By Jim Stefkovich, Meteorologist, Alabama Emergency Management Agency
CLANTON –Tuesday 8 am April 27, 2021
Before becoming the Alabama State Meteorologist with EMA, I spent almost 34 years with the NWS. On the historic day of April 27, 2011, I was the Meteorologist In Charge at NWS Birmingham. This blog is both a reflection of this historic event and where I believe we’ve come since then.
Many people forget that less than two weeks before the 27th, 45 tornadoes ripped through the state on April 15, 2011. This initially set the all-time Alabama record for a 24 hour period. The state averages approximately 50 tornadoes in an entire year! The men and women at the NWS offices who serve Alabama (Huntsville, Birmingham, Mobile and Tallahassee) had completed the extensive work and long hours of surveying all tornado tracks, widths and intensities just days before the 27th.
About a week before the 27th, there were undeniable clues in the weather models that indicated a major outbreak of severe weather would occur across the US near and east of the Mississippi River. I remember on April 24th feeling physically nauseous as models continued to show a “worst-case” scenario, including the potential for violent, long-tracked tornadoes across Alabama.
All NWS offices were “sounding the alarm” in numerous briefings to Emergency Managers, Media, other partners, and the public. I remember using the word “Armageddon” in several of my briefings. It was the only time I had (and have) ever used that word in a severe weather briefing, and I’ve done thousands. As the head of the NWS Birmingham office, I kept wondering if I personally had done enough to convey just how serious and devasting this event would be and if everyone truly knew what was coming.
As with every event, each NWS office has a set number of staff and are utilized accordingly in 24 hours a day, seven days a week operations, particularly when severe weather anticipated. There were three waves of severe storms on the 27th. The first occurred mainly pre-dawn between 2-8 am in north and central Alabama. At least 24 tornadoes occurred with over 50 injuries, including three tornadoes of EF-3 intensity. This was a major event in itself and quite honestly, a bigger event than expected.
The second wave occurred in far north Alabama (NWS Huntsville area) between 10 am and 1 pm, with an additional six tornadoes.
The third and main wave occurred between 1 pm and 10 pm. This included several violent tornadoes that were on the ground over 70 miles. In fact, if you took all the tornadoes that passed through or occurred in Alabama and placed them end to end, the total track length was approximately 1300 miles. That’s the driving distance from Birmingham to Boston!
NWS Birmingham had several TV monitors on a wall utilized for situational awareness. As one TV station showed the mile-wide violent tornado going through Tuscaloosa, we all realized that people were being injured and killed, and this was just one of a number of tornadoes on the ground at the same time.
I’ve worked hundreds of severe weather events while with the NWS during my career, from Georgia to Texas, as well as Illinois. Every event is treated by the NWS with incredible professionalism and dedication to save lives and property. Still, I’ve never seen a staff so focused and knowing what was at stake than during this event, while working through their emotions knowing people were dying and being injured.
In the midst of the outbreak, I remember thinking that I knew how bad it would be, I tried to tell everyone how bad it would be, but when it did happen, I couldn’t believe how bad it actually was. Over 2000 injuries and 238 deaths, including a relative of a staff member. Communication and power outages occurred for a long period of time in places and cleanup/rebuilding took even longer.
So many people lost so much. I’m sure some of you reading this either experienced loss directly or know someone that did. It was emotional, heartbreaking, and stressful a very long time afterwards for anyone impacted or involved.
As with any major event, there are insights and lessons learned. Here are some of mine:
Although much less frequent now, I still get asked if a particular event will be similar to April 27th. An event like this happens every 30-40 years. But, my response is that if you are impacted by any tornado, even EF-0, that IS your April 27th.
New initiatives occurred. The State of Alabama mandated in 2012 that any new school built must have a designated storm shelter, and any additions to existing buildings will have to be able to withstand winds up to 250 mph.
It became clear that outdoor warning sirens must NOT be depended upon the receive warning information.
Baron Services, a private company in Huntsville, allowed and continues to provide warning alerts free of charge via their SAF-T-Net app. TV stations also provide no-cost warning apps. Wireless Emergency Alerts (WEA) are now available on mobile devices. NOAA Weather Radios became a standard in most homes and other buildings.
Although social media platforms like FaceBook and Twitter have been around since the mid 2000s, it’s presence with the NWS really picked up after 2011 and is now an integral part of communication with the public.
Unfortunately, there are no current building codes outside of hurricane prone areas that could make new construction more resistant to high winds. Of course, it becomes a question whether government should mandate this (which does add cost to construction) or the responsibility of the homeowner. The facts are most people are more concerned with the looks of their interior (countertops, cabinets, etc.) than in building a more wind resistant home. I recommend homeowners at least build a FEMA approved safe-room within their home if doing new construction.
The messaging concerning mobile/manufactured homes have not changed. Statistically they continue to show a disproportionate amount of injury and deaths when compared to wood/brick built homes and should be abandoned during warnings for a sturdier shelter.
In 2021, NWS Birmingham started the “Be a Hero” campaign, and it’s a great one! It is no longer “just” the NWS, media and private industry’s role to notify people about severe weather. Its EVERYONE’s responsibility! If you get a warning, don’t assume your loved ones, neighbors or friends know about it. Send them a quick text or make a quick call and let them know. You could be a hero in doing this and save someone’s life!
We live in a beautiful state, and I’m proud to be an Alabamian. We also live in an area of the country that has frequent severe weather from thunderstorms, tornadoes and hurricanes. As you can see from the graphic below, tornadoes occur in every month of the year, and in every single county across the state.
The bottom line is that tornadoes and straight-line winds in thunderstorms ARE survivable if you take the responsibility to be proactive. Receiving watches and warnings from at least two methods (not including sirens), and knowing what to do when a warning is issued will put you in a much better place to protect yourself and loved ones.
For more information, go to https://www.ready.gov/tornadoes