10 years later: APR revisits victims of the storms
It was 10 years ago today that dozens of tornadoes hit Alabama.
The outbreak on April 27, 2011 killed over 200 people. In Tuscaloosa, the National Weather Service said 65 people died and more than 1,000 were injured. The agency said cleaning up the debris in the Druid City cost over $100 million. Alabama Public Radio has kept in touch with many people affected by the storms over the years.
“There’s 62 tornadoes across Alabama, which has never happened before,” WVUA 23’s chief meteorologist Richard Scott said.
He was working the afternoon the storms struck.
“My role was to be on television and provide coverage and information, where the tornadoes were and that is where I was, on the weather wall that day tracking each storm,” he said.
Scott had only been in his current position in Tuscaloosa for about a year when the storms came in 2011.
“I graduated from Mississippi State from meteorology in 2010 and they don’t really train you to cover a violent tornado coming right at you. That is something you kind of just have to jump into,” he said. “That day, to be honest, was quite a scary day for a lot of us.”
Scott was on the air until the storm knocked out the power at his TV station. He did the math and realized his home was directly in the path of the storm. After wrapping his on-air shift, Scott found his house has been destroyed. But it is what he saw around his property that chilled him to the bone.
“It was an experience that give me nightmares to this day. Just people, this was 10 minutes after it hit, people were just coming out of the rubble, what’s left of their homes, just the sounds of screams, people screaming people’s names, trying to find their loved ones and that’s just such a chilling moment of my life,” he said.
The storm had a similar effect on Steve Miller. He’s a professor at the University of Alabama and lived in the Hillcrest neighborhood of Tuscaloosa. He was in his home as the storm hit. Miller and his housemates took their pets and hid in the basement. He said it takes time to get over something like that.
“The first couple of years were actually pretty traumatic. In the beginning anything could just, sort of, really get me emotional about what had happened, we had run the basement and then our house was destroyed on top of us and our beloved pecan orchard destroyed. When we crawled out it looked like a nuclear bomb had gone off in all directions,” he said.
Like Scott, Miller still feels the impact of the 2011 storm anytime foul weather makes its way through.
“As soon as there is any tornado warning or alert or whatever, things start going off on the telephones, my heart starts racing, I feel it in my whole body, it reacts. That will go on forever, that’s a lifetime thing,” he said.
Tuscaloosa was not the only place hit by the storms. The small town of Phil Campbell sits near the northwest corner of the state. The town has a population of just over 1,000 people.
Alex White was just a high school student there when the storm leveled most of the town. She can still see the scars.
“I look back on it all the time,” she said. “I moved down south for a couple of years, and it was so crazy, every time I’d come back, you’d still see where some of the trees were laid over when you go on some of the backroads in Phil Campbell, you can still see what used to be there.”
Now, White is married and has a baby who’s nearly a year old. She moved back in north Alabama, but when she lived near the coast, the memories of the storm followed her.
“Everywhere I would go to work, I would ask what do you all do for a tornado and they would all laugh at me. They don’t really get tornados, but we actually did get some tornados in Mobile since I had been down there and I’m just like, ‘I’m not so crazy now huh?’”
But 10 years makes a difference. White is raising her child and studying for her state board’s exam to be a veterinary technician. While there are many who went through the storms carrying the emotional scars, some, like Miller, look to nature for their hope.
“I’ve learned also how nature can come back,” he said. “For the first whole year, there were no birds here, at all, not the sound of birds and you can hear birds right now.”
A large cherry tree sits in Miller’s back yard. It was heavily damaged in the storm. You can still see where the wind broke the tree. Miller looks at it as a source of inspiration.
“You know what I like about that tree especially is to see the injury on it. That reminds of me of the tornado but also about how things are harmed like that can turn really beautiful in the end,” he said.
Time has made a difference for Scott and meteorologists like him. Technology has made it easier to warn people ahead of time.
“Model data has improved, our high-resolution computer model data that gives us a real-life simulation of the atmosphere, that’s changed a lot since 2011,” Scott said.
A new tool has really come about since then as well. Scott said they have a new medium to inform even more people and reach them in ways they could not before.
“Social media, you have to think about, Twitter and Facebook’s come a long way since then,” he said. “Using those platforms, which are kind of our main platforms for delivering weather information other than television or radio.”
When it comes to delivering the warnings and information to the people Scott said they have to be careful. As someone who was directly impacted by the storms, it's something he knows all too well.
“We’ve got to balance between warning people and trying not to scare people because we do trigger those emotions. There is a PTSD out there that people have a true storm phobia, they’re just terrified of it,” he said.
As we head into the first of Alabama’s multiple tornado seasons, Scott urges people to have a tornado safety plan.
You have a safe place to shelter, have a way to contact loved ones, and have supplies. Coroners said the majority of the deaths from the 2011 storms were due to blunt force trauma. Scott said that’s why wearing something like a bicycle helmet should added to your safety list.
“We just had a big outbreak just a few weeks ago, this isn’t on the scale of April 27 2011 but it doesn’t matter because it only takes one tornado,” he said.
White said people need to make sure they listen to those who are trying to warn them about severe weather.
“Take it seriously, people give the weather guys such a hard time for interrupting their shows, but they’re trying to save lives and I think they did save a lot of lives that day, so take your news people seriously,” she said.