April 8, 1998: F5 tornado kills 32 in Jefferson County

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OAK GROVE, Ala. – 19 years ago today, a violent supercell thunderstorm produced at least three tornadoes across north-central Alabama.

The strongest was an F5 which killed 32 people in and near the community of Oak Grove, a suburb of Birmingham in Jefferson County.

Map showing the separate tornadoes produced by one thunderstorm on April 8, 1998 (Image: NWS Birmingham)

The information and pictures below are courtesy of the National Weather Service in Birmingham.

There were three tornadoes that have been identified as being produced by one thunderstorm that moved across central Alabama Wednesday evening. The first tornado affected Pickens and Tuscaloosa counties, the second affected Tuscaloosa and Jefferson counties, and the third affected St. Clair County.

Pickens and Tuscaloosa Counties

The first of three tornadoes¬†began in extreme eastern Pickens County,¬†just southeast of Gordo, at 7:01 pm CDT. The tornado travelled on an east-northeast track moving into Tuscaloosa County around 7:05 pm CDT. The tornado stayed in a mostly rural area through it’s life span crossing CR 21, moving just north of Lake Lurleen, crossing US 43, and dissipating at Lake Tuscaloosa just south of where SR 69 crosses the lake. The tornado ended at 7:29 pm CDT.

There were no reported deaths and only two injuries in Tuscaloosa County.

This tornado was rated an F3 and had a path length of 17.4 miles. Path width was estimated to be 250 yards wide.

Oak Grove F5 tornado (Jefferson County)

The second tornado produced by the supercell thunderstorm is the most significant tornado to impact Alabama since 1977. It first touched down in eastern Tuscaloosa County at 7:42 pm CDT just east of the Warrior River and moved into Jefferson County at approximately 7:50 pm CDT.

Aerial surveys conducted by the National Weather Service with the help of the Alabama State Troopers Aviation Unit and the Civil Air Patrol determined that the tornado that ripped across west Jefferson County Wednesday night, April 8, an F5 tornado, the most violent tornado that occurs.

F5 tornadoes have winds in excess of 260 miles per hour. The F5 tornado is highest rating for the most violent tornado. The Fujita Scale runs from F0 for the weakest to F5 for the most intense. (The EF-scale did not begin until February 1, 2007).

The tornado track was approximately 30.6 miles long and at it’s widest point was half a mile wide. After first touching down on the east side of the Warrior River in Tuscaloosa County, the tornado crossed into Jefferson County at 7:52 pm moving just south of the town of Scrap, just inside Jefferson County. It traveled east-northeast impacting Oak Grove, Concord, Pleasant Grove, Edgewater, McDonald’s Chapel areas before ending in Pratt City. The storm reached it’s strongest intensity producing F5 damage in the Concord area and the McDonalds Chapel/Edgewater area.

(More: Alabama tornado statistics)

Interestingly, the tornado was on a trajectory that if it had stayed on the ground for an additional two or three miles the high rises in downtown Birmingham would have been affected; four more miles and the Birmingham Airport would have seen the destruction as well.

The latest death toll with this storm was 32, with more than 250 injuries. More than 1000 homes were destroyed and more than 900 homes with significant damage. At the time, it was the seventh deadliest tornado to ever hit Alabama.

The April 8, 1998 F5 is one of only eight F5/EF5 tornadoes to ever affect Alabama. It remains one of only two F5 tornadoes to have ever been recorded in Jefferson County. At the time, it was the strongest tornado to hit Alabama since 1977.

St. Clair County tornado

In St. Clair County, the tornado began just north of Moody and continued on a east-northeast track for approximately 14.4 miles. This tornado was rated as an F2 on the Fujita Scale. Two deaths were reported in St. Clair County, both of them in one mobile home.

This tornado began just west of US 411 around 8:56 pm CDT and almost immediately destroyed the Bethel Baptist Church, a large portion of which was under construction. The tornado traveled through primarily rural, relatively unpopulated areas before dissipating at 9:15 pm CDT after moving through Wattsville.