Tornado Catastrophe: The Modern Super Outbreak

UntitledLast week’s twisters that hit the south are something I hope to never witness again. Whether it be the incredible loss of human life, or the millions (possibly billions) of dollars in property damage to the region, the effects of this storm system will be felt for years to come.

When I first learned about Wednesday’s events, I was preparing for my final day of Emergency Medical Technician class. I was completing training that I took to prepare for incidents like this.

But on this day, I felt a great deal of fear. How could anyone prepare for this? I watched live, as a mile-wide tornado went right through Tuscaloosa, Alabama on national television. It was destroying everything in it’s path. I knew, almost certainly, loss of life was occurring and wanted to rush to the scene and help.

As a storm chaser, I’ve seen storms this large and this violent. I’d seen the last EF5 tornado that occurred in 2008, but to me this storm was worse. It was worse; not in severity, not in size, but in the fact that it was destroying so many urban myths that people claimed protected them from a violent twister.

The thunderstorm that was causing that strong and unforgettable tornado broke all the rules. It moved up and down hills, it crossed rivers and lakes, and according to the National Weather Service, the vortex was on the ground for 80 miles without lifting and was moving at over fifty miles per hour. Nothing anyone said, or did, could stop the loss of 2ihm90hlives…

Modern scientists and emergency planners will most likely pour over data from this day for years to come. Why did so many die? Why did the tornado not weaken? Why did so many other violent tornadoes happen at the same time as the one in Tuscaloosa?

There are many questions to be answered. While we wait for the experts to rule, I did my own assessment of the damage earlier this week in Georgia and Alabama.

Heading South

Rinngold-tricycleI flew into central Georgia on Sunday afternoon. The first town I visited, hit by last week’s storm, was Ringgold. I met with several of the local residents. We traveled through a dense commercial district, which lies directly adjacent to Interstate 75. Entire businesses were damaged beyond repair. A McDonalds, Ruby Tuesday, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, Carl’s Jr. and Quality Inn and Suites were all gone.

Located in the rugged terrain of northwest Georgia, I was surprised to see such severe damage. One resident said the town didn’t have tornado sirens and I didn’t recall seeing any while I was there.

The intensity of the storm was fierce and did not spare anything, including local schools in Ringgold. What happened outside of town was even more horrifying. Four miles to the northeast, at the intersection of Cherokee Road and Friendship Road, we came across piles of rubble, which had been single- family homes. Personal tragedies were very evident here. On one property a pink and purple tricycle, still intact, was sitting in the grass next to where a house used to be. A female sheriff deputy said the worst damage occurred here.

Entering Alabama

Piedmont-churchAfter spending most of the previous day in Rinngold, day two was spent in Alabama. This day we followed the track of the Tuscaloosa supercell. We followed it all the way from the Alabama border to northern Birmingham.

We started this day surveying damage to power lines and trees on the Georgia-Alabama border. Significant structural damage was not noted until we reached the town of Piedmont.

In Piedmont, the worst hit area was again very rural. As we rolled up on a clear area of trees, I noticed one badly damaged commercial building, which was later identified as a church. The entire structure collapsed, with only a single wall and two porcelain toilets left standing.

Not far from the church, tractor trailer trucks were flipped, and some vehicles were so badly damaged you couldn’t identify the make or model.

More family homes were also destroyed, and in this case I didn’t inquire about the loss of life. I did not want to find how many more didn’t make it out here.

PiedmontThe trend of leveled buildings continued throughout our day, and if I were to write about every structure we encountered I would run out of room on this page. We did, however, see structures damaged in some very unlikely places.

Fifty miles northeast of Birmingham, there is a body of water called H. Neely Henry Lake. The lake stretches great distances from north to south and is a very noticeable and geographically evident feature in this area.

As we approached the lake, there was very little tornado damage besides broken trees. However, when we finally reached the lake’s eastern shores along State Highway 77, homes were again leveled. These weren’t any ordinary homes, they were large lake-front properties which appeared to be built well, and protected by the waters and hills that surrounded them. Water and natural land barriers did nothing to stop the tornado’s strong winds.


Birmingham7We completed our work at H. Neely Henry Lake and headed for Birmingham. This was my last stop on the trip, as earlier plans to visit Tuscaloosa fell through due to time constraints.

We reached an area along State Highway 78 in Birmingham, south of the town of Forestdale. I knew the damage we saw most likely would be catastrophic. News reports indicated the north side of Birmingham was one of the areas hardest hit.

However, when I exited our vehicle and looked out at the first neighborhood, I was shocked at what we saw. Tornado damage in a highly populated urban areas resembled what many would call a “war zone.” I could see nothing but roofless structures and debris as far as the eye could see. As night fell, pick-up trucks with national guard soldiers carrying tactical rifles patrolled the area. This storm truly was an American tragedy.

To the three-hundred plus people that lost their lives on April 27, 2011: they were not lost in vain. For this storm chaser, emergency responder, and ham radio operator, it will always serve as a reminder to be vigilant when severe weather strikes.

I will keep an extra eye on the sky, and do my best to educate the public about storm safety and keep a heightened awareness. When bad weather strikes, please have a weather radio and pre-designate a storm shelter for you and your family. Tell others about what you have read, and communicate with your families and in your workplaces to save lives.


Zach Sharpe

My name is Zach Sharpe. I am the president and forecaster for the Iowa Storm Chasing Network. You can find me on Twitter @Stormchaserzach and on Facebook at:

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