Category: Weather History
On Saturday, May 5, 1945, newspaper headlines carried stories about the pending Allied victory in Europe in World War II. V-E Day would come just three days later. Even as Americans celebrated, the only casualties that occurred in the continental U.S. during the war would occur as a result of Japan’s Top Secret V1 project.
The objective was to release thousands of forty foot rice paper balloons into the jet stream over Japan which would blow them across the Pacific to the northwestern United States. The belief was that the shower of bombs would create a panic among American citizens.
On this date, a bomb did drop into a group of picnickers on Weyerhauser company land on Gearhart Mountain near Bly, OR. The group included a Pastor named Rev. Archie Mitchell, his pregnant wive, their five children and some other Sunday School kids.
Authorities knew of the balloon attacks, and while they had been keeping them secret to avoid panic, had recently decided to quietly get the word out to local officials, community leaders, etc.
Reverend Mitchell was one of these who had been told, but he didn’t let the story out (leaders were to be quiet about it). He was parking the car when his family found something and called to him; he was about to warn them not to touch anything when the bomb went off, killing his wife and five children.
In spite of these fatalities, the V1 program was a failure for the Japanese, as only a handful of bombs actually reached their objective.
In a sad post-script to the story, Rev. Mitchell later remarried (to an older sister of one of the children killed), and ended up becoming a missionary to this remote Asian country called Vietnam. He ended up disappearing in the turmoil of the war there.
On the morning of May 4, 2007, it was evident that an outbreak of severe weather was imminent across the Plains states of the U.S. The Storm Prediction center realized the threat and posted a Moderate Risk outlook for the region from the Texas Panhandle and western Oklahoma into Kansas and Nebraska. A powerful upper level trough was over the West with trong low pressure over Colorado with very moist Gulf of Mexico air being drawn northward. Instability values were sky high, with CAPE values running as high as 5,500 j/kg! An approaching dry line triggered supercell thunderstorms during the evening from north Texas to southwestern Kansas. With plenty of wind shear, the storms quickly became severe.
One tremendous supercell storm formed about 5 p.m. in the Texas Panhandle and moved northeast. CAPE values were around 5,200 j/kg over Southwest Kanasas, and the 0-2 km helicity was 240 m2s2. This made the EHI 7.8! Readings over 2 are nearly always associated with big tornadoes. The storm that this environment produced would bear twenty tornadoes during its long life, including four massive tornadoes that were on the ground continuously for three hours.
The largest tornado in the family touched down in Comanche County, Kansas at 9:03 p.m. and crossed into Kiowa County a short time later. The first tornado warning for Comanche County was issued at 8:13 p.m. The first tornado warning for Kiowa County was issued at 8:55 p.m. Another warning was issued at 9:19 p.m. that specifically mentioned Greensburg and stated that it was a confirmed tornado. A call was placed to Kiowa County. Sirens started sounding.
The massive tornado entered the south side of the town of Greensburg at 9:45 p.m. It would plow directly through the heart of the town and itâ€™s tree lined streets. It took several minutes for the giant lawnmower of a storm to roar through Greensburg, destroying ninety five percent of the town. When it was all over, virtually nothing was left standing in the 1.7 mile wide path.
The Greensburg tornado was the first to be rated as an EF5 on the new enhanced Fujita scale was implemented and the first tornado rated at the top of the scale since the Oklahoma City tornado in May 1999. Winds were estimated at 205 mph.
The warnings from the NWS, dissemination from the media and coordination with emergency management were superb and sirens sounded twenty minutes before the twister struck. Countless lives were spared by the advance warnings, but still eleven people died in the horrific destruction, some in basements. The disaster presented town officials and residents with a unique opportunity to rebuild, and leaders are choosing to do it in a green manner using environmentally friendly practices.
Photo from Tommy Mosley
I often wish I was a writer, like Rick Bragg. But, God chose not to give me that gift. It is for that reason I always struggle to write what I feel on this day.
It is my belief we are born to accomplish certain goals. To be at specific places at a moment in time. Whether your life lasts six hours, or ninety nine years. We all have a defining moment; all of our life experiences, lessons, and knowledge take us to that moment. If we are ready or not.
For me it sure seems like I was meant to be on the big green wall April 27, 2011. My friend Jason Simpson was meant to be in that studio with me. There is no manual or guide on covering 62 tornadoes in one day; you just have to do the best you can. I could not have asked for a better partner than Jason. He is one of the smartest guys I know, and loves the people of this state.
We were so far from perfect that day. Our primary radar system had the pixels displaced five miles to the south, leading me to call tornado locations that were “off” slightly on two occasions. The morning round of storms knocked out many of our cameras, and much of the infrastructure we rely on at ABC 33/40.
But, we did the best we could under the circumstances. I stopped playing mental gymnastics a year ago, and now I am simply focused on making the severe weather warning process better. There is no way, and I mean no way, 252 people should have died that way, when tornado warning lead times were generally between 25 and 50 minutes. Plenty of time to get to safety.
Sure, in come cases there was nothing you could do. It was just their day. We all have an appointed day to die. But for so many they didn’t have to lose their life April 27, 2011.
You can go through my social media accounts and see pictures and stories…
But the point of this post is to let you know we have worked hard over the past two years to make the warning process better. No, there is a very, very good chance we won’t have another April 27 for at least forty years. But, all it takes is just one tornado in the entire state, and if that one comes through your neighborhood, then that becomes YOUR April 27.
Here is some of the progress…
*The false alarm ratio for tornado warnings issued by the National Weather Service in Birmingham has been cut in half since April 2011. This will reduce the “cry wolf” syndrome, and make people take warnings seriously. My friends at the NWS here have done an remarkable job in making this happen by going back to basic science.
*We have expanded the ABC 33/40 SKYCAM network at a rapid pace, and new cameras are in the pipeline that will go online soon. We have learned that a live stream of a tornado will make people take cover; often people see extremely dangerous radar signatures as simply buckets of spilled paint. We must get cameras on as many tornadoes as possible.
*Our aggressive “NO SIREN” campaign is working. The siren mentality has killed countless numbers of people in our state; the notion that you will hear an outdoor warning siren before a tornado. Our push to get NOAA Weather Radio receivers in all homes, businesses, and churches, along with smart phone apps like MyWarn and iMap WeatherRadio, is paying off.
*The idea of having a severe weather kit with items like shoes, air horns, and helmets is also catching on. More and more Alabamians are getting on board.
Please take a few minutes today and say a prayer for those that went through the worst of April 27, 2011. You will never know the pain, but at least we can cry with them and say an encouraging word. We mourn the 252 that died, but celebrate those that are alive today.
I am looking forward to seeing my friend Mayor Walt Maddox of the City of Tuscaloosa; we will be “guest coaches” at the UAB spring football game today at the west soccer field on the UAB campus. He leadership in the days after April 27 was an example for us all. Mayor Maddox represented the state so well. UAB players will all have 4.27.11 on their helmets as we remember that day with wonder, sadness, and awe.
Please remember the state of Alabama in your prayers today.
Headlines on Sunday, April 15, 1956 talked about Democratic Presidential hopefuls Adlai Stevenson and Estes Kefauver and their attacks on President Eisenhower’s foreign policy. Eisenhower still had a firm lead in recent polls that showed him a clear winner if he was to run against Kefauver. The U.N. Secretary General was in Lebanon working on the Israeli/Egyptian crisis.
Locally, Jabo Waggoner was running for Associate City Commissioner of Public Improvement. Major league clubs were closing down their spring training camps and heading for Tuesday opening games. The Yankees and Dodgers were favored to win their respective pennants, again as in 1955.
The Birmingham News put the official U.S. Weather Bureau forecast on the top of the front page back then. The paper called for Considerable cloudiness, windy and warm Sunday and Sunday night with scattered showers and thunderstorms. Winds 15 to 30 mph. Sounded like tornado weather. It was.
Around 3 p.m., an F4 tornado tore across the western and northern fringes of Birmingham. It touched down just west of Wylam. The tornado plowed through McDonald’s Chapel and the Stacey Hollow area. One hundred homes were destroyed in these two communities. The murderous tornado continued through Sandusky, destroying twenty blocks of homes.
It then hit the Sayreton area just north of North Birmingham and destroyed a filling station and barbecue restaurant along US-31 in Fultondale. Homes were destroyed in the New Georgia community between Sayreton and Lewisburg. The tornado passed just north of Tarrant City, near Ketona, finally lifting near Chalkville.
Other neighborhoods that were hard hit were Capps Town and Oak Ridge. A Capps Town resident said that the tornado looked like “a big ball of fire rolling in big black smoke. It just roared, roared, roared,” she said. The only warning anyone had was the sound of the tornado.
The twister killed 25 along its 20 mile path. Most of the deaths occurred in the Stacey Hollow and McDonalds Chapel communities, save for two young sisters in the Sandusky area. Over two hundred people were injured and eleven hundred left homeless. A total of 400 homes and buildings were destroyed.
An EF-5 tornado tore through the western suburbs of Birmingham, killing 32 people, and injuring over 250 others in places like Oak Grove, Rock Creek, Sylvan Springs, McDonald Chapel, and Pratt City. More than 1000 homes were destroyed and more than 900 homes with significant damage.
The tornado track was 30.6 miles long and at it’s widest point was half a mile wide. After first touching down on the east side of the Warrior River in Tuscaloosa County, the tornado crossed into Jefferson County at 7:52 pm moving just south of the town of Scrap, just inside Jefferson County. It traveled east-northeast impacting Oak Grove, Concord, Pleasant Grove, Edgewater, McDonald’s Chapel areas before ending in Pratt City. The storm reached it’s strongest intensity producing F5 damage in the Concord area and the McDonalds Chapel/Edgewater area.
Interestingly, the tornado was on a trajectory that if it had stayed on the ground for an additional two or three miles the high rises in downtown Birmingham would have been affected; four more miles and the Birmingham Airport would have seen the destruction as well.
The same parent storm dropped another tornado in St. Clair County, killing two near Wattsville north of Pell City.