It’s been eight days since a swarm of more than three dozen tornadoes wrought havoc in the Deep South, killing 23 and razing the ground bare in many areas. Among them were twin funnels, roaring through Lee County, Ala., barely an hour apart.
The first – a deadly EF-4 tornado that was at times a mile wide – touched down at 2 p.m. just northwest of Society Hill, Ala. It spent a half-hour tearing along before crossing into Georgia, ravaging Muscogee, Harris and Talbot counties in that state.
National Weather Service offices in Alabama and Georgia divvied up the damage track, surveying different parts and calculating that the wedge tornado was on the ground for an astonishing 1 hour 16 minutes. The path of destruction left in its wake was some 68.8 miles long.
But a second wasn’t far behind.
Society Hill had it the roughest. The lead storm triggered a tornado warning at 1:58 p.m., the tornado hitting six or seven minutes later. As the vortex grew and mowed down homes to the east, the Weather Service trimmed the warning and dropped it from Society Hill at 2:15 p.m.
But things changed in a flash.
Another tornado warning was issued for Society Hill at 2:24 p.m., just nine minutes later. A tornado touched down about 15 miles to the west-southwest in Mount Andrew at 2:29 p.m., screaming east and slamming Society Hill within 20 minutes.
“We knew a large tornado had already moved through and there was going to be a huge response,” said Chris Darden, meteorologist in charge at the National Weather Service in Birmingham. “With another threat incoming, we had to make sure we were in constant contact with emergency response to let them know what was happening. That’s what we did last Sunday.”
“At 2:44 p.m., a confirmed tornado was located over Society Hill,” wrote the National Weather Service in an updated tornado warning bulletin issued to residents in the second storm’s path.
“It’s challenging to balance responding to a deadly event with safety when there’s another life-threatening one about to happen,” Darden said.
Officially rated an EF-2 with 115 mph winds, the funnel whirled “roughly [parallel to] the path of the previous EF-4 tornado, about a mile or so to the south,” according to damage surveys. Its width approached three quarters of a mile, equal to nearly a dozen football fields end-to-end.
But how rare is it to have two significant tornadoes impact the same town within an hour?
“Honestly it’s not that unusual in these bigger events,” Darden said.
“Sometimes we have what are called satellite tornadoes spin off a larger EF-4 or EF-5 tornado,” he explained. “That’s not what this was.”
Instead, two separate storms each acquire the spin needed to drop a twister, tracking over the same areas in short order. “An environment that supports violent tornadoes oftentimes has the conditions needed to spawn several,” Darden said. “And if there’s some sort of boundary, the storms can ride along it.” It’s like rail cars riding along a train track.
It’s not the first time that something of the sort has happened in Alabama.
The Yellowhammer State has seen a number of record-setting tornado outbreaks, surpassing in several instances what the more traditionally-known Tornado Alley endures. One outbreak in 1974 dropped 174 tornadoes over the lower Ohio and Tennessee Valleys, including 7 EF-5s. More recently, a three-day-long outbreak from April 25-28, 2011, spun up 360 tornadoes, killing a whopping 268 in Alabama.
“The same trailer park was hit by two EF-5s within an hour back in 1974,” Darden said, referring to Lawson’s Trailer Park in Tanner, now called the Swan Creek Community. That’s in Limestone County, about an hour west of Huntsville. The same town was hit by another EF-5 during the 2011 outbreak.
“And about 60 to 90 minutes after that one passed through, two EF-1s followed it,” Darden recalled. “And one of them clipped the trailer park.”