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Remembering the April 2011 ‘Super Outbreak,’ an unprecedented swarm of tornadoes

More than 320 died in the twister barrage, which featured 15 EF4 and EF5 tornadoes

An EF4 tornado decimated parts of Tuscaloosa, Ala., on April 27, 2011. (Dusty Compton/AP)

A single tornado can be a disaster, destroying homes, ravaging communities and uprooting lives.

When 360 of them touch down in a four-day window across the South, you have a roughly once in a 40- or 50-year catastrophe on your hands. That’s what happened in late April 2011.

Busy tornado season projected across the southern U.S. this spring

This week marks a decade since the “Super Outbreak” of tornadoes April 25-28, 2011, an unprecedented swarm of tornadoes that tore through the South. More than 320 died in the twister barrage, which featured 15 EF4 and EF5 tornadoes, the two highest levels on the 0-to-5 scale for tornado damage. A number of the twisters were more than a mile wide.

The 2011 Super Outbreak marked the most geographically extensive tornado calamity to ever strike the United States, with local, state and federal resources taxed trying to respond to the disaster. It also presented a communication crisis and prompted serious review of how critical weather information is conveyed and disseminated.

“I think the main lesson learned here is that the fact that what we do is not enough; physical science is not enough,” said James Spann, veteran chief meteorologist at ABC 33/40 in Birmingham, who spent 10 hours nonstop on the air that fateful afternoon covering storms as they happened.

The outbreak prompted then-President Barack Obama to declare a federal state of emergency in Alabama, with the president touring damage in Tuscaloosa on April 29.

After the storm: Surviving the April 27, 2011 Tuscaloosa tornado disaster

The makings of an extreme outbreak

On April 23, 2011, the National Weather Service Storm Prediction Center declared a Level 2 out of 4 risk of severe weather for April 25, which marked the first day of the four-day outbreak. Forecasters highlighted the “potential for very large hail, locally damaging winds and a couple of tornadoes.”

The next day, the storm threat was elevated to a Level 3 out of 4 for the 25th, reserved for days with the potential for significant severe weather. “A few possibly strong/damaging” tornadoes were advertised. The 25th arrived, and nearly five dozen reports of tornadoes peppered the map from around Dallas through Arkansas, west Tennessee and southwest Kentucky. It was the first of four days of relentless tornado activity.

On April 26, storms exploded once again across the Mississippi River Valley, with a top-tier Level 4 out of 4 storm threat declared by the Weather Service. Fifty-five tornadoes touched down from near Dallas east into Alabama and Tennessee. Among them was an EF3 in Kentucky. Golf-ball-size hail even fell in New York state, where several tornadoes touched down.

Things only got worse from there.

April 27: A day like no other

Wednesday, April 27, began with violence, and ended with tragedy.

A line of potent thunderstorms with embedded tornadoes swept through in the morning, knocking down Weather Service radio transmitters and power to roughly 1 million people in Alabama. That meant a large portion of the state was unable to receive warnings issued when a more potent barrage of tornadic supercell thunderstorms rolled through in the afternoon. Some believe that was a principal cause of the triple-digit death doll.

“I didn’t understand the morning convection, and how significant that would be,” recalled Spann. “It was mostly a [squall line with wind and tornadoes]. Those are hard to deal with anyway. … I didn’t expect that. We didn’t have people prepared for that.”

Five Alabamians died in the morning complex from a combination of tornadoes and microbursts.

“It was like somebody punched us in the gut,” said Spann, whose station was left crippled. “You had half a million people with no power, infrastructure damaged, cameras out, Internet out. … We went back to programming at 9 a.m., and [engineers] streamed in there and said, ‘This isn’t working,’ ‘This isn’t working.’ I finally said, ‘Guys, time out, I need to know what is working. It’s about to get really rough around here.’ ”

After morning storms cleared, the atmosphere heated up again as the sun emerged and soupy air from the Gulf of Mexico streamed northward. By 2 p.m., tornadic thunderstorms were bubbling up in eastern Mississippi.

“We had the supercell that formed north of Jasper, and I saw the kidney bean shape,” said Spann. “I thought, ‘It’s go time.’ I looked at him [Jason Simpson, the morning meteorologist] and we shook our heads. I don’t think either one of us thought we’d go back to [regularly scheduled] programming for quite some time.”

A swarm of destructive twisters

As the afternoon got underway, it became apparent that the South was dealing with what Spann described as a “generational” tornado outbreak.

Shortly after 1 p.m., a tornado touched down northeast of Jackson, Miss., and eventually grew to EF5 strength as it terrorized Neshoba, Kemper, Winston and Noxubee counties. Winds topped 205 mph, the tornado carving a two-foot trench in the ground and peeling pavement from roadways. Three people died in what was the first of four EF5s that day.

At 1:45 p.m., the Storm Prediction Center issued a PDS, or particularly dangerous situation, tornado watch for most of Alabama, reserved for the most extreme events.

“A classic tornado outbreak situation is developing across much of Alabama,” read the watch, with a “dangerous risk of strong/violent and potentially long-track tornadoes.”

A second violent EF5 tornado touched down near Smithville, Miss., southeast of Tupelo, a little before 4 p.m. The tornado tossed a tractor-trailer the length of three football fields and carried the bumper of another some 1.4 miles, where it struck a water tower.

Yet another vehicle was transported a half-mile before being thrown into the water tower, a discovery that was made by matching red paint and a dent in the structure to the mangled automobile. That tornado killed 23.

An EF5 wedge a third of a mile wide carved a 132-mile path of damage from northwest Alabama, beginning in Marion County, and across the Tennessee River north of Huntsville before entering Tennessee. It was on the ground for more than 2½ hours and destroyed much of the communities of Phil-Campbell, Hackleburg and Mount Hope. Seventy-two perished in the behemoth tornado, which was the nation’s deadliest since 1955. Most didn’t even see the tornado until about 10 to 30 seconds before its arrival, the wedge appearing like a roiling curtain of black looming at ground level.

A fourth and final EF5 touched down in DeKalb County, Ala., killing 25 and crossing into Georgia.

A slew of other violent EF4 tornadoes leveled large sections of Cullman, Tuscaloosa, Birmingham, Cordova and Bridgewater, Ala., the Tuscaloosa-Birmingham storm killing 64. A total of 11 EF4s and 19 EF3s spun up on the 26th, the death toll exceeding 300 across the South and tallying 252 in Alabama.

“Every year I think about the folks who have died,” recalled Spann. “I think about their families, their stories … of what could have been. It’s very motivating to me.”

A historic year for tornadoes

Before the historic outbreak, 2011 started with near- to slightly-above-average tornado activity. There had been 59 tornadoes in February and 115 in March, with one fatality reported in Acadia, La., when an EF2 tornado swept through town March 5.

On April 14, a barrage of tornadoes and severe weather pummeled eastern Oklahoma and Kansas as well as Arkansas before shifting east. Twenty-nine tornadoes struck Alabama on the 15th along with several dozen in Mississippi. The outbreak brought scores more in the Carolinas and Mid-Atlantic on April 16, prompting a rare tornado emergency in downtown Raleigh.

Ten years ago, a swarm of tornadoes devastated North Carolina

Weeks later on April 22, an EF4 tornado hit the St. Louis metro area, striking the airport and peeling off part of its roof. Viral videos emerged from inside the terminal as passengers scrambled to shelter while windows shattered. That year was known as the “year of the metro-nado,” with places such as Joplin, Mo.; Springfield, Mass.; Dallas; Minneapolis; and Louisville affected.

Despite warning, St. Louis tornado caught airport, passengers off guard

A total of nearly 1,700 tornadoes were observed across the country in 2011, including half a dozen EF5s.

While the scars etched into the landscape are beginning to fade, the memories haunt survivors each time skies darken. Spann hopes the lessons learned that fateful day will help save lives the next time an event like this inevitably occurs.

“At some point, somebody will deal with that again,” warned Spann.

This town saw 51 tornado warnings in 10 years