What Went Wrong?

| May 1, 2011 @ 8:15 am | 31 Replies

Photo taken in Pleasant Grove Saturday...

Experts across the country are asking, “What went wrong?”

In this day of long lead time tornado warnings, wall to wall television coverage, sensitive Doppler radars, computer models, fairly accurate forecasts five days out, Skycams and streaming video from the field, what happened to allow 350 fatalities from a single tornado outbreak?

I invite them all to fly to Alabama, drive to any number of locations from Hackleburg to Phil Campbell to Tuscaloosa to Hueytown to Pleasant Grove to McDonald’s Chapel to Pratt City to Cullman to Ohatchee to Harvest to Cordova to Argo to a number of other places.

They will find tornado damage that was nearly unsurvivable unless you were under ground in a reinforced shelter.

The forecasts were excellent and widely distributed. The warnings were outstanding. People I talked to in the field today were aware and ready. Most were watching the television coverage, waiting for the storms to move into their prescribed safe places.

But, in the center of the path of the EF4/5 tornadoes, they had little chance. If they were just outside the core, it was the luck of the draw. Did the closet survive? Or was it the bathroom? Center of the house, lowest floor is the best choice in a home without a basement. Some chose the wrong house, leaving a house that remained intact for one that was destroyed.

What went wrong? There were so many storms and nearly all of them were producing tornadoes.  Moving fast, at over a mile a minute.  Nearly all of the tornadoes were strong or violent. These tornadoes had an uncanny ability to pick out population centers. That’s what went wrong.

Do you have a story to share from this terrible event? A survival story? A personal tragedy? A close call? A fateful decision? A lesson learned? Please share it here…

Be sure to read Karen Spann’s thoughts after visiting the war zone yesterday…


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Category: Alabama's Weather, Severe Weather

About the Author ()

Bill Murray is the President of The Weather Factory. He is the site’s official weather historian and a weekend forecaster. He also anchors the site’s severe weather coverage. Bill Murray is the proud holder of National Weather Association Digital Seal #0001 @wxhistorian

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  1. craig says:

    I’ve heard a similar sentiment a few times as well. I think people who are asking that question just really do not have any grasp of the power of one of these storms. There was an F5 in OK City in 1999. One local met doing live coverage aid, “If you are in the path of this tornado, you must get underground to survive.” Most tornadoes do not destroy everything… those on the 27th did. I really do not know of anything more that could have been done. The warnings were excellent all day. The TV coverage unprecedented. I’ll say the storms of that morning had NOTHING to do with it (I’ve heard someone say they thought the morning’s storms weakened houses). Simple fact is that there is very little that can withstand 200+ mph winds. Couple that with them hitting so many highly populated areas and the result is ONLY 300+ fatalities. I’m still amazed the number isn’t in the thousands.

  2. What went wrong? It does not take a rocket scientist to answer this question! We had F4 and F5 tornadoes that hit populated cities.

  3. John Knox says:

    Bill, I agree–the “expert” questioners exhibit the typical ready-fire-aim dunderheadedness of 21st-century American talking heads. One difference between this event and others that I do wonder about, though: did the widespread power outages from the early-morning straight-line winds and tornadoes (EF2 and EF3 in Jefferson Co. alone!) play a role in preventing citizens from knowing what was coming? In the Alabama outbreaks that I lived through, I don’t recall having a widespread severe weather event occur 9-12 hours ahead of the main event… for example, the Superoutbreak had multiple squall lines, but not anything out that far ahead. One similarity among many in the 1974 and 2011 events: training tornadic supercells that hampered rescue operations in the immediate aftermath in several locations. That, too, may have contributed to the high death toll, based on what the battlefield folks know today about the “magic hour” for wounded soldiers.

  4. AM says:

    I have to say the NWS does NOT EVER over-hype severe weather systems that come through. In fact, for good reason they tend to forecast with a bit of a “matter of fact” ho-hum type of jargin (sp?). But THIS particular storm system, the NWS and TWC and our local stations (even the smaller radio stations)…all stressed that this was a HIGH RISK tornado weather day. This prompted my internal instincts to take this VERY seriously. I knew that the NWS was serious, not trying to hype. I made plans to travel 50 miles south to a relative who had an actual underground basement. Everyone knows at least someone who has a basement here in Alabama. It’s not like the plains state of TX where not even big mansions have basements. Hopefully next time everyone has that “feeling” that this time is different they’ll follow their instincts and seek sturdy underground shelter.

  5. jeff says:


    The morning convection mcs actually ended up setting up the mesoscale boundaries for the supercell to follow. Changes in the morning track and we are talking about bessemer homewood vestavia mtn brook destroyed.

  6. Rebecca says:

    What went wrong? For the majority of the deaths, you pegged it. However, there is one thing you failed to mention. An attitude like my 82 year old mother-in-law’s that says, “If it’s my time, it’s my time and hiding in a basement isn’t going to change that so I’m not going anywhere.” They’re ready to go, if that’s what happens. That probably only accounts for a small number of deaths, but deaths all the same.

    Lessons learned:
    1. My husband, a firefighter of 27 years, thought you had some lead time to get to a safe place from the time you hear it. He learned you don’t. When you hear it, it’s upon you. Heed the warnings WHEN they come out.
    2. I heard so many say from the 6am storm they didn’t get the warning. I told them they needed a NOAA weather radio. They’re free from your local fire department. There is NO reason not to have one.
    3. The other thing I heard is people said it was a T-storm warning and not a tornado warning. I told them that severe T-storms can and occasionally do produce small spin-up tornadoes. You should heed a severe T-storm warning like a tornado warning.

  7. lynn d currently in chattanooga says:

    I don’t think the question ought to be what went wrong, but what went right… We had 200+ tornadoes hit how many thousands of people and 300 + were tragically killed. Not to minimize the tragedy of the loss of life and injured, but it is simply amazing that when you see the amount of damage and the homes that were obliterated, the loss of life was not higher.

    I know in talking to a few people here, some had no idea of what was coming Truly amazing in this age that some don’t watch the news or the weather, some don’t even care to have TV. Some you can’t reach and warn because they chose not to have a way to be warned, or they just didn’t think it would happen.

    You all, and those in our area here, did the job and did it well. Given the gigantic magnitude of the tragedy, I think those who gave us advanced and fair warning are to be commended for the job they did.

  8. David says:

    We live in Pinson and had no idea this thing was coming toward us. No idea. Normally we can hear the tornado sirens in both Jefferson and Blount counties, loud enough to wake me in the night, but they didn’t go off. I was upstairs working. The wind picked up. Hail and insulation fell. And fortunately, that was it.

    Our power was out. Cell phones were barely working. I could sometimes get texts but we couldn’t call anyone. The sirens failed. My weather radio batteries died during the morning. These things happen to people.

    Our weather was fairly nice all day, so I let my guard down. I should have gone to the car once or twice to double-check the weather reports on the car radio. I knew James had said it would be a terrible weather day, but I just got caught up working and expected the weather radio or the sirens to warn me. When they never went off through the day I thought maybe the forecast had made an unexpected change.

    Lessons learned.

  9. Rob says:

    I am glad you learned a few lessons from this. That means more are like you and have learned from what happened. I know some people just aren’t weather conscious as others but in the springtime when you have even a nominal day of random straightline winds that knock out your power…more attention is warrented to protect yourself and your family. The wind, the humidity, the temp, during the day…even the apparent “clearing” and sunshine returning after a morning storm…this all should be red flags that more may be on the way. A regular radio set to the news stations (not music stations) should be the minimal info system you have on hand. Hand-crank radios are everywhere now and they never need batteries to work.

  10. James (Jim) / Tuscaloosa says:

    @ Craig. That Met in OKC was Gary England.

    I think part of the problem is what James has said many times during coverage is this part of the country has hills and trees obscuring the distance one can see. I do agree and was thinking the same thing that sunshine in th morning/early afternoon hours was “not a good thing.”

    As another local Met said before this even started, people could do all the right things their suppoosed to do but still be killed.

    I had made preperations earlier by moving shoes (for any potential broken glass), my pants w/ wallet after coming in early Wednesday afternoon (not being a fatalist, but prepared anyway), leashes for the dogs, a small weather radio, and the battery/hand cranked radio to an inner bathroom just in case.

    That was all I could reasonably do outside of keeping a “weather eye/ear” all day, being aware of the threat; and short of spending all day in the bathroom.

    As I’ve said here before, my late Mother was notorious for not paying too much attention to bad weather believing when it was her time, it was hear time.

  11. Randy says:

    For those who have been around here a while, even after the morning storms, the air had “that feel” to it. You didn’t need a radio, tv, or cell phone to sense that. I can only remember a couple of times in my life where “that feel” existed….May 27,1973 and April 1974….I wasn’t here in 1998 or in 1977 (Smithfield). For several days prior to the event every media outlet and the NWS had been foretelling of a multiple storm event…..of individual storms and not the usual squall line type event. So even those who lost power or cell service after the morning storms should’ve known that it was only round one. After some of the previous events I mentioned I knew people who would have anxiety attacks and panic whenever it thundered no matter if it was a summer thunderstorm or just a dark cloud loomed. I am afraid that after this event there will be many, many more people that will be affected the same way. Some of them will never get over that and others will take a long long time to do so. After 1974 I felt that there would be another event in my lifetime and it turned out to be so. As a believer in history, I believe this event (being so severe and so widespread) will not repeat itself for another 35-50 years but it will happen again. In this age of cameras, cell phones, multi media, things like this that happen are linked to our conscience forever. April 1974 would have been an even worse memory if all those things existed then. I think we will see a rash of underground shelters being built by homeowners because of the unsurvivability of being in a house hit by an EF3-5 tornado. In 1974 there were no presidential visits to places like Guin or Harvest or Toney. I am not so sure that a presidential visit would’ve occurred this time if large population centers like Birmingham and Tuscaloosa who also had live cameras doing a play by play as it happened had not been hit. There are few pictures from Smithville, Hackleburg, Rainsville, Trenton,Argo, etc. That is why they have been somewhat overlooked in this tragedy. In summation, I feel the psychological damage to people who were directly affected this time is substantial. On the other hand, those who missed the storms and/or have assisted in the cleanup (especially young people) have learned a valuable future lesson. It only takes once. As a golfer, it only took one time being caught on a course during an electrical storm to learn that whenever a cloud approaches (thunder or not) to seek shelter. That is a lesson learned.

  12. Capstone says:

    I heard a guy from the Midwest say that its because we don’t always get tornadoes like they do and that we didn’t know how to prepare for them like they do. I wanted to smack him. We do have tornadoes and we do know what to do. This wasn’t a tornado going through some farmer’s field that you could see from 30 miles away. When you have major population centers, hilly terrain with lots of trees and very long tracked EF4’s and 5’s plowing through the area at interstate speeds, there’s going to be a lot of destruction. I’m honestly surprised that its not a lot higher.

  13. Brian K. says:

    What went wrong, you ask? In a nutshell – COMPLACENCY.

  14. Thomas says:

    I agree with Brian K. – COMPLACENCY. After the first storm that morning I went to the nearest location hit to see if there was anything I could do to help. One of the first things I heard people saying was “I didn’t think it would happen here.”. There are so many out there that have the “it can’t happen to me or my family attitude.” On the second line that came through I believe that so many were without power that they were not able to monitor the weather until it was to late.

  15. Kam says:

    What happened?

    1) There were massive power outages from the morning storms, so many were not able to hear the current situation. I had to relay info over a cell phone to a friend without power when the tornado was heading her way.

    2) Population. If a tornado goes through a populated city versus an empty field….

    3) If a house is BLOWN AWAY by a tornado, hiding in the closet or bathroom probably isn’t going to save you.

    MAJOR KUDOS to those at the station, those behind the scenes, in front of the camera, and everyone donating their time, money and belongings to the recovery effort. What happened is…stuff happens.

  16. sam says:

    One thing wrong is the transition to Digital TV.

    Listen to the radio, many callers did not have visual clues of the storm track and radar. Portable older battery powered analog TVs wouldn’t work.

    Digital Portable TV’s have very bad reception in fringe areas, while the Analog ones would have ‘snow’ but you could see a picture. With power and cable out due to the winds in the AM most were left with radio as their only source of info.

  17. Michael says:


    Those are great points about the analog TVs. I’ve seen hacks on the Internet where people run both the old analog TV and a converter box on battery power. Fortunately for us mere mortals there are small digital TVs that run on battery power too. (I saw one for $100 online.)

    The other big problem you implicitly mentioned is that not a lot of people have a good outdoor antenna setup that receives the newer digital TV (ATSC) signals. Assuming that power goes out, the antenna setup doesn’t need a preamp, and the antenna isn’t damaged, it should work fine being plugged into a battery-powered digital TV. (Having a backup antenna system is a good idea in any case when cable or satellite goes out.)

    On a side note: there’s an emerging technology called Mobile DTV where a smaller version of the digital picture is transmitted along with their larger cousins. This format would be better suited for emergencies once enough stations start broadcasting them and enough Mobile DTV devices start appearing.

  18. Kim says:

    My Grandparents live in Pleasant Grove, and so do I.
    Their house was destroyed and they only had a hallway to lay in. They were thrown in the neighbor’s yard and both survived by a miracle of God! My house was left and others around my house were destroyed and my neighborhoood is gone. God heard our prayers and I just want to praise and thank Him that my family survived and are still here, that my grandparents are still here. I pray for all of the families that lost their lives and everything they had. Only the Lord Jesus can give them peace and comfort. Jesus is the Way, Truth, and Life!

  19. Jay says:

    After personally seeing the damage in Pleasant Grove on Friday, PG and Pratt City on Saturday, and Cordova on Sunday, what went wrong is not the correct question. It is the correct question if you want to cast blame, sale a story, cause a controversy or agenda. Like the man-made global climate change crowd already trying to tie this storm to global climate change. They have an agenda to push regardless of the true facts.
    The damage leads me to say, “how were we so fortunate?” The storms in the morning only heightened people’s awareness. In Cordova, the AM storm ran a tornado through Barton’s Chapel, and the residence did not get out in time. They rode it out. Then the PM storms sent another storm down the exact same path. Two tornadoes down the exact same path on the same day, and the residence had taken warning. Many left or sought shelter in a secure place, and they survived. One family I saw today rode it out in the morning, and they left the afternoon. Their house was completely destroyed. Their bathroom was over 200 yards away in a neighboring pasture. Had they not heard and taken the advice, they too may have been received the same fate or worse.
    In Pleasant Grove, I was helping a gentleman pull his UTV out of his neighbor’s yard when the neighbor returned to try and collect belongings. While standing on the remains of her home, she told me her husband and 2 small children took shelter in their basement under the staircase. The 2 car garage door imploded on them and wrapped the door under the staircase creating a barrier from the remainder of the debris as it came in on them. They walked away without serious injury, and you can see in the image below the only thing standing is the walls, the seal plate, and the staircase.


    I heard this story over 10 times personally in Pleasant Grove. The only remaining part of the house is where the family took refuge, and they survived. Others did not fair so well because there was nothing remaining at all. Whether they took the warning or not, the storm’s fury was too great for their structure. The only way to truly be safe was to not be there at all, but who would have known this storm with this magnitude would hit them directly in time to not be home in a different shelter. But I saw building after building both brick and wood destroyed.
    So, the question for the intelligent outsiders is, “where would you have everyone go as they run outside in a tornado?” Is shutting down businesses, closing schools, giving warnings a day in advance, and telling in all means possible not enough warning?

  20. Angela says:

    I agree. Short of evacuating people to “less tornado prone areas” like a hurricane type situation, the warnings of a “high risk” tornado with 90% chance of a tornado within 50 miles of you…. it doesn’t get more advanced warning than that. This was ALL mentioned well before the AM storms came through. I know, because I watched the weather on the nightly TV news.

  21. Katie says:

    I agree with what one lady said when we should not focus so much on what went wrong. I am also amazed that there was not more loss of life. Have those nay-sayers seen the destruction these tornadoes have caused?! It looks like a bomb exploded!

    Thank you so much to the wonderful weather people who work so diligently to get the warnings out. We were hearing about the possibility of this dangerous weather day 4+ days in advance.

  22. BamaGirl22 says:

    My mother still lives in the house where I grew up in Tuscaloosa, and it is a neighborhood that was hit hard. I was there this weekend working on her house and talking with the neighbors. My mother stayed in an interior hallway and listened as the tornado threw all kinds of hell at her house. Her windows were blown out or broken by debris, her car was blown sideways off the driveway, and a 2 x 4 from someone’s roof is piercing one of her outside walls at an almost 90-degree angle. The house two doors down was destroyed by a huge oak tree, and a house about five doors down completely collapsed and killed three people. My mother made it through fine. So, like Bill says above, right at the core there’s almost no chance of survival; just outside the core, it’s the luck of the draw. After seeing the devastation in Tuscaloosa, I’m amazed that the number of fatalities isn’t much, much higher.

  23. Jason in Helena says:

    Go to northeast Tuscaloosa and you’ll see why so many died. Those people could have done EVERYTHING “right”. Had a battery powered radio, listened carefully and been weather aware, had a safe place picked out in an interior room of their frame house, taken shelter on the warning, and in the face of an EF-4 or EF-5 it simply wouldn’t have mattered. We should be thankful that more didn’t die.

    The NWS will conduct a Service Assessment that will certainly address many of these questions; I look forward to their insights so we can learn for the inevitable next event.

  24. G-->X says:

    I watch your broadcast and read your blog from the West Coast. I grew up in Alabama and still have family throughout the Birmingham and Tuscaloosa areas. I have a heart for Alabama. I have great respect for your knowledge of severe weather and your concern and commitment to the welfare of the public in the event of tornadic activity. I must admit that I am fascinated to watch you describe the events of severe weather.

    As I have watched repeated videos of the tornadoes that struck Alabama last Wednesday, my heart has grown increasingly heavy at the sheer magnitude of the destruction. Psalm 104:3-4 speaks of our glorious Creator’s control over all weather events. So I ask what is God trying to communicate to a people in a land so blessed and that has many comforts on multiple levels not enjoyed by the vast majority of the world’s population? What is He saying to a people who without a doubt has a greater saturation of at least a form of the Christian message than any other place in the world? What is He saying, because He never wastes a single event in human history, especially catastrophic ones? Maybe another way to ask the question is, “How is God displaying mercy by bringing or allowing (which ever word one is more comfortable with) such great tragedy on a state?”

    My own struggles with idolatry have enabled me to think that one great message He is pleading for is a turning away from so many “gifts” and “blessings” that He has poured out upon the people of Alabama as an end in themselves. I speak of things such as hunting, fishing, golfing, vacationing, entertainment, leisure, new technology, college football . . . things which are of so little glory compared to His infinite weight of glory. Could it be that a large portion of Alabama churches have treated Him as a small god when their affections for Him are measured against their affections for so many things He gives them to enjoy? In my own life I have seen this through the years and found it to be high treason against the infinite worth, glory, value, beauty, majesty, and power of the triune God. Could it be that this treason has been committed on a mass scale in Alabama Christianity? Could it be that in the words of Steven Curtis Chapman, God is saying, “Wake up and see the glory?” I do not think that His message is in a condemning tone, but rather in a plea for His creatures to enjoy Him as the fountain of living waters and not create for themselves broken cisterns that can hold no water (Jeremiah 2:13)? If our hearts have grown satisfied with everything in this world instead of the sheer delight of knowing the God/Man Jesus Christ and the perfection of His work on the cross to cancel out the weight of God’s judgment for our sins, would He not be merciful to us in doing whatever it takes to bring our hearts and eyes back to see the magnitude of His infinite grace and mercy as priceless? Is there anything greater than knowing and adoring with the deepest of our affections this infinite Being who “makes the clouds His chariot” and “walks upon the wings of the wind” and holds every single event of human history under His careful watch and longs for us to enjoy His goodness, love, and grace in the person of Jesus Christ above all else?

    So let us lift up our eyes unto the hills and see where our help comes from, it comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth (Psalm 121). Let us cast a full gaze of faith to this great and glorious God as our true treasure through the living Christ who Himself said for us to come to Him and allow Him to satisfy our unquenchable thirst for identity and pleasure (John 4:13-14; 6:35; 7:37-38). As the psalmist said, “You will make known to me the path of life; in Your presence is fullness of joy; in Your right hand there are pleasures forever” (Psalm 16:11). Having grown up in Alabama I know that for many, just as was true of myself, those three blissful pursuits: life, joy, and pleasures; were not found in this all consuming God. The attempt at finding them were in broken cisterns that could not hold water. Many of those cisterns are not wrong in and of themselves; we were just made for God. We were made for a bigger drink, and only God can satisfy that thirst.

    So my deepest prayer, is that many will have their hearts lifted higher to see the glory of God in the face of Christ (2 Cor 4:6). I pray that a fresh and new pursuit of the Living God would break out as a result of such horrifying, mind-staggering tragedy. What true, ultimate comfort can be known in the midst of such enormous loss? Be still and know that He is God.

  25. Cybrdragon says:

    I’m so tired of people blaming tornadoes on God.

  26. Heather says:


    Well said . I can’t even imagine what people are going through right now. Loved ones lost, and some still missing. It’s hard to understand why this has happened, but we know that God will never leave our side.

  27. HRF says:

    How does idolatry trigger tornadoes? That’s ridiculous.

    It was a horrific, random event that has hurt and killed a lot of people. Regardless of what they believe, it’s time Alabama invested in mitigative resources to help people such as hardened bunkers etc and better technology.

  28. G-->X says:

    I did not in the least way intend to undermine the reality of the deep pain that many people are experiencing in light of the recent tragedy. I suppose the timing of the above comments failed to convey the spirit in which it was intended. I do care for these people.

  29. suzan pulliam says:

    I can tell right now that we had no warning! Our weather sirens do not work!! Due to power going out, some people had no idea what was about to happen. A local news station ran a story about it a few weeks before the 04/27/2011 storms-If they would have fixed the problem, it could have saved lives!!!

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