Wednesday, April 27, 2011

April 27 - The Day of the Tornadoes

For days prior to April 27th, forecasters in Alabama had been warning that conditions were right for some really bad weather ahead. This was nothing new. The local weather guys sometimes seemed to imply that every thunderstorm that came along was poised to sprout a tornado that would erase Huntsville from the map. And from the time we first moved to Huntsville we'd been hearing stories about the famous "Airport Road Tornado" back in the 80's. Some of our friends still appeared to be pretty scarred by the whole thing.

But for 15 years we never saw one.

Sure, there was the occasional tornado, but they always seemed to be attracted to mobile homes somewhere out in the boonies. And even the recent one that touched down in downtown Huntsville didn't hurt anyone or do too terribly much damage.

So we reacted to the warnings on April 27th with an understandable yawn.

That is not to say that the skies didn't look impressive! Dave joined several of his coworkers outside that morning to watch as an extremely ominous cloud approached from the west. (Full disclosure: they had all been run out of their offices to the safe areas because a tornado warning had been declared.) While the folks who still had any sense huddled in the downstairs conference room, Dave and his coworkers who didn't stood outside, took pictures, and talked about how they all hoped to get to see a tornado! Some had, and their stories were heard with ever greater interest as the winds picked up.

Several tendrils teased their way down from the cloud that morning, but ultimately none seemed to have the energy to form into a full tornado.

Another false alarm.

But the worst was apparently yet to come.
By the middle of the afternoon, stories were starting to come in that a number of tornadoes had touched down across Alabama. When Dave finally left for home the newscasters were starting to sound a little frantic, so Dave kept his camera handy and watched the clouds closely as he drove. Sure enough, at a traffic light just before home, Dave spotted what was later recorded as the "Lilly Flagg" tornado, for the road where it touched down.

Once home, the family fired up the TV and watched the continuing coverage by all of the local stations. Things were getting ugly fast.

And then the power went out.

It took us a while to find our battery operated radio, but we did. And we actually had batteries for it! There were functional flashlights as well. Those would prove very useful later since Karen was packing to leave on a mission trip to Vietnam the following morning. Assuming the airport was still operational.

Our cell phones still worked, and before long we got a call from Tucker who was at school down in Tuscaloosa. He seemed pretty upset that we hadn't tried to call him. I mean, REALLY upset. It became apparent that something horrible had happened in Tuscaloosa, but between the power outage and the local radio coverage we hadn't heard anything about it. Tuscaloosa had taken a direct hit by a massive tornado.

Tuck had been at work when it hit and before long, broken and bloodied people started making their way to the Rec Center for shelter. It was the start of a nightmarish few days in Tuscaloosa, and we were awfully glad to see Tuck again when he finally got home!

Sometime later he sent this picture showing the path of the tornado in relation to his apartment and Morgan's. Yikes. The brown streak shows the center of the tornado path, but reports later said it was somewhere around a half-mile wide or wider. Talk about threading the needle!

We fielded several more calls throughout the evening from family and friends who were just becoming aware of the devastation across the state. We stayed glued to the radio, got Karen all packed, and made our plans for the morning.

Sleep didn't come easy, but it finally came.

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