April 27th 2011 Alabama Tornado Outbreak

Feb 26, 2012

Unreal…

Summary:
Chased incredibly devastating outbreak of tornadoes in the south. Got caught in damage paths from violent tornadoes which hindered better intercept attempts at first. Managed to get down to isolated supercell to document 3/4 mile wide tornado as it tore through the forest. Stopped to help in damage path before resuming chase for the next storm. Documented another tornado that briefly touched down on I-65 before getting caught by damage. Got caught in our own predicament as vehicle nearly ran out of gas without being able to fill up anywhere due to major state-wide power outage.
Stats:
Tornadoes: 2
Hail: .00″
Wind: est 45-50mph inflow.
First state chased: AL
Towns came upon with significant damage: Hackleburg, Hamilton, Phil Campbell.
Detailed Account:
This is going to be a tough log to write, as so many thoughts are racing through my head. We [Jonathan Williamson and I] awoke at our hotel in Jackson, TN and I began to look over the day. It was quite apparent that a major tornado outbreak was set to take place in the south. I really did not want to chase down there, we were already far from home, my mood was crabby after busting the previous day and with fuel costs as astronomical as they are the thought about going even further away to chase in an area that is known for difficulty and bad terrain…I wasn’t feeling the idea…at all. My initial hope was to chase the northern end of the target in OH closer to home but that option was thrown out the door.
Well, we were already down there and we figured we might as well give it a shot. Parameters were off the charts, unlike anything I have chased before. We decided to play the northern AL area where terrain isn’t as bad as other parts of the state. On the way down SPC upgraded their tornado probabilities to an astounding 45%
For those unfamilair with SPC tornado probabilities, most chases don’t ever go above 10% A 15% will have chasers cartwheeling out the door with excitement and a 30% maybe comes out 2 or 3 times a year. I have never seen a 45% issued BEFORE storms initiated. The only time I can recall this number being given was after a deadly outbreak was already underway back in 2006.I guess if I couldn’t have picked a better day to take my chances.
Anyways, we decided to stop at the Hamilton exit and wait for storms to pop. We sat there for about an hour and watched on radar as storms slowly built in the area. Watching the radar it appeared the storms were at first struggling to get going. I had a couple nowcasters chiming in to me via text and phone calls and they all advised I get south to get to where the real storms would be. I was not happy about going even further away, but alas we set course for Tuscaloosa. Shortly after making this decision we must have entered a no data zone as both my ATT cell phone and Verizon mobile internet card went dead. This outage lasted for about 20 minutes and we had no clue what was going on. The very moment my cell phone came back I made a phone call and the news was not good.
In that short time the north storms where we were just sitting had exploded to life and dropped massive tornadoes. Hamilton, Hackleburg and Phil Campbell were in ruins…to make matters worse I was told the storm we were heading for “now looks like ass on radar.” I was also told chasers streamed incredible video from both storms. I slammed on the brakes, cussed and punched the steering wheel. I couldn’t believe it was happening like this. We were still about 40 miles from Tuscaloosa and maybe 20 from the north storms. I did a U-turn and blasted back to get on the storms still poised to move through the area. Our internet came back and the radar was now filled with large supercells, all with hook echos and even debris balls. We could easily get into position and I started to feel better. Until we came across the damage…
Our roads put us back through the areas that had just taken hits from strong to violent tornadoes. Trees were blocking every road we tried to go down. Locals were jam packed at every stop, some driving damaged vehicles from the tornadoes all trying to find a way to get to loved ones or their homes. After trying to go down several roads we simply just stopped and settled for our view of the next tornado producing storm to come through.
The storm had incredible rotation. It was as if the whole sky was turning. I knew there was another strong to violent tornado embedded in there, had we been able to get north we could have probably had a better view. The sirens were sounding and for the first time I heard the voice sirens that exclaim “This is a tornado warning, seek shelter NOW.” To hear that voice echoing across the hills was quite eery. We watched the storm as more distraught locals came up to us freaking out another one was coming, many of them crawling out of concrete bunkers nestled in the hillsides. We helped for a brief time to clear some trees to allow emergency
services to get though, but by then any storm to the north was well
ahead of us now and given the storm speeds and unsure of more damage we
deemed them impossible to catch back up to.
We came up to the main intersection leading into Hackleburg and peered into the town. Buildings were flattened and they were taking people out in stretchers, some covered in sheets. I did not want to get in the way and quickly tried to get us out of there to get down to a new isolated storm. It would be our best chance to see a tornado on this trip.
This is where I am glad I drive a large 4×4. Every road was still blocked by large fallen trees, but we finally came across one that looked like I could drive around by going down a pretty steep embankment. I crawled down, around and back up and we were now free from the damage to move south and intercept this promising looking storm. Jon did an excellent job picking out backroad short cuts to get us around damage and back to the main highway. We made decent time getting south and found a clearing in the trees that would hopefully provide us a view where we sat and waited.
The storm gradually came into view, inflow picked up and I could see fog rolling off the hills getting sucked into the storm. The entire backside of the storm came into view with the base still obscured by the hill. Eventually a base did come into view with some ragged scud rapidly being pulled towards the back. Something was in there. A hard right edge began to emerge with rapid upward motion, it surely looked like a tornado and then sure enough a few moments later this monster emerged from the rain.
The forward speed of this tornado was incredible and we quickly hopped in to try and beat the tornado to our north as well as find another view of it. Back at the intersection of highways 278 and 129 there was a view down the road. Unsure if the tornado had crossed yet and also not sure where it could cross I sat us there and waited. The tornado again made its appearance and quickly moved on.
Lots of debris within the tornado.
At this point there was debris flying in the air and landing in the field infront of us. I pursued the tornado up highway 129 leading towards Haleyville catching one last glimpse at it before it vanished again in the rain and we came upon the damage path, cut off again by downed trees and telephone poles in the road. I reported the tornado and we got out to assess the damage and go over our options as far as the chase went.
Some more distraught locals who lived down the road and had their house impacted approached us, one had a bloody hand so we gave him some clean tissue to clean his cut and wrap his hand. Volunteer fire began to arrive on the scene. We helped them out for a bit removing some of the trees and provided info about where the tornado was heading. A few more damage pics.

By now I was starting to worry about fuel. I was at half a tank and my previous attempts to stop were thwarted by lack of power and stations being closed due to the tornadoes. As a rule when I am out chasing I always fill up whenever I stop and never like to get lower than half a tank of gas.
Here is a radar image around the time we intercepted. Our location is actually at the intersection east of the hail marker [the big green triangle.] I did not think to get a radar image right as it occurred. You can see a debris ball in the hook. Unfortunately there were allot of these rare features noted in todays storms. Also around this time a significant tornado was tearing through Tuscaloosa.
Another storm was in progress that we decided to go for. Visually it didn’t look good on radar but given the fact everything was rotating and producing tornadoes we decided to make a move on it. Stopping to try and get fuel and getting caught behind traffic we got caught up in the core of the storm for quite awhile. Eventually we broke free but the storm appeared to have fallen apart. We were not at I-65 and at this point we decided the chase was pretty much over. As we made our way up I-65 what was left of the storm began to move infront of us. A large clear slot with incredible motion. We began to film and I noticed what appeared to be a needle tornado briefly condense. It was over really fast so I thought it was my mind playing tricks on me but low and behold only a moment later we happened upon a fresh damage swatch on I-65.
Video screen grab shows the neddle, with debris cloud at the bottom.
The fresh damage now blocking I-65.
We along with the vehicle shown above were the first to arrive. Traffic was quickly snarling on the highway, the vehicle above was attempting to drag the tree out of the way with no luck. More people showed up and some had saws and began sawing off the top branches. I have a camp axe in the back of my truck so I quickly grabbed it and got to work. After about 10 minutes of vigorous tree hacking we were able to clear enough room to allow 1 lane of traffic to move by.
My gas was not down to under a quarter of a tank and I was really getting worried. We continued north and tried a few more stations but it was the same story. No power and people sitting next to pumps also out of fuel. We made it to Decatur, Alabama with my fuel light on and the needle pointing straight at E. I pulled into a gas station and joined the many others who were now stranded. I learned the main power supply for the northern part of the state had taken a severe hit from one of the tornadoes and it may be up to 3 days before power came back. I was beginning to prepare being stranded and spending the next couple days down there either living in my truck or hopefully finding a motel that would allow us to check in with no power. I did not know how much further I could go and didn’t want to risk leaving my location. At least where I was had fuel, a motel and convenience store nearby as well as an awning to shelter from more rain.

Luckily Ben Holcomb alerted our friend Bill Oosterban who was also heading north. It turns out just 15 miles north there was power and we could get gas, but with my needle pointing straight at E and my fuel light having been on for a good 15 miles already I was too afraid to risk it. Bill agreed to pick us up a few gallons of gas and then drove down to deliver it to us. It would give me more than enough to at least get somewhere I could fill up. He arrived with a 5 gallon container. I tried to split it with people also stranded but unfortunately did not have enough for everyone. I felt bad but had to take care of myself as well. We then led a train of cars to where the gas was.
The town was pandemonium. Fuel lines were 20+ cars deep, same with all the fast food restaurants and motels. The human impact was starting to show. So many people displaced by these tornadoes with nowhere to go. We originally thought about spending the night in the area to document damage the next day. I am never big into damage documenting or filming human chaos, it just does not occur to me to turn on my cameras. We tried to call a couple hotels for rooms, everything was busy or booked. We did not want to take up a room for someone who needed it more than we did, and decided to just set course for home. Stopping 2hrs later just shy of Nashville and eating at Waffle House, people from Alabama were still pouring in.
I have more about this experience in a blog post here. For the sake of the log, here is the video of the Haleyville EF-3.
Conclusion:
Words are having a hard time summing up this chase. There are so many details to go over, so many thoughts racing through my head. The human impact and the amount of devastation in some of the towns we passed through was unlike anything I have seen before. Some of the tornado photos and video coming out of this outbreak are simply jaw dropping and leave me speechless. Part of me gets frustrated I let stupid things like high gas prices keep me from going south, but then the other part of me realizes its not about that. I did see and document a monster tornado as well as another brief tornado and was able to help a bunch of people in small ways. That is what storm chasing is all about, documenting the events that you see and helping those in need. The trip was more than worth it. The Haleyville tornado was rated EF-3 with and was 3/4 a mile wide.
Unfortunately as I type this the death toll stands at 305 and will probably continue to climb. This outbreak will go down in history as one of the worst in the nation and we will be talked about for quite some time. My thoughts and best wishes go out to all the victims of this horrible day. I will probably update this log and add more pictures and video. There is just so much to go over and talk about.
Map, X marks show damage paths that cut us off, circled area shows where we documented the large Haleyville tornado. Unfortunately my laptop blue screened during the chase so the rest of the map was lost, but luckily I saved this part of it before that happened.
SPC storm reports. Unbelievable. I would say that 45% tornado risk more than verified.

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