On April 27, 2011, roughly 200 tornadoes tore across the Southeast. The severe weather threat for our region began during the early morning hours of April 27. A squall line, or line of thunderstorms, organized over Mississippi and moved into Alabama early that morning. More than 75 tornadoes occurred, five of them EF-3 intensity.
A bow echo, or intense bowing shape of storms on radar responsible for strong winds, merged with the squall line to produce 10 of 31 tornadoes over Alabama. Research shows that another small-scale feature called a mesoscale vortex, formed within the squall line too, which led to 18 additional tornadoes. Three of those 18 reached EF-2 strength. This mesoscale vortex in Alabama was responsible for producing an EF-2 tornado in Cullman County and a weaker tornado in Marshall County.
By midday, another squall line moved through North Alabama. Seven weaker tornadoes were observed in north-central Alabama. Significant power outages occurred across our region due to the first two rounds of severe storms.
In the afternoon, supercell, or rotating thunderstorms began developing across Alabama. The majority of the large tornadoes from that day came from these types of thunderstorms in the afternoon hours.
In northern Alabama, three EF5 tornadoes tracked through the area that day. One destructive EF5 tornado ripped through multiple counties in both northern Alabama and southern Middle Tennessee. The worst damage associated with this tornado was near the Hackleburg and Phil Campbell communities; this is where damage associated with 210 mph winds was found.
This tornado was on the ground consistently for two hours producing a nearly 107-mile-long damage path. As the tornado moved into Limestone, the worst damage was located in the Tanner community. There, several well-constructed homes were flattened and debris from homes was lofted over 300 yards. It was in this location where a narrow corridor of damage was found to be consistent with an EF4 and EF5. The tornado maintained EF3 strength as it crossed into Madison county and weakened briefly before reintensifying before crossing the state border into Franklin County Tennessee.
A second EF-5 tornado moved through Rainsville, Alabama. According to research, this tornado eroded an above-ground earthen storm shelter. This destructive tornado was on the ground for just under forty minutes producing a nearly 34-mile-long damage path. Along this path, extensive damage occurred in the Rainsville and Sylvania communities.
In the Rainsville community, homes were completely removed from their foundation, and debris was scattered about a mile away. The Mount View Baptist Church, a part of the Rainsville community, sustained significant structural damage. This tornado continued into Georgia before lifting near the Cartersville community.
Statistics for the State of Alabama
The 2011 outbreak impacted 26 states, but Alabama was hit the hardest. 62 tornadoes ripped through the state of Alabama, of those 19 were violent long-track tornadoes. The 19 violent tornadoes were ranked as EF3, EF4, and EF5, there were a total of three destructive EF5 tornadoes that day. Thousands of individuals were injured and 253 lives were taken by these storms.
For Alabamians, the 18-hour period when the storms were striking seemed never-ending. More than 1,200 miles and $4.2 billion worth of damage were spread across the state. The extent of the devastation was unparalleled with countless homes and neighborhoods either partially or completely destroyed. Although it has been 11 years since this event, it will forever hold a place in the hearts of Alabamians as we remember those who lost their lives that day.
Meteorologist Ben Smith Remembers April 27, 2011
Jerry Hayes and I did a webchat the night before asking everyone’s questions on what was about to come.
Eleven years later, it’s still very emotional. Looking back, it doesn’t seem real. We knew it was going to be a tough day looking at the forecast on the 26th. But for 92 tornado warnings to be issued from the National Weather Service in Huntsville, is truly mind-boggling. Mathematically, it seems impossible. But it was that kind of day. Tornadoes kept coming and they wouldn’t stop. I recall discrete supercells being scattered all over the radar that afternoon. Tornadoes seemed like they were almost ‘everywhere.’ I have never in my career had to track so many tornadoes at one time. These weren’t ‘doppler radar indicated’ either. These were large tornadoes that were on the ground at the same time. That was the tough part. We had two EF-5’s in one day.
Then reflecting on who we lost. It’s one thing to have a number, but when you put faces and stories behind the ones we lost, that was tough. We lost many….even little ones. I got to meet one of the families that lost loved ones. It was a difficult moment. I lost many tears scrolling through photos of the lost. We’ll always remember them and their families as they continue on.
We all have tough times. We all have pain and suffer. There is always a bigger plan and a bigger purpose. Technology and the warning system continues to improve. Apps, NOAA Weather Radios, advanced storm shelters, etc. are a few of many sources to keep us safe. We are learning more and more on the dynamics of severe weather. Lives are being saved each event because of that research and advances in technology increasing that lead time. Maybe one day, in our lifetime, with all the technology and advancement, we can save everyone. I truly believe this is possible.
After the Storm
The damage was truly incredible. Here are some photos from live shots I did in Harvest and Arab.