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Category: Weather History

The November 1950 Cold Wave

| 9:00 am November 23, 2014


Alabamians paid little attention to the weather forecast on Thanksgiving morning, November 23, 1950. The Birmingham News carried a lead article about the many blessings of the day, including bountiful food, talking about the day’s candied yams, crisp white celery, plump olives and a golden brown roasted turkey. Headlines told of a Thanksgiving Eve crash between two Long Island Railroad trains in New York City that killed 76 people. There were hopes that the Korean War might be ending, bolstered by hints that China might be willing to sit down for peace talks. Over 36,000 people made their way to Legion Field for the annual Crippled Children’s Classic at Legion Field. The game featured the Phillips Red Raiders and Woodlawn Colonels. It would raise $95,000 for the new Crippled Children’s Hospital. As the game kicked off at 2 p.m., the temperature at the Birmingham Airport was a balmy 70 degrees.

The fine holiday weather belied the fact that a major cold wave was overspreading the U.S. east of the Rockies. Birmingham’s official weatherman, Charles Bradley, warned that the mild afternoon and nice weather was going to be followed by a quick turn to winter. The afternoon highs near 70 would be replaced with overnight lows in the 30s. Highs the following day would remain steady or fall. Fans in shirt sleeves at Legion Field got a rude awakening when the temperature fell into the 50s by the fourth quarter of a 20-0 Phillips victory. By late evening, readings were in the lower 40s with a north wind averaging over 20 mph. To the north, it was getting interesting. It was 18F in Nashville with heavy snow. It was 25F in Memphis with moderate snow and a north wind averaging over 30 mph. The snow was reaching Northwest Alabama.

By 6:30 a.m. on Friday morning, it was down to 32F at Birmingham with snow. Four inches of snow was on the ground at Tuscumbia. An inch was on the ground in the Magic City. Roads were hazardous all over North Alabama. Dozens of accidents were being reported. By late morning, US-31 was impassable as far south as Clanton. By 10:30 a.m., the mercury had plummeted further, to 21F at the Birmingham Airport.

The Alabama Crimson Tide football team boarded a charter plane at the Birmingham Airport, bound for Jacksonville and a Saturday tilt with Florida. With two losses, Alabama needed a victory to seal a major bowl bid. Tennessee was already paired with Texas in the Cotton Bowl. Kentucky coach Paul Bryant was preparing his Wildcats for a Sugar Bowl date with Oklahoma in New Orleans. The Birmingham News carried rumors that the Bear might be nosing around for a job in Texas, while mentioning that Alabama was his alma mater.

In his afternoon forecast, the weatherman was calling for an overnight low between 12-15F. Good thing for Mr. Bradley that the three degree guarantee had not been invented, because with screaming cold air advection, the temperature would already be at 15 by midnight, on the way to a low of 5F. It is the coldest November reading ever in Birmingham. The second coldest November reading ever is 13F, underscoring the significance of the record. Fresh snow would fall across the northern half of the state on Saturday as the Great Appalachian Storm spun up over Ohio.

JB would call it a cold wave. I call it just another story from the pages of this week in weather history.

An Important Anniversary in Hurricane Forecasting

| 3:30 pm July 27, 2014

In July 1943, tracking hurricanes was a difficult business. Fewer ships were at sea because of the threat of German U-boats. Those that were at sea maintained radio silence. Britain suffered mightily from the lack of weather reports from over the Atlantic. The Brits were forced to use precious aircraft to fly weather observation missions. The U.S. feared that the West Indies would become a major theater of war if the Germans decided to attack through Central and South America.

In Bryan, Texas, Col. James P. Duckworh was in charge of the Instrument Flying Instruction School. Before the 1930s, there wasn’t any such thing as instrument flying. Everything was visual. Duckworth had been a pilot for Eastern Air Transport, the precursor to Eastern Airlines. He had resigned to go to active duty with the Army Air Corps Reserve. Duckworth said that he knew that the war wasn’t going to stop because of weather.

Weather map from the morning of July 27, 1943.

Weather map from the morning of July 27, 1943.

On the morning of Sunday, July 27th, Col. Duckworth made his way to the base to have breakfast. As he ate, he learned that there was a hurricane making landfall near Galveston. Hard to believe, since it was a beautiful morning at Bryan, about 100 miles from Galveston. The storm was expected to pass near Houston during the afternoon. Duckworth saw it as the perfect opportunity to do what no one had done intentionally up to that time: fly into a hurricane.

Joe suggested to one of his breakfast companions, Lt. Ralph O’Hair that they take an single engine AT-6 trainer and fly into the storm for fun. There were four new B-25‘s at the base, but it would be hard to justify using one of them for this unsanctioned mission. As 100 mph winds were raking the coast. Duckworth and O’Hair took off for Galveston. Enroute, they called the tower at Houston and said they were flying Galveston. The incredulous operator asked them if they knew there was a hurricane. When they said yes, the controller asked for updates so he would be able to direct crews to the wreckage.

As they flew toward the hurricane, they were in the weaker western semicircle of the storm. As they neared the eyewall, they experienced violent up and down turbulence that made them feel like a “bone in a dog’s mouth”. Suddenly, they broke into the clear air of the eye. They flew around for a few minutes and headed back to the base where they were met by the staff meteorological officer. The weatherman wanted to know why they had not included him in their historic flight. They responded by telling him to hop in, they would take him to the center. The meteorologist kept a very detailed diary of observations.

Duckworth did not immediately realize the significance of his feat. Later that year, one of his superiors summoned him to tell the pilot that he had been recommended for the Distinguished Flying Cross. The unassuming Colonel did receive the Air Medal for flying into a hurricane for the first time, twice in the same day.

Realizing the benefit of more specific information on hurricanes, regular reconnaissance flights were started the next year. Weather Bureau meteorologists used the information about 1944’s Great Atlantic Hurricane to issue better warnings.

On This Date in 1980

| 10:00 am July 12, 2014


Headlines on Saturday, July 12, 1980 focused on the Iranian hostage crisis, which was in its 292nd day. One of the hostages had been released by the Ayatollah for “humanitarian reasons”. The GOP was putting the finishing touches on its platform prior to their national convention in Detroit.

There were fears that Mt. Hood in Oregon was getting ready to erupt, a la Mount St. Helens, since quakes had been shaking the area. A hijacker in Seattle had been given $100,000 and a parachute as he seemed destined to be the next D.B. Cooper. The economy was in the tank, with talk that the extended recession was comparable to the Great Depression in many ways.

The movies that were playing then included The Shining and Airplane.

High temperatures from July 12, 1980 courtesy NOAA Central Library Data Imaging Project

High temperatures from July 12, 1980 courtesy NOAA Central Library Data Imaging Project. Click image to enlarge.

But the big news across the southern United States was the heat. Birmingham was in the middle of a thirteen day heat wave, with temperatures 90F or higher for those thirteen days. The mercury reached at least 100F on eight consecutive days. The high temperature at the Birmingham Airport topped out at 104F on that Saturday, the hottest it had been so far in the hot spell. The next day would see 106F, the hottest of the heat wave.

Air conditioning repair companies were doing a land office business. Bank managers resorted to putting blocks of ice in front of electric fans to “cool off the girls” in the drive-thrus. The local Coca-Cola bottler reported that soft drink sales were up 35 percent.

The weather page in the Birmingham News wistfully noted that it was midwinter in Australia.

The toll was beginning to rise across Alabama. At least four deaths had been reported so far. Before it was over, at least 120 Alabamians lost their lives to heat related illnesses. 200,000 chickens also succumbed to the extreme heat.

The June-September 1980 Heat Wave is the first billion dollar weather-related disaster in U.S. history. Damage to agriculture and related industries was estimated at $20 billion. The sweltering weather claimed the lives of over 10,000 Americans.

The Rapid City Flood

| 10:00 am June 9, 2014


On this date in 1972, the Rapid City flood devastated much of the South Dakota city. The disaster occurred after the Canyon Lake Dam failed in the wake of 10-15 inches of rain, sending a wall of water down the already swollen Rapid Creek at 10:45 p.m. Frantic evacuation orders were issued at 10:40 p.m., giving precious minutes for people to flee.

A total of 238 people died.

Canyon Lake is dammed once again and now the flood plain is a series of parks, golf courses and bike paths, which should minimize damage from future floods.

Nationally, the 1970s were the worst decade for flash floods in U.S. history. Devastating floods struck Buffalo Creek, WV (125 fatalities), Big Thompson Canyon, CO (145 fatalities), Johnstown, PA (76 fatalities), Toccoa Falls, GA (39 fatalities) and Kansas City, MO (23 fatalities), as well as the Rapid City Flood.

Flash floods killed an average of 127 people each year in the United States between 1972-2001. Improvements in forecasting and warning have been effective in reducing the death toll since then. No single flash flood has killed more than 100 people since 1980.

Between 1984-2013, that 30 year average dropped to 85 and the ten year average is now down to 75.

Remembering the Greensburg EF5 (2007)

| 9:36 am May 4, 2014

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 strong 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.

I was manning the blog on the evening of May 4, 2007 as events unfolded in Kansas. Here is a post as the tornado approached Greensburg.

I was manning the blog on the evening of May 4, 2007 as events unfolded in Kansas. Here is a post as the tornado approached Greensburg.

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 it’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.

Alabama’s Deadliest 1991 Tornado was an F1

| 12:14 pm March 29, 2014
From The Tuscaloosa News

From The Tuscaloosa News

Hoyt Watts awakened around 5:35 a.m. on the morning of March 29, 1991 in his home on Highway 21 in Mumford in Talladega County.  It was storming outside.  Storming bad.  The wind was roaring loudly and lightning was flashing as thunder sounded continuously.  He looked out the window and could not believe his eyes.  A mobile home was flying through the air.  Airborne.  Sixty or seventy feet in the air.  As he watched in shock, the trailer home exploded in midair.

It was the mobile home of his son Ronnie.  He dressed frantically and rushed to search for his son and his family.  Ronnie’s wife Lisa and their sons had been at home.

They found Lisa dead, blown about 75 yards, with her one of the children in her arms.  Over a quarter of a mile away, they found Ronnie’s body with the remains of the mobile home.  The other son was critically injured, but died later.

How could it have happened?  Ronnie knew that mobile homes were vulnerable to high winds.  He had taken extra care to tie down their home with steel straps, as was the recommendation.  But the tornado snapped those straps and sent the trailer flying like a crumpled ball of aluminum foil.

Four people died in this one home.  A fifth person died in another mobile home.

When the National Weather Service did the storm survey, it was hard to imagine this would turn out to be the deadliest tornado of the year in Alabama.  The tornado was only on the ground for one mile and had a path width of just 300 feet.  But it found eight mobile homes with deadly accuracy.  In addition to the five fatalities, there were 13 injuries. 

Perhaps the most amazing fact was that the tornado only attained an F1 ranking.  This serves as a powerful reminder that even small, weak tornadoes can kill…

Twenty Years Ago Today…

| 6:18 am March 27, 2014

A series of severe thunderstorms and tornadoes moved across Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. These storms accounted for injuries to at least 422 persons, including 47 fatalities. Here in our state, the biggest tragedy was an EF-4 tornado that destroyed the Goshen United Methodist Church building during the morning worship service. Twenty people died inside the church, all part of an Easter drama that was in progress that Palm Sunday morning. Ten of those who died were children, including four year old Hannah Clem, the daughter of Pastor Kelly Clem.

A tornado warning was issued 12 minutes before the church was hit, but they never heard the warning. Another reminder that every church in Alabama must have a NOAA Weather Radio.

Below is a special put together ten years ago by Bill Castle of ABC 33/40 that looks back at this horrible day.

1941: One of America’s Greatest Blizzards

| 10:00 am March 15, 2014


Many people were enjoying a Saturday night out on the town on this date in 1941. It was a chance to get away from the ominous news out of Europe. Nazi planes were again bombing England. The Brits had landed 100,000 troops in Greece. President Franklin Roosevelt was speaking to the nation that evening at 6:30 p.m. in one of his Fireside Chats about providing $7 billion to aid the Allies.

The weather forecast for Bismarck, North Dakota was for snow and colder overnight with a predicted low of 10F. But a forecast of snow is unremarkable in that part of the country. Snow doesn’t faze them. But there was much more than snow in the offing. It would be one of the greatest blizzards in American history.

Across North Dakota and Minnesota, temperatures dropped 20 degrees in fifteen minutes in many places as arctic air moved in. The fast moving storm brought 50 mph sustained winds to a wide area and 85 mph wind gusts were recorded in Grand Forks. White out conditions were recorded as what would be known as the “Ides of March Blizzard” raged.

The high winds blew the snow into seven foot high snow drifts. Some twelve foot drifts were recorded in North Central Minnesota.

The powerful low pressure system early on the morning of 16 March 1941.

The powerful low pressure system early on the morning of 16 March 1941.

Thirty nine people died in North Dakota alone with another thirty two perishing in Minnesota, making it one of the deadliest storms on record in the region. A total of 151 people died in the storm.

Changes in how the U.S. Weather Bureau handled forecasts came about as a result of the storm. Critics rightfully claimed that forecasters in Chicago were more concerned about their local conditions than they there were about those in areas that were impacted by the storm. As a result, local offices were given more autonomy in issuing warnings.