – terrible, terrible outliers. These events happen maybe once in every 25-50 years or so. As for myself, I am regretful that so many people had to die. But as a science-oriented person, I am still awed by the meteorology of the event.

I thought it was a “generational event”, as James Spann called it. I thought I would never see an event rivaling 4/27 in my life.

Well, I was wrong. Three days later, it happened again.

Now let me backtrack to 4/27. I wrote a narrative without actually conveying my own experiences from that day. Believe it or not, while I knew it had potential to be a big day, I didn’t think much of it. The previous two days, though significant, had “underperformed” in a few ways. I had a paper due within a week, finals coming up, and my lab period from 2-6 that day was devoted to finishing up a chem project. I didn’t really want to go, but I didn’t want to let my lab partner down.

I had a break between classes from 11 AM to 12:30 PM (1 PM to 2:30 PM CDT), and of course I spent that time tracking the storms. During that time a supercell spawned an EF3 in northern MS, and a new small supercell initiated further south — but that was it. New storms were forming, so I knew things were about to heat up, but during my free time most storms were still nontornadic. Little that I know that right as I signed off, that “small supercell” would spawn the first of three EF5’s during the outbreak.

The period between 12:30 to 2 was a city and regional planning lecture. They allowed us to take and use laptops during class; I did the obvious thing and busted it out right after I sat down. During that time, while half-concentrating on the last lecture of the semester, I witnessed the most amazing atmospheric transformation I’ve ever seen. By 2 PM, there would be 11 (at least) tornado-warned supercells. Five of them would have EF3+ tornadoes on the ground, including two EF5’s. I saw the weather forums go aghast as the Cullman tornado touched down on live television. People seemed to focus on that cell for the next hour and forgot about the clusterf*** going on at the MS-AL border, except for the fact that the radar images were going nuts with tornadic supercells, like nobody had ever seen before. I just think everyone lost track of what was going on, including myself – after all, two of those cells were in the process of killing a combined 90+ people…

As it turns out though, I left class and entered lab thinking the outbreak was calming down a little bit, since the Cullman cell was cycling between EF4’s and not much was being posted about the other cells. Believe it or not I spent the first hour of lab actually doing lab – as in making standard solutions and stuff. I was able to turn on my laptop around 3:15, or 22:15 UTC time. The first page I pulled up was the radar page. Now you could imagine my reaction to the BIG hook right over Tuscaloosa! I nearly fainted, and of course then I pulled up the weather forums, which confirmed that Tuscaloosa was getting screwed. Oh man that was a terrible sinking, helpless feeling there. I followed the supercell to Birmingham while making more solutions, leaving my partner to run GC’s on the solutions I had made the hour before. I was shaking the whole time, as I could not believe what had just happened. It was terrible.

Long story short, I continued making solutions after that, at a pretty incredible pace. I was literally running on adrenaline the whole time; I was mechanical. I could not maintain my composure even after I left lab. Usually, I hang out with my lab partner and his friend after lab, and do the week’s problem set with them, and I decided not to ditch that. Again, after I sat down, I turned on the radar and this time there was this massive hook near Ohatchee, AL (where over 20 fatalities occurred), with the same storm that steamrolled through Tuscaloosa and Birmingham. Again I nearly fainted – what a day! Didn’t sleep until 4 AM that night, thinking the death toll would be over 100. I was shocked to see 200 the next morning; it would ultimately rise to over 300.

To be continued with Joplin…

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