On April 27, 2011, the Southeast was in the midst of a historic severe weather outbreak that spanned eight states over three days. Meteorologists referred to the event as a “super outbreak” — terminology reserved for the deadliest and most destructive tornado outbreaks on record.
Three-hundred twenty-four people died in tornadoes during the outbreak, 238 of which were in Alabama alone. April 27 ended as the deadliest tornado day on record in 86 years, since the tri-state tornado outbreak of 1925, when more than 700 people were killed.
More than 350 tornadoes were confirmed in the 2011 super outbreak, one of which was a deadly EF-4 that devastated parts of Tuscaloosa, Ala., on April 27.
The monstrous supercell thunderstorm that produced this tornado lasted an astonishing 7 hours and 24 minutes, and traveled 380 miles, from eastern Mississippi to northeast Georgia, dropping several violent tornadoes on the way.
“This will be a day that will go down in state history, said James Spann, a well-known and loved TV meteorologist in Birmingham, Ala., as he watched the ominous, EF-4 tornado take shape on camera, “and all you can do is pray for those people.”
According to the storm survey from the National Weather Service, as many as 65 people died in the Tuscaloosa-Birmingham tornado alone that day, and 1,500 people were injured. The tornado grew to a mile and a half wide as it tore through Alabama. Its 190 mph winds destroyed 4,700 homes and scoured the bark from trees, leaving stumps in its wake.
In a special interactive project from Independent Lens and The Washington Post, filmmaker Andrew Beck Grace relives the days that changed his life and town forever, and the weeks that followed after the storm passed.
“Dear future disaster survivor,” the powerful story begins. “What you will feel is something others have felt before, and still others will feel in the future. I hope I can offer instruction and comfort or at the very least, a distraction.”
We hope you will take a moment to experience the storm from one survivor’s perspective.
Editor’s note: This story and interactive was originally published in 2015 for the four-year anniversary of the outbreak.