In April of 1998, I was a young lad coming into my own as a freshman at Oak Grove High School. April 8th started as a day like any other, but by the time it was over, thousands of lives were impacted when a violent F5 tornado ripped through western portions of Jefferson County forever changing lives, the landscape, and severe weather coverage as we knew it.
I can remember watching the weather report that morning and the threat that had been outlined. It was one of those events that had been talked about for several days. The words “classic severe weather outbreaks” kept being said. To look outside that morning, my thoughts were to the contrary. It was overcast, but it was warm. I always thought the sun would need to be out destabilizing the atmosphere for this classic severe weather outbreak to occur. However, I have learned a lot in my studies about how upper air features and other severe weather indices can make up for the lack of other severe weather ingredients.
Arriving at school, I can remember a few people asking me about the weather that day, but one person I can remember above all others was one of those teachers that knew how much of a weather fanatic I was then, and still am. He made sure he sought me out that day and said, “I bet you thought there would be a bit more action today”…I responded, “The day ain’t over with yet.” He smiled and went about his business. For some reason I knew the severe weather would happen later in the day.
The 3 PM bell rang and I can remember having a distinct feeling that something big was going to happen that evening. I arrived home and the skies just looked different from anything I had ever seen. It was overcast, but I remember a distinct red tint to the clouds. Not green which is often associated with hail. Not pink that so many times produces snow…Simply it was a distinct reddish tint. My internal barometer was dropping and I just knew it was going to be bad.
I remember taking precautions at home. Growing up, we would always unplug the electronics in the house so that lightning would not “get them.” Luckily, we had learned enough to know that we didn’t need to open the windows to balance out the pressure. James had come to my school several years earlier for one of his talks and said that any debris inside the tornado would take care of the windows before the air pressure got that extreme. I fed our dogs. We had a yard dog that was afraid of thunderstorms. Anytime there was a clap of thunder, he did the craziest thing; he would climb into the dog pen with the other dogs. No joke, he would climb a six foot gate and jump into the pen. I always thought this was crazy so I went ahead and put him in with the other dogs to save him the trouble.
When I finally went back into the house, things were beginning to develop to our west. It was all of a sudden too. The atmospheric cap had broken and severe thunderstorms were exploding across the Alabama landscape. From our home we always watched what was to our southwest and knew that if a tornado was is in the Tuscaloosa area, odds were, and are that it is coming into west Jefferson County.
The storm made its way into northeastern portions of Tuscaloosa County, the part of the state that is extremely rural; most areas are reclaimed lands from the years of strip mining across the area. Living on the county line, we would be the first people affected in Jefferson County. We were watching the severe weather coverage, and I can remember at the time, how impressive the storm looked-classic supercell structure with a hook echo and the v notch. At that point in my life, it was the most impressive one I had seen in Alabama. As the storm approached the western edge of the county, the damage reports from western Tuscaloosa County began to pour in. Since it was a Wednesday night, many people across the state were at church. The first damage report mentioned that people were trapped in a church in the Elrod community. As the storm continued to approach, we began to head to the basement. We were pretty sure it would stay ever so slightly to our west, but it is always better to be safe than sorry. I can also remember that was the first time that Bull City, the community where I lived, was mentioned in the path of the storm. This storm had all those internal weather juices of mine flowing.
As my parents headed to the basement, I continued to stand in front of the TV as long as I could and then the power went out. It was not sudden either; it was a slow fade out; one of the strangest occurrences I can remember from that night. I was being yelled at by my parents to get in the basement, and since the TV was out, I thought it was probably a good time to head that way. After a few minutes nothing had occurred. We turned on our battery powered radio and knew the storm had passed our location and was not going to impact our home. We proceeded to head back upstairs and stood out on the front porch. From the front porch or view is north/northwest. There appeared to be a constant flickering of lightning on the horizon, towards Oak Grove. You would swear someone had a strobe light on that night. The back side of the storm was quite visible as it stretched towards the top of the atmosphere and I could see the impressive storm structure. We stood on the porch about 30 minutes just astounded at the amount of lightning, but there was no thunder that we could hear. As we continued to listen to the radio, the damage reports started to come in. One of the first was that there was damage to Oak Grove High School. To which we thought a tree or two was down, maybe some roof damage, but seriously how much damage could be done to a brick and mortar building?
At the time, not everyone had cell phones and most everyone still used beepers. My brother was working that night in Hueytown and was trying to get home. He got as far as 15th Street Road and Warrior River Road in Rock Creek, to only find out that a house was in the road. Luckily, he had an alternate route home and about the time he got home, another cell was moving out of Tuscaloosa County and we headed back into the basement. It was an intense thunderstorm, with frequent lightning, torrential rain and I even remember some hail. However, another strange thing I remember was that the moon was out as the storm wound down and the skies were mostly clear.
For the rest of the night, as I clutched to our battery powered radio, I was trying to piece together the damage reports and path of the storm. As you can imagine it was a chaotic time, but thankfully our property had just been missed by the worst of the weather. We went to bed not knowing the true extent of the damage. Only the morning sun would reveal what happened the night before.
Come back tomorrow and find out what the sun revealed.