Category: Met 101/Weather History
On this date in 1972, Hurricane Agnes moved ashore in the Florida panhandle as a weak Category 1 storm. The highest wind reported on the Gulf Coast was a gust to just 56 mph at Apalachicola, Florida. The $10 million in damage in the Florida Panhandle was just a drop in the bucket. Hurricane Agnes would be downgraded to a tropical depression as it moved northward through Georgia and the Carolinas after landfall.
Agnes’ main damage would come two days later as the remnants of the storm brought tremendous rains and flooding to parts of the Northeast. On the 21st, the storm system emerged over the warm waters of the Atlantic and gained strength.
The storm would make landfall again in southeastern New York on the 22nd and then stall over Pennsylvania on the 23rd. The first day of summer was a wet one in eastern Pennsylvania as rains overspread the area ahead of the northward moving remnants of Hurricane Agnes. The wet storm system was expected to move out into the Atlantic Ocean, but it made an unexpected turn the next day and dumped unprecedented amounts of rain over the Susquehanna Valley.
Agnes’ torrential rains deluged parts of Pennsylvania. The state capital of Harrisburg was inundated and the governor’s mansion flooded. Nineteen inches of rain deluged Wilkes-Baare, PA, forcing the Susquehanna River over its 38 foot high dikes.
By late evening on the 22nd, Civil Defense officials in Wilkes-Baare, PA watched the rapidly rising floodwaters of the Susquehanna River. Evacuation warnings were not sounded during the night because emergency officials thought that a nighttime evacuation would be confusing. By early morning, evacuations were ordered with the river already at 33 feet and major flooding occurring. By late morning, warnings were frantic as the area’s worst natural disaster in history was underway.
At 11:14 am, sirens sounded seven short blasts indicating that the waters were breaching the dike in Wilkes-Baare. Nearly 75,000 people would evacuate in the face of the rising waters. The raging waters would flood much of the city.
Hurricane Agnes’ five-day romp through the Atlantic seaboard made the storm the costliest natural disaster in the United States at that time. Damage was estimated at $3.5 billion and 134 deaths were reported from Florida to New York. Agnes would produce more damage than all tropical cyclones in the previous six years, including Camille.
Welcome to the month in which both meteorological and astronomical summer both begin. In case you do not know what the difference between meteorological and astronomical seasons, I’ll try to explain it as best as possible. (Information gathered from the NOAA website, link: https://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/news/meteorological-versus-astronomical-seasons)
ASTRONOMICAL SUMMER: JUNE 20TH – SEPTEMBER 22ND
The natural rotation of the Earth around the sun forms the basis for the astronomical calendar, in which we form the seasons by two solstices and two equinoxes. Earth’s tilt and the sun’s allignment over the equator determine both the solstices and equinoxes. Equinoxes mark when the sun passes directly over the equator, whereas solstices mark when the sun is farthest away from the equator. Since the Earth actually takes 365.24 days to travel around the sun, an extra day is needed every fourth year, creating “Leap Year.” This, along with the elliptical shape of the Earth’s orbit, makes the actual number of days in each season to vary between 89 to 93 days. This makes it difficult to compare climatological statistics consistently for a particular season from one year to next. That is why there is a need for meteorological seasons.
METEOROLOGICAL SUMMER: JUNE 1ST – AUGUST 31
Meteorologists and climatologists group the seasons in three month sections (or seasons) based on the calendar and on the annual temperature cycle. Forecasting and observing led to these seasons being created. Meteorological season length is more consistent between the four seasons as they are close to 90 days for each season. With less variation in start date and in season length, its much easier to calculate seasonal statistics from monthly statistics, both of which are very useful for agriculture, commerce, and a variety of other purposes.
Now, back to June and the infographic.
June, for Birmingham, features warm temperatures, increasing humidity and generally light precipitation. It is tied with April for the 4th driest month, averaging 4.38 inches of rain. Only August, September and October are drier. Afternoon and evening thunderstorms become a frequent occurrence, generally happening on 8.9 days during the month. In fact, much of the rain that falls in the month is associated with thunderstorms.
On average, measurable rain falls on 11.0 days during the month. 12.09 inches of rain fell in June 1900, which stands as the all-time record for the month. At the airport, where records have been kept for 69 years, the wettest month was June 1999, when 9.04 inches fell. Early season Gulf tropical cyclones sometimes produce heavy rounds of precipitation.
As you would expect, cloudy periods are rare. June is the second sunniest month, behind May, averaging 65% of possible sunshine. The average PM relative humidity is on the rise, at 73%, rising from the 64% observed in March. The average dewpoint reaches 67.4F, which exceeds my definition of muggy (65F). This is up from the 60.4F in May.
On June 1, the average high and low is 85/62. By June 30th, it will be 90/68 The coolest it has ever been in June is 41F on June 1, 1966. It has been as warm as 106F on June 29, 1931.
June 1st is also the start of the Atlantic Hurricane Season, which last until November 30th. NOAA has already come out with their forecast, and they are saying that 10 to 16 storms will be named (at least make it to tropical storm strength), 4 to 8 of those will become hurricanes, and 1 to 4 of those will become major hurricanes.
We will start off on the third name when the next name is needed for a tropical storm. Alex was used back in January on a hurricane that formed north of Bermuda and moved toward the Azores, and weakened to a tropical storm before making it to the islands. Bonnie was used in May on a tropical storm that formed off the Atlantic Coast of the Southeastern U.S. It quickly moved ashore in South Carolina, bringing heavy rains and some flooding. It quickly dissipated a few days later. When, and if, will Colin form? We’ll have to wait and see.
The fifth month of the year is one of my favorites in Central Alabama. We see some of the finest weather of the year, with runs of fine, warm and sunshine filled days. It reminds me a lot of October, its closest cousin, but generally warmer and somewhat stormier. The average percentage of possible sunshine is 66 percent, equal to October, which is the other sunniest month of the year.
The average high and low for the month in Birmingham is 81.5F and 59.7F respectively. At the start of the month, the average high is 78F, but it rises to 85F by the end of the month. Overnight lows really warm, rising from 55F on May 1st to 64F on the 31st. The coldest May reading ever in the Magic City is 36F on May 4, 1971. The warmest reading ever in May was 99F on May 28, 1962 and May 29, 1898. It generally reaches 90F or warmer 1.9 days in the month.
Heating degree days are nearly zero in May, but cooling degree days start to really rise as we head toward the unrelenting heat of summer.
May used to be a drier month than April. Until 2003 that is. 5.71 inches of rain fell on the 7th that month, which skewed the average higher. The average May rainfall at the Birmingham Airport jumped from 4.4 inches to 4.99 inches because of that single event. A tremendous flash flooding event occurred across Central Alabama that day, with higher amounts reported just northeast of the Airport. 10.50 inches of rain fell on Edwards Lake Road and JB Elliott recorded 9.82 inches just northeast of Trussville. Not surprisingly, May 2003 went on to become the wettest fifth month with 17.22 inches of rain. The driest May on record occurred in 2000, when 0.88 inches fell.
It usually rains on 9.1 days on average, and rains more than 1 inch on 1.4 days. Thunderstorms occur on 9 days. The average dewpoint is starting to climb, rising from 49F in April to 58F in May.
This is a guest essay from a native Alabamian now living in Texas.
I didn’t sense any danger on April 27 until I tried to pry the Regions Bank door open and noticed the handwritten note – “Closed due to inclement weather.”
My mom had called that morning from her job at Children’s Hospital to warn me of the storms headed our way from Mississippi and the seriousness of the events ahead of us. I listened, but didn’t feel the need to cancel the frozen yogurt date with my future roommate I had set for later that afternoon.
I didn’t feel concern during class later that day, or at the late, celebratory lunch at Newk’s with my friend Hannah as we acknowledged our last public speaking class had finally come to an end.
But here at the campus branch of Regions Bank, a brief wave of concern hit me when I realized I needed to get serious about the impending weather headed toward us that day.
I canceled the afternoon’s roommate date and immediately called my boyfriend, Adam, who didn’t answer. He must be napping, I thought.
Growing up in Alabama, I was among those that felt fairly comfortable at the beginning of that bright, Tuscaloosa day. I had stayed up many a night in my family’s basement back in Birmingham, the neon light from our old, deep-set TV blaring as James Spann walked across the screen in a stark white button down and suspenders. I knew the drill.
Remember sitting in the hallway as kindergarteners, learning the actual tornado drill? Knees up, head down. Concrete cinder blocks against your back.
When the power went out at Adam’s Alberta apartment, I got very anxious. I wasn’t in my parents’ underground basement with our go-to, window-less spot steps away from me.
So when I felt my nervous system kicking into gear, I ran out onto the second floor, wrap-around porch at Arlington Square Apartments and observed the sky, not realizing the tornado James Spann had just spotted in downtown Tuscaloosa was only minutes from where I stood.
Thankfully, I spied a group of students running out of their house below me, headed toward a cellar door around the backside of the old, one-story building. One of them saw me and yelled, “It’s behind you!” I called out for Adam and we ran down the steep wooden steps toward our newfound, one-time-use, go-to spot.
I remember Adam trying to lock-up the apartment before we ran to join the others. Today, I find that funny.
Five years ago, April 27 began – and went – very differently for each of us. You may have been a student in class when things got serious for you, or listening to James Spann in the comfort of your go-to spot, or working through the storms with only snippets of information about the disaster that rocked our state (and much of the South) that day.
Regardless of your individual, very real experience, I believe we are all bound by the tragedy of it all. No matter if you experienced “real” loss that day, we all had our world as we knew it changed. If only by a little bit.
What I hope and wish for all of us as I reflect on that day is that each of you feel more whole today than you did five years ago. I know for some, especially those experiencing loss of a loved one, that may still seem impossible. And that’s okay.
On this poignant anniversary day, I believe it’s important to pause and reflect. Remember the moments that are forever penned in our minds. Moments of sadness, shock and fear; with moments of gratefulness, love and hope intermingled.
Being away from Alabama today is very difficult for me. Even though I am no longer a resident of Alabama the Beautiful, I carry the spirit of all of us Alabamians with me always. Being a Crimson Tide fan, I’ve always felt pride. But, after 4/27/11, I have felt a sense of connection to the state and its residents that I have never felt before. Today, I feel a great need to send my sincerest thanks to those named and nameless that touched mine and Adam’s heart that day, and in the fragile time following that somber life event.
I was always taught to send a prompt thank-you note after someone did something nice for me as a child. This one is five years late, so apologies in advance for the belatedness –
I’m writing to thank you – and your courageous residents – for the overwhelming help you sent mine and Adam’s way five years ago. Knowing you were going through quite a rough time yourself, the sincere gestures mean the world to us.
I will try to shy away from naming any specific individuals for fear of missing a special someone, but I would like to at least call out the following groups in gratitude:
To Mr. James Spann, you saved both ours and many others’ lives five years ago. Words truly cannot express the amount of appreciation we have for you and ABC 33/40 for the in-depth coverage and preparation you gave us. Also, Texas needs you, Mr. Spann. My expectations for meteorologists have been set far too high.
To Adam’s neighbors, thank you for inviting us into your go-to spot that terrifying afternoon. You could have easily focused on the safety of yourself and your friends, but you called out to me. You were our heroes that day, and for that I am eternally thankful. I would also like to apologize for not sending this thank-you to each of you sooner.
To the deaf couple I spent most of my post-tornado moments with, thank you for reminding me what matters most in a time when we both needed it the most. I will never forget either of you, or the love you showed me. I’m so glad I was able to see you a few days after the tornado when you ventured back to the spot that forever changed our lives with your family from Florida. I hope you’re both doing well. You deserve the world.
To the first responders, you are the true heroes of April 27. I saw so many putting their own lives on the line to save another that day. And I heard of many more in the days following. I am humbled by your acts of sincere love and kindness. Thank you.
To the Crimson White, thank you for covering this important event for our university and town. Two of your best reporters were some of the first people we saw after leaving our disaster area that day, and your coverage of our story helped aide our healing process. Thank you for doing the difficult thing that day and being true journalists when some of you were suffering from loss yourselves.
To The University of Alabama and Tuscaloosa (one in the same, in my heart), thank you for treating each student as family in the days, weeks and months of recovery that year. I would like to specifically call-out the Advertising and Public Relations Department, as well as, the School of Engineering for being our places of refuge in our remaining years at UA. You treated us as normal students and made our previous dreams still a reality for us despite the setbacks felt following such a traumatic event. Thank you also to Mayor Maddox and the leadership at UA for your efforts to pull our town back together as smoothly, and thoughtfully, as possible.
To the volunteers and donors, thank you for sacrificing your time and showing us and many other strangers such generosity. Thanks to UA for setting up the UA Acts of Kindness fund that contributed to Adam’s needs not covered by FEMA. Thanks to the out-of-towners that spent their spring break helping piece together our state, too.
To the Prattville couple we never met, thank you for gathering Adam’s childhood keepsakes you found scattered around the rubble. I’ll never forget the day we drove up to the site and saw the pile neatly gathered and set aside for us to find.
To our families, thank you for the love and support you still give us as we deal with the trauma of April 27. To Adam’s family specifically, thank you for providing us a temporary home as we shuffled back and forth with your borrowed cargo van to gather remnants of our things. Thank you also for replacing Adam’s FJ Cruiser. Seeing his face lit-up with the replacement of this specific item lost still brings me much joy.
To the 2011-2012 Alabama Football team, I know we get teased for our unwavering obsession with you, but I don’t care. I truly believe you gave so many people the hope they were looking for as you soared through an incredible season and breathed life into a town hurting so deeply. I cried when we lost to LSU, and cried when we beat them in the game that counted the most.
I would also like to thank three groups of friends – the friends I abandoned, the friends that helped me piece through life immediately following 4/27/11, and the new friends that support me today. I still don’t fully know how I truly was the summer and year after April 27. I was not very aware of myself – I only knew I felt very little pleasure as I grappled with fear, guilt and depression. To my current and future roommates at the time, I apologize for straight-up abandoning you as I clung to Adam for support. I know that was not what you signed-up for and I’m sorry. To the Avanti orientation team at UA that worked with me every day that summer, I’m sorry for being the least-dedicated, emotionally numb team member. I thank you for understanding my need for space, random spouts of neediness and tears, and the low-level anger I felt every day. Thank you specifically to those that helped me in the week Adam was out of town competing with his engineering team at NASA. It’s silly to think about it now, but I truly didn’t know how to cope with being away from him that week. The day-trip to Six Flags was literally one of the happiest moments of my summer and I thank you for treating me with extra care as I had a mini-panic attack when we almost drove past Alberta on the way home to UA. To my new Austin friends, thank you for the support and encouragement. Thank you for always having an open heart when I rant about random things as I continue to struggle with doubt, anxiety and fear. Thank you especially to my therapist, Priscilla, for helping me be courageous.
Lastly, to my husband Adam, thank you for being my strength in this winding road to recovery. For turning April 27, 2012 into a day of possibility. For taking April 30, 2011 off to ensure we celebrated my birthday, even though you missed meeting the President visiting your apartment.
Roll Tide, War Eagle, etc.
Jessica Melton lives in Austin, Texas and would like to send a special thank you to Taylor Holland and her entire Austin family for the encouragement and support in writing this piece.
– Special to the AlabamaWX Blog by Sheldon Kusselson
Miss the big annual spotter training? Here are the sessions.
Part one features the basic training from Brian Peters… part two is “polygonology” from Kevin Laws of the NWS Birmingham, and part three is James Spann’s talk on lessons learned from April 27, 2011, and the advanced training from Brian Peters. Thanks to the huge crowd for their attendance!
We all miss our mentor and friend, J.B. Elliott, especially on a day like today, a red letter day in Alabama weather history, when J.B.’s work saved countless lives. Here is an essay I penned about the early morning hours of that fateful day.
The midpoint of his overnight shift at the National Weather Service Forecast Office on West Oxmoor Road in Birmingham had just passed when Met Tech J.B. Elliott left his desk and walked into the teletype room. It was Elliott’s week to do dreaded midnight shifts. He had come on duty at twelve o’clock and would be there until 8 a.m.
Shifts were, and still are, an unavoidable part of working for the National Weather Service. After nearly two decades, he was used to it. He would mark his seventeenth anniversary with the Weather Service in just five days. He had worked at the Birmingham office for his entire career, a rarity in the NWS. Most weather people moved around frequently, especially early in their careers.
When he had started, it had been called the U.S. Weather Bureau and the Birmingham office had been in the terminal building at the Airport. The stately old building looked like it would be more in place on the grounds of a southern Country Club than an airport, with graceful columns adorning the front of the building. There were even rocking chairs on the front porch.
His first day on the job had started off with a bang, and today was going to be active like that day in 1957. J.B. had no formal training in weather, no degree in meteorology. But he had loved since his youngest days growing up in Hale County, in Alabama’s Black Belt south of Tuscaloosa. In fact, he had been born less than a month after the worst tornado outbreak in Alabama history had killed over 300 people. The first tornado of that dreadful day had touched down twenty five miles south of his hometown of Havana Junction. His mom always said that his fascination with the weather stemmed from the fact that heard thunder in the womb on that day, March 21, 1932.
J.B. loved listening to the old timers talk about the weather as they played checkers in the town square at Havana Junction. His father was killed in an industrial accident when he was just nine, and it was just his mom and sister after that. This meant getting up early to milk the cows and other chores.
His mother took a job in Tuscaloosa. One day she brought him a special present. A dime store thermometer. He meticulously recorded weather observations each day. He even got up an hour early so that he could tune into radio stations across the country to jot down their weather reports. He would carefully record these on a map of the United States, producing his own personal weather forecasts.
After graduating from Hale County High School in Akron, J.B. moved to Bessemer, near Birmingham, after getting a job with a wholesale grocery company. But he stayed close to the weather by volunteering as a U.S. Weather Bureau Cooperative Observer. In this role, he supplied daily weather reports of temperature and precipitation.
He frequently made the fifteen mile trip to the Birmingham Airport on Saturdays to hang out with the meteorologists there. He applied for a job as a Meteorological Technician, but there was a rule that if there were any veterans on the Federal Register looking for a job, they had priority over a civilian, a policy that J.B. patriotically supported.
Mr. Charles Bradley, the Chief of the Birmingham Weather Bureau Office kept an eye out for an opportunity to get the young man on his staff. He recognized J.B.’s keen interest in the weather, realizing that what he lacked in formal training, he made up for in enthusiasm and dedication.
Then in late March 1957, Mr. Bradley called J.B.’s mother. He had an opening available that J.B. could fill. There was only one problem. J.B. was driving out west with a cousin to visit National Parks. They were making one last stop in Denver before heading into New Mexico, where they would be out of contact for the next two weeks. The once in a lifetime chance at the job of his dreams would evaporate.
Mrs. Elliott called their relatives. The men had not left yet. J.B. was able to see a government-approved doctor for his physical and the job was his. On his way home, newspaper headlines were dominated by a week of active weather, including a major tornado that had hit the city of Dallas on April 2nd.
After returning to Alabama, he reported for work on April 8, 1957 to fill out paperwork on his first day on the job. But there was no time for that. As soon as he walked in the door at the Weather Office that morning, he was pressed into service. Tornadoes were skipping across North Alabama and one was on the ground in the Red Mills community. Two people would be killed in Morgan County. At least four significant tornado struck North Alabama that day, including two tornadoes that modern research would estimate caused F3 damage. Of course, the F-Scale, which estimates tornado wind speeds from damage indicators was less than a year old in 1974, and it was actually the FPP scale, named for its founders, Theodore Fujita and Allen Pearson.
So, J.B. almost didn’t get paid for his first day answering the phones and helping the other weathermen that day. But he didn’t mind. He had been pitching in during his visits to the office for awhile. He didn’t tell his new boss Mr. Bradley, but he probably would have done the job for free. But now he had a career in weather.
Nearly seventeen years later, J.B. was on the precipice of the career-defining day in that weather career that would last until 1989. He stepped into the cacophony of the teletype room at the NWS office in the modern suburban office building on West Oxmoor Road around 4:15 a.m. that April 3rd. The building technically was in Homewood, a fact not lost on a certain caller to the office that threatened to have J.B.’s job if he didn’t stop answering the phone with the scripted response “National Weather Service Birmingham”.
J.B. and the other staff on duty early that morning had been waiting on the severe weather outlook from SELS. SELS was the Severe Local Storms Unit at the National Severe Storms Forecast Center in Kansas City. Surprisingly, SELS had only been in existence for twenty five years, not much longer than J.B. had been in the Weather Service.
The teletype room at West Oxmoor Road wasn’t much different than the teletype room that was in the weather office at the old Birmingham Airport terminal on J.B.’s first day. It was a small room, three of its walls lined with hulking, black metal teletype terminals that constantly clacked out from all over the country on rolls of yellow paper.
Two of them, the Service A and Service C teletypes, spit out row after row of SAs, or surface aviation observations. The coded reports told meteorologists a story about the weather at hundreds of airport weather stations around the country, including the cloud heights, visibilities, current weather, temperatures, dewpoints, wind direction and speed, barometric pressure and precipitation. They were Greek to the layman, but to a meteorologist, they were chock full of important information.
One machine tied the office directly to SELS, network radar sites and other NWS offices. The RAWARC (Radar Report and Warning Coordination) line was a 100 word per minute circuit that transmitted critical watch and warning data as well as coded radar reports from the powerful network radar stations. Forecasters at SELS sent weather watches and other information over this circuit to the local weather offices.
Watches were issued for a wide geographic area, generally several thousand square miles at a time, usually for four to six hours. Watches delineated the area that SELS forecasters believed would be affected by tornadoes or severe thunderstorms. They had already issued a tornado watch the evening before. At 4 a.m. on April 3rd, they were busy issuing two watches for parts of states from Texas to Kentucky. This really was going to be a potent weather system.
The issuance of the watches delayed their daily severe weather forecast for the country, the Severe Weather Outlook. This product was anxiously awaited by forecasters around the National Weather Service and it was displayed each morning on the Today Show. J.B. typed a quick message into the Request/Reply machine. This teletype circuit was connected to a computer in Kansas City which generated a reply with the requested product. Forecasters used it to ask for products like watched to be retransmitted. The Severe Weather Outlook had still not been issued.
The public forecaster had already sent the State Weather Forecast for Alabama. He had composed the forecast and had given it to J.B. to be composed on the teletype. Hunt and peck, but on steroids, was J.B.’s typing technique and the rapid fire method worked amazingly well. There was no backspace on a teletype machine. As you typed, it punched a thin ½ ribbon of paper tape. The nine pins actually punched little holes in the tape that another teletype machine could read. This allowed messages from one machine to be resent on another machine without retyping them. It was a critical component in the communications process that would be considered antiquated in the computer age.
But still, it took time to compose a message, and the state forecast product was due out by 4:45 a.m. J.B. went back to his desk to compose the message for the forecaster on duty. The forecast didn’t include any mention of severe thunderstorms. He had already composed the message when one of the forecasters walked in with a copy of the Severe Weather Outlook, hot off the wire from Kansas City.
ALSYM A KKCC
MKC AC 030900
SEE WW NRS 90 AND 91…
SCTD SVR TSTMS EXPCTD TODAY AND TONIGHT FM NE TEX ACRS ARK SE MO ILL IND OHIO W VA KY TENN WRN VA WRN NC EXTRM NW S C NRN AND CNTRL ALA NRN AND CENTRL MISS WRN HALF LA AND NW GA.
STG LOW PRESSR AREA EXPCTD INTO NE MO BY 00Z WITH CLD FNT SWD THRI ERN ARK AND LA. STG SLY WNDS WITH COOLING ALF EXPCTD TO GIVE SVR TSTMS… WITH ACTVTY SPRDG EWD DURG PD.
GEN TSTMS TO RT OF LN VCT FTW OKC TOP GRI MSP SAW..CONT… MSS UWM …CONT… SSI CTY.
Translated, the message said this:
SCATTERED SEVERE THUNDERSTORMS EPECTED TODAY AND TONIGHT FROM NORTHEAST TEXAS ACROSS ARKANSAS, SOUTHEAST MISSOURI, ILLINOIS, INDIANA, OHIO, WEST VIRGINIA, KENTUCKY, TENNESSEE, WESTERN VIRGINIA, WESTERN NORTH CAROLINA, EXTREME NORTHWEST SOUTH CAROLINA, NORTHERN AND CENTRAL ALABAMA, NORTHERN AND CENTRAL MISSISSIPPI, NORTHERN HALF LOUISIANA AND NORTHWEST GEORGIA.
STRONG LOW PRESSURE AREA EXPECTED INTO NORTHEAST MISSOURI BY 0000Z WITH COLD FRONT SOUTHWARD THROUGH EASTERN ARKANSAS AND LOUISIANA. STRONG SOUTHERLY WINDS WITH COOLING ALOFT EXPECTED TO GIVE SEVERE THUNDERSTORMS…WITH ACTIVITY SPREADING EASTWARD DURING THE PERIOD.
It was one of the biggest, if not the biggest, convective outlook they had ever seen. This confirmed what the forecasters at the National Weather Service in Birmingham already thought. It was going to be a really bad day. First, there was work to be done. J.B. set down at his tape punch and hammered out the zone forecasts. The forecasts for the northern and western sections of Alabama mentioned the possibility of locally severe thunderstorms by evening.
Then J.B. started working on his favorite product, the Alabama Weather Summary, a narrative that allowed him a little creative license. He had even been selected to attend a special writing training course in Kansas City. He penned the following message:
ALABAMA READY FOR ANOTHER BOUT WITH THUNDERSTORMS…
THUNDERSTORMS WILL OVERSPREAD ALABAMA FROM THE WEST THIS AFTERNOON AND TONIGHT AND SOME OF THEM COULD BECOME SEVERE. THE SITUATION WILL BE WATCHED CLOSELY TODAY AS THUNDERSTORMS ENTER NORTHWEST ALABAMA THIS AFTERNOON AND SPREAD EAST AND SOUTHEAST OVER THE STATE THIS AFTERNOON AND TONIGHT. THEY WILL BE LOCALLY HEAVY OVER MOST OF THE STATE WITH THE HEAVIEST ONES LIKELY OVER THE NORTH AND CENTRAL COUNTIES.
THE LATEST DEVELOPMENTS ARE BLAMED ON THE STRONGEST STORM SYSTEM OF THE SPRING SO FAR. THE DEEP LOW IS CENTERED OVER KANSAS THIS MORNING MOVING NORTHEAST.
J.B. also served as the unofficial weather historian for the state of Alabama, with an uncanny ability to recall dates on significant events. He frequently wrote special statements that recalled historic events, and that morning was no different. He transmitted a special release stating that April 3rd was the anniversary of killer tornadoes, which hit Saugatuck, Michigan and Wichita Falls, Texas in 1964.
A couple of hours later, J.B. took the elevator from the fourth floor and headed into the parking lot. He made the twenty minute drive to his home in the Huffman neighborhood of northeastern Birmingham. He stopped at the Food World grocery store near his house and went in for a few items. The cashier made small talk about the weather. “They say it’s going to get bad today,” she said. J.B. agreed, not elaborating, ready to get home to grab a few winks since he would most likely get called in early before his shift that started at midnight again. “Have a great day, “ she called as he headed back out into the unseasonable heat and humidity. “Lady, you’re too late,” he thought to himself. It was going to be a terrible day.
By the morning of April 4th, the tornado count would be in the hundreds and the death toll would as well. The 147 tornadoes that occurred in twenty-hour hours was a record. A total of 310 Americans would be killed that fateful afternoon and evening. The record was one that many never thought would be broken. For many it was in the unbreakable category with records like Cal Ripken’s 2,632 games played streak.
But on the afternoon of April 27, 2011, an amazing 198 tornadoes occurred and 313 people died across the nation. two hundred and fifty two died in Alabama. The events were similar in some ways. In fact, by 4 p.m., J.B. would realize that the event was looking a lot like 1974 all over again as he did continuous severe weather coverage on several Birmingham radio stations, providing a reassuring voice in the storm.
By the next morning, he would know that the event was way worse than the Superoutbreak, and like the unthinkable March 21, 1932 outbreak that claimed over three hundred lives in Alabama alone as ten violent tornadoes ripped across the state in two waves.
We’ve definitely come a long way in the warning process, built on the shoulders of men like J.B. Elliott. But April 27th and May 22nd in Joplin back in 2011 reminded us that we’re not there yet.
On Palm Sunday, March 27, 1994, an EF-4 tornado struck the Goshen United Methodist Church, north of Piedmont, killing 20 people during the morning worship service; 92 were injured. A warning was issued 12 minutes before the tornado destroyed the church building, but unfortunately they never heard the warning.
The deaths at the church brought to light the deficiencies in the NOAA Weather Radio network across the United States at the time, and the lack of NOAA Weather Radio use in many public spaces. We have come a long way since then, but we have much work to do. Every home, business, church, and public place must have a way of hearing warnings.
I was honored to deliver the first sermon from the pulpit of the new building when it open a couple of years later. This was, and still is a special church. Below is a 30 minute special (in three parts) we produced in 2004.
Below is a post the late, great J.B. Elliott put on the blog in 2007, which really sums up the Blizzard of 1993, which started on March 12. My TV colleagues at the time were Dan Satterfield and Kevin Selle (who used the name Kevin Collins at the time).
As early as March 8, 1993, some long-range weather models were hinting at a humongous winter storm event for the East Coast of the USA. It proved to be amazingly accurate.
Along the Texas Gulf Coast early on the morning of March 12, 1993, a low pressure area was beginning to deepen rapidly. It was already gathering an unbelievable amount of moisture from our old friend, the Gulf of Mexico.
PS: Here I go again. I often wonder what the big 1993 storm would have been like if we did not have our old friend, the Gulf of Meciso.
Back to the story…by Friday evening, oil rigs off the Louisiana coast were reporting wind gusts to hurricane force. The storm had already become a monster. It eventually brought the first widespread blizzard in history to parts of the Southern USA.
Dr. John Knox, a Birmingham native and now a research scientist at the University of Georgia (he received his doctor’s degree in atmospheric science at the University of Wisconsin). He co-authored an excellent college-level instructor’s meteorology book with the title of “Meteorology, Understanding the Atmosphere.” Naturally, being from Birmingham, he wrote about the Blizzard of ’93. He told how the atmosphere became so unstable that thunderstorms developed in the cold air, which helped the storm to dump several inches of snow each hour on Birmingham. There was a lot of eerie green lightning followed by the muffled sound of thunder. With the atmosphere overloaded with big snowflakes, part of the sound of thunder was absorbed. John mentioned that a radio tower on Red Mountain was struck 12 times by that eerie lightning. He also wrote about 50 University of Wisconsin students en route to Panama City getting stranded in Birmingham, when their bus skidded off a road.
TRACKING THE LOW PRESSURE AREA
1. Centered over the NW Gulf of Mexico early on March 12, 1,000 millibars.
2. Over the North-Central Gulf, 6:00 p.m., Friday, March 12, 984 MB
3. Near Savannah at daybreak on Saturday, March 13, 971 MB
4. Near the eastern shore of Maryland, 6:00 p.m. Saturday, 960 MB
5. Near Portland, Maine, 6:00 a.m., Sunday, 964 MB
As Bill Murray pointed out, this made it as strong as a Category 3 hurricane considering the pressure. From the Northern Gulf, the low moved on shore near Cedar Key in the Big Bend area of NW Florida. Winds on land gusted over 110 miles mph with a great deal of damage. There were a number of tornadoes and a number of fatalities.
In our earlier post, we mentioned some of the Eastern USA snow amounts. We repeat just a few.
20 inches in Chattanooga
4 inches in Atlanta (snow covered the north half of Georgia)
50 inches on Mt. Mitchell, North Carolina
18 inches at Asheville
40 inches at High Knob, Virginia
28 inches at Lake of the Woods, Virginia
30 inches at Frostburg, Maryland
36 inches at Latrobe, Pennsylvania with 6 to 10 foot drifts
40 inches at Halcott Center, New York
Dover, Delaware had the honor of reporting the lowest pressure in this giant storm–28.41 inches at 8:00 p.m. on March 13.
ALABAMA SNOW AMOUNTS
It was one of those very rare times, when all 67 counties in Alabama had a snow cover. Here is a selection:
20 inches at Walnut Grove
17 inches at Valley Head
16 inches in Oneonta and Bessemer
13 inches at Anniston, Talladega, Pinson, Birmingham
12 inches at Thomasville, Childersburg, Scottsboro
11 inches at Sylacauga
10 inches at Cullman, Clanton and Heflin
9 inches in Thorsby
8 inches in Ashland, Centreville, Moulton and Guntersville
7 inches in Alexander City, Huntsville and Whatley
6 inches in Camden, Evergreen, Jasper, Livingston, Andalusia, Haleyville and Highland Home
5 inches in Auburn, Winfield, Muscle Shoals and Chatom
4 inches in Montgomery, Union Springs, Vernon, Tuscaloosa, Demopolis, Frisco City, Greenville, Troy
3 inches at Brewton, Hamilton, Bay Minette, Mobile Airport
2 inches at Atmore and Robertsdale
Trace at Fairhope and Coden
Remember, this does not count drifts. Those drifts were humongous in some areas, especially by Alabama standards. The drifts were 5 to 6 feet deep in parts of the Birmingham metro area. The official Birmingham snowfall of 13 inches was recorded at the airport. Naturally there was more in the higher terrain. For example, there was 17 inches where I lived at the time in the Huffman area not far from Medical Center East. Soon after the storm, the National Weather Service received a report of 15-foot drifts in some of the higher terrain of NE Alabama.
This was not a record event for everybody. For example, Auburn’s 5 inches pales when you compare it with their biggest snow around Valentine’s Day in the 1970s when they were buried under 14 inches.
On February 13, 1899, one of the coldest airmasses ever observed in the U.S. made it all the way to the Gulf Coast. It was 7F in New Orleans and Pensacola. Mobile dropped to a numbing -1F.
The reading of -2F at Tallahassee still is the state’s coldest reading ever. Many all time state record lows were observed during the cold wave.
In Birmingham, observations were taken at the old Fountain Heights weather office. According to J.B,, records were kept in a beat up old journal. The official low on this frigid morning was -10F at the weather office. Handwritten notes on the journal for the date indicated that the temperature in outlying areas around the city was -14F.
If the reading had been taken at the current observation post at the airport, it would have surely been –14F. If readings had been kept in Pinson then, (normally coldest in Birmingham area) it is safe to bet that the reading there would have been –17F!
Other Alabama lows that cold morning: -7F in Tuscaloosa, Elba and Opelika; -5F in Greensboro; -11 in Florence; -12 in Decatur; -15 in Oneonta; -16 in Hamilton and Scottsboro and –18 in Valley Head.
Greensboro had five inches of snow on the ground.
A major blizzard was spreading a wide swath of snow from Florida to Maine. Snow flurries were reported in Fort Myers, Florida. The blizzard, dubbed the “Storm King,” dumped nearly 16 inches of snow on New York City on top of an 11 inch snowcover. Twenty inches of snow fell at Washington DC and thirty four inches fell at Cape May, NJ.
The pressure in the center of the storm was estimated at 966 Mb (28.53 inches), as strong as a major hurricane.
More cold records that fell during the coldwave included these all time records: -8 DAL, -16 AMA, -23 Tulia for the coldest ever in Texas, -13 at LIT, -22F at KC and -15 at Washington DC.