"Legacy of the Storm" Alabama Public Radio

Apr 21, 2019

The Alabama Public Radio news team produced his national award-winning documentary in 2016, for the fifth anniversary of the April 27, 2011 tornado outbreak. Pat D.

“Is it five years? Oh, my gosh…”

Steve Miller’s come a long way since April 27, 2011. He lives in Tuscaloosa’s Hillcrest neighborhood. His new home has lots of windows and there’s plenty of art on the walls. You might not think anything was out of the ordinary. But, the first time APR visited here, things were a lot different.

“All we could hear were sirens. And then, at night, houses going up in flames around. We could see that there were houses were burning. And that was the only light, except for the distant light of the city. And it really felt like the end of the world.”

And back in 2011?

“My neighbor two houses down, went into his backyard and found a young lady wrapped around one of his trees. She had passed away.” Miller shared those moments with APR in 2011. “The sound was the loudest thing I ever, ever, heard. It was so loud, I couldn’t hear it anymore. It because so loud. And, mud and dirt and dust were smashing around and flying from all directions down there.”

It took thirteen months to rebuild. APR stopped by again in 2012 to see how things were going…And now, in 2016?

“Finally we have somewhere where we can have puppies, with this new place.” Says Miller. “And that sound you hear in the background is Tango, she’s an African Gray Parrot. She was actually in the basement with us when the tornado hit. I was holding her as hard as I could on my shoulder, and she was silent for about two days after the storm.”

Like a lot of parrots, Tango imitates he hears. If Miller needs a reminder of what he went through over these last five years, his bird make a perfect imitation of the “beep, beep, beep” of a construction truck backing up during the rebuilding of his home. And, the reminders don’t stop there. “This little piece of marble here, which is about an inch square, is the only thing that’s left from the old kitchen floor. I keep it as a reminder,” he says.

However, even five years later, the impact isn’t over… “The sound of wind, even though our house is new, it blasts because there are no trees. It really gets on my nerves big time,” says Miller. “We’ve had to go into the basement a couple of times, since the house has been new, because of tornado warnings. And, it scares the pieces out of us, now. When it happens, we’re scared….yeah…”

“At that point, we understood this was going to be something like we’ve never seen in the history of our city,” says Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox.

“You could look north and south and east and west, and you couldn’t see any familiar landmarks. They were all gone,” says Mayor Mike Seibert of Joplin.

Mayor Maddox and Mayor Seibert sound like they’re talking about one disaster--they’re not. Three weeks after Tuscaloosa’s storm, one hundred and fifty Joplin residents died when an EF-5 twister tore through here. Mike Seibert is the Mayor… “And, all of a sudden I’d come to a five lane road, and I had absolutely no idea where I was.”

“It was like hell on earth,” recalls Judy Petty.

She remembers that day. She owns Frank’s Tavern on Main Street in Joplin. “People walking, people crying, it was awful…awful. Judy Petty’s story is a familiar one to Brian Sanders. He owns the Express Oil Change auto shop on Fifteenth Street in Tuscaloosa. That where he was in 2011 when that tornado hit his town. It was just about closing time… “So, we’re just sitting here, sitting here, sitting here, and they say ‘hey, this thing’s turning,’” says Sander. “And we saw it come from behind McDonald’s.” Sanders and his staff hid in a grease pit until it passed. When they came out, his business was gone. “The only thing I remembered thinking was what am I gonna do now? You know…it was terrible,” he recalls.

Both Petty and Sanders chose to rebuild, and that meant wading through red tape. They say their experiences in Joplin and in Tuscaloosa were different in some ways, and similar in others.

Back at City hall in Joplin, Mayor Seibert says his city chose to issue permits fast…

“One of the things we’ve really worked hard on is just to take of our own, but to do that in a manner that people can get back to their normal lives as quickly as they can,” he says.

That’s not how Tuscaloosa did it…

Mayor Walt Maddox chose to slow the process down and bring in consultants. Following the tornado, residents filed past drawings of urban centers mixing residents and retail. Maddox says Tuscaloosa wasn’t worried about losing residents like Joplin if homes weren’t rebuilt quickly… “Coupled on top of that, the twelve percent of the city that was destroyed was economically depressed,” says Maddox. “So, we knew we had an opportunity to remake these areas, if we could slow down and be strategic. We had time. We were not under a housing crunch.” But, a different kind of crunch came in the press. A year after the storm, the Wall Street Journal ran an article critical of Maddox’s slow building route instead of Joplin’s speedier approach. The Mayor still bristles at the story… “The people of Tuscaloosa went through hell and back, and they deserved a rebuilding plan that mattered,” says Maddox. “That was going to improve this community now and into the future. And, I’m glad that this city decided to be part of that, and when the challenge came, they had the courage of our convictions to see it through.”

But, five years after the fact, how did each city do?

We first met Brian Sanders at the Express Oil Change in Tuscaloosa in 2012, the day he reopened his shop eighteen months after the tornado. The reviews that day were good…

“The first one that pulled up this morning, when I walked out to her car, she said ‘yay’. She said ‘I’m so glad you’re back.’ And, I said well, I’m as happy to see you as you are to see us.’

Four years later, we checked back to see how things were going. Sanders says, in hindsight, his dealings with the city went just okay… “I know they wanted to put a park in, and they wanted to put several businesses in. But, it was frustrating to think we might have to move,” he recalls. “Because this part of town is home to us, and it’s been real good to us over the years, and it would have definitely hurt our business.” The city didn’t build a park. But what was a vacant lot behind Sanders’ business in 2012 is now home to a new Fresh Market grocery store, a Dick’s Sporting Goods store, a Bed, Bath and Beyond, and restaurants serving everything from Tex-Mex to burgers to pizza. Sanders says between ten and three, the traffic is brutal… “If you’re brave, you try to cross Fifteenth Street.”

Back at Frank’s tavern in Joplin, Judy Petty remembers her run-ins with city hall. “A little bit hard to get along with,” says Petty. “But, in the long run, it turned out okay.” So, Joplin built back fast and Tuscaloosa went slow. Ironically, five years after both tornadoes, neither city says it’s fully recovered and it could take five top ten years to finish the work.

Ultimately, we asked Petty and Sanders, how they’re doing five years after the storms… “I’m happy with it. My husband would have been very pleased with it. It turned out good. Did good.” “Every month, with the exception of the first month that we were opened, was better than any month we had before the storm. We’re really doing well here now.”

And, that may say it all.

Ask anyone in the TV news business, and they’ll tell you people tune in mostly for the weather… And, on WVUA-TV, that’s Richard Scott’s job… Some days it’s hot, some days, there’s rain. Then there was April twenty seventh, 2011…

“I have no idea. I can’t answer this to this day. I had a cold chill running down my spine especially when the tornado got as large as it did,” Scott recalls. “The tornado appeared to be weakening for a brief amount of time, and then what we call a wedge tornado, a very wide tornado just sat down. The most scary feeling you can imagine, I had running through my mind and through my body. Just the feeling that this tornado is going to kill people.”

Oddly enough, Scott had seen this storm coming for days… “All of our forecast model data over seven days out was showing the exact same scenario. The chance for widespread severe weather,” he says. “A classic tornado outbreak and that’s really unusual. Typically we have numerous computer models that kind of disagree with each other. When you see that consistency and the look of severe weather that is concerning especially in April.”

What hit Tuscaloosa was an EF-4 tornado. That’s a weather term called the Enhanced-Fujita Scale. It means a storm packing winds anywhere between 166-to-200 miles per hour. While delivering his report, Scott noticed the path of the tornado was heading to a familiar sight. He was living in a house off 16th Avenue in Tuscaloosa, putting home sweet home in the cross-hairs of the twister.

“When I saw what had happened, now this was about ten minutes after the tornado hit, took off towards my house because I knew our director of the TV station was staying there for a while and I couldn’t contact him. Cell phones were down. My fear was that I was going to my house and find him dead.”

That him was his roommate Jonathan Newman

“I gotta be honest, that was the happiest I’ve ever been to see Richard in my life is when I saw him walking down the road,” says Newman.

We joined Newman at the site where the house he and Scott shared once stood. The old house is gone and a new one is in its place. Newman works for a television station in nearby Birmingham now. On April 27, 2011 he was just one of those people hanging on for dear life. “Living here for a few years, I’ve gotten used to there being tornadoes in the area but always either going south of us, north of us, just never really hitting right in the middle of Tuscaloosa. So I kind of had this mindset of just it’s not going to hit here. I run across the house, jump in the tub and as I’m falling in, I grab the shower curtain and that literally is all I had on top of me. About five seconds after I fall in the tub, the window in the bathroom goes out. At that point, That’s when I thought was probably it. Because I see the roof lifting off and I think either I’m going to get sucked up through the roof or something is going to come flying in on top of me. And all I’ve got on top of me is a shower curtain.”

Aside from a few cuts and bruises, Newman knew he was going to be alright. Standing in what was once his old neighborhood, he recalled how not everyone got off lucky… “All of the houses on this side of the street were pretty much destroyed. Amazingly, some of the houses from across the street were barely touched. Like some of the shingles got knocked off and but like their windows were still intact. It was just amazing how, like just across the street some houses were almost unaffected. And then on this side of the street it was complete destruction.” And even though their house was destroyed, Newman and Scott took solace knowing they were both alive. Because it was like, ‘Alright. I’m glad to see somebody. Somebody I know, some way I can hopefully get out of there. Because at that point I felt trapped because I felt like, you know, didn’t know where I could go to get out of here.”

And if you thought Scott had plenty to worry about back in 2011, 2016 offers a new perspective. He’s a dad now. Scott and his wife, Tara welcomed their first child, Parker in October of last year. Tara Scott says when Richard talks about bad weather and staying safe, he means her and Parker too. “But now I know we have a safe place to go and I know he’s going to keep us updated. If we don’t need to be at the house he tells me well enough in advance to where I can go to my parent’s or a friend’s house to make sure I am in a safe place.”

It’s been five years since Scott watched his own house be smashed by the tornado. So, as Tuscaloosa recovers, he thinks he is too… “The scar is slowly healing. And that’s an incredible thing to experience. I’ve been here since the tornado and to see that change every day, it’s been a heartwarming experience to see that, ‘Hey people are coming back.’ We’re not going to let a tornado get us down. We’re going to make it back out of this.”

I'm APR's Stan Ingold, and this was the sound in Phil Campbell nearly five years ago. An E-F-5 tornado ripped through the small northwest Alabama community leveling much of the town. “This is one of the hardest hit areas, you see, it looks like land has been cleared, especially this area we’re fixin’ to go to over here.

Police Chief Merrell Potter and I drove around Phil Campbell to survey the damage… It looks like, almost like pasture land that’s just been cleared off, you can tell there used to be houses there but the green grass is starting to grow up through the debris that has been cleared.” One year later, Potter says things were looking better… “I have a feeling of camaraderie that came together when our town got hit, neighbors became neighbors, that is something we haven’t seen in a while and what’s great about that is that feeling has lingered on and neighbors that became neighbors are still neighbors and this is awesome to see people out in their yards working with each other and talking with each other and being a neighborhood town again.”

Now he says the reality is finally setting in… I believe we’ve accepted that fact that some things are gone and it’s not going to be back. One thing that it is has done is give us an opportunity to grow in other areas, take chances on things probably years ago they wouldn’t have.”

One of the things that did come back was the Phil Campbell High School. It’s considered by many to be the heart and soul of the town. Principal Gary Odom says the original building was heavily damaged in the storms and had to be torn down…. “But the worst part was when we were moving out of the mobile units and into the churches, we had three churches, we had to divide grades up. We had, you know, 11th and 12th going to one, 9 and 10 in one and 7th and 8th in another.” Shuffling from one location to another is all behind them now and students in Phil Campbell are in a state of the art facility. Before we ask…Odom says it’s storm proof… “There is a storm shelter that will serve every student that we have plus some extra room. We’ve got it organized enough that each grade can be in a room, it just works out good for us and we feel safe.”

When APR first covered the Phil Campbell disaster, we told the story of Alex Jackson. She was in ninth grade at Phil Campbell High School when the storms hit. “I watched them get a body out from under a tree and I mean it was just like…it just hit me, people are gone, people’s houses are gone everything’s, nothing’s going to be the same. I mean my brother lost two friends, and I’ve never seen him break down like that, it was…hard…”

We caught up with Alex a year later. To see how she was doing. “I still think about it, but it’s like, I don’t know, I don’t know how to explain it. But like it’s, that’s the reason we’re here. It’s like we’ve came so far from pulling bodies and just getting emotionally stable again, I mean watching that was hard but now it’s kinda like, well, it’s over, here we are.”

Now we’re five years since the storm, and Jackson says it is still hard to see the town… “Oh this town is different, it’s different, this town it will never be the same, I barely remember the landscape before because this is kinda what I’m used to now.” She says she has changed as well, and still recalls what it was like the following day… “When you’re living it, it is nothing like you see on the news. I remember coming back here the day after and it looked like a movie set. It didn’t look real, this was not the place I was yesterday, April 26th, this is not where I was at, and looking at it, it was crazy.”

While many people would seek out counseling after an event like this, Jackson says that isn’t the case with her… “No, I’m pretty much the counselor, I’m who people talk to, like all my friends they come to me, they come to me for anything, whether it be about the storm or anything personal. That’s me.”

I’m APR’s Alex AuBuchon. Here’s where your daily weathercasts end… Here’s where they begin. It’s a beautiful spring day in Huntsville now. But, a group of forecasters and other scientists are laser focused on what’s coming tomorrow. All their models suggest severe weather on the horizon and the potential for strong tornadoes. The National Weather Service forecasters and emergency managers seem concerned, but other scientists seem almost hopeful. Or maybe “hopeful” isn’t the right word.

“It's kind of a fortunately / unfortunately question. We certainly don't want to see the destruction, but we do need the storms in order to conduct our research.” Tony Lyza is a Ph.D candidate at the University of Alabama at Huntsville. He’s one of the main researchers in VORTEX-SE, a massive study examining severe weather and how tornadoes form specifically in the southeastern U.S.

VORTEX stands for Verification Of Origin of Rotation in Tornadoes Experiment, which is why we’ll call just plain VORTEX from now on. At the head of the project is Dr. Erik Rasmussen. He designed this study from the ground up, and led two previous VORTEX research projects in Oklahoma in the mid-90s and late-2000s. Rasmussen says when the funding for VORTEX-SE was announced, there was some controversy.

Some scientists thought tornadoes are tornadoes, no matter where they occur. “And, in fact, tornadoes probably pretty much are tornadoes. But how a thunderstorm causes a tornado and supports a tornado – those things vary radically from one part of the country to the other,” says Rasmussen. “In the plains, they’re done by supercells, these big, long, live rotating storms. In the southeast, they seem to spring up a lot more quickly from storms that are a lot less well-defined.”

And so the researchers came to Alabama. One of the main reasons the VORTEX-SE study got funded is the extremely high number of tornado-related fatalities that occur in the Southeast. Even though the majority of tornadoes occur on the Great Plains, the vast majority of tornado deaths are concentrated in the Southeast. Why is this happening? Researchers have some likely culprits.

One is population density. “In Alabama, people live on every dirt road. There’s always a church. You’re going to have someone be impacted by almost every tornado in the Southeast, and that’s a big difference between here and the Plains.” That’s Kevin Laws, Science and Operations Officer at the National Weather Service in Birmingham.

Another issue, according to Dr. Laura Myers with the University of Alabama’s Center for Advanced Public Safety, is the infrastructure in this area. ““We have a lot of manufactured homes, mobile homes, so there’s a lot of vulnerability, and so you’re going to have more fatalities with poor infrastructure.” Another problem is terrain. Trees and other obstructions don’t just block radar from seeing storms, they keep the people in the path of that storm in the dark as well. “…and so they may waste their lead time trying to figure out if it’s really coming, and it may be too late, because we can’t see them coming.” But no matter how good the forecasting becomes, even Dr. Myers doubts they’ll get to everyone. “And the public will get upset that we’ve gone to wall-to-wall coverage, we’re interrupting Dancing with the Stars, they don’t want to know about it. And that’s going to hold true across the board, and we can’t change the minds of those people.”

Five years out from April 27, 2011, that doesn’t seem to be a problem in Tuscaloosa.

ABC 33/40 in Birmingham sent their weather team to Tuscaloosa earlier this month for a citizen storm spotter training class. In a huge riverfront building, there wasn’t an empty seat in the house. “Today, I mean, you see – not even an open seat, so that’s awesome to see. And also it says a lot about Tuscaloosa.” ABC 33/40 weekend meteorologist Meaghan Thomas was a student at the University of Alabama on April 27, 2011. She says she saw firsthand how important a basic understanding of severe weather can be. “Like, a lot of my sorority sisters, they didn’t really understand weather. Everyone was panicking. Everyone didn’t know what they were looking at, or know how to be safe. And I’ve always said ‘If you know how something forms and what to look for, you’ll be safer.’”

An informed and weather-aware public helps TV meteorologists do their jobs better, but they still rely on the National Weather Service for the best and latest data. And those meteorologists are hopeful that VORTEX will help them make their best even better. Here’s John De Block. “We’re hoping that with VORTEX, they’ll get into the nitty gritty details of the data, and indeed confirm, perhaps, some of the things that we’ve confirmed here locally. That will enable some of the other offices in the Southeast, hopefully, to pick up on those clues about the difference in the storms from the Midwest to the Southeast, and issue better warnings for the folks in the Southeast.”