10 Years of Recovery: Chief Meteorologist Explains What Happened That Day

This story is airing as part of WVUA 23’s “Faces of the Storm: 10 Years Later.” Watch it on WVUA 23 at 7 and 9 p.m. April 27, and at 8 p.m. May 1. The show will be available on our YouTube channel beginning April 28.

By WVUA 23 Chief Meteorologist Richard Scott

Let’s go back to April 27, 2011: In one single day, Alabama experienced two tornado outbreaks less than 12 hours apart. The morning round of damaging winds and tornadoes devastated much of our area, giving way to a calm lull period late morning and early afternoon.

Between the morning round and afternoon round of severe storms, Alabama experienced 62 tornadoes. The weakest tornado of the day was an EF0, and the strongest tornado was an EF5. Many tornadoes were rated EF3 or stronger, causing a tremendous amount of damage in Alabama.

The afternoon round of devastating tornadoes shattered records for the number of tornadoes in one day in Alabama history, causing the April 27, 2011, outbreak to jump to the top of the list in rankings. The second-largest tornado outbreak happened a week and a half earlier, on April 15, 2011, when Tuscaloosa was hit by an EF3 tornado.

We have two severe weather seasons in Alabama: one in the spring, which is our primary season, then a secondary season in the fall. April is typically an active month for tornadoes in Alabama. In fact, it’s by far our highest statistical tornado month.

For an active severe weather setup, there are three key ingredients needed for a rainy day to become violent.

One is instability. The warm and moist air serves as fuel for storms. It’s the gasoline the storms feed off of to run in a perfect balance.

Another is some sort of trigger, such as a cold front. Or on April 27, it wound up being a rare southeast dry line.

The final ingredient is wind shear. It’s the increase in winds the higher up in the atmosphere you go as well as the changing of wind direction with altitude that sets the updrafts into rotation.

That day, the ingredients were perfectly in balance. There was an unusual higher confidence with this event because all of our model data was on the same page with these maxed out parameters.

Out of all 62 tornadoes that day, the one Tuscaloosa tornado became personal for me. At 5:16pm, the devastating EF4 took my house from me in just 50 seconds.

I’ll never forget the sounds of people screaming for help and the endless sound of sirens in the area, as rescue personnel tried to get to the scene. We lost power at the TV station, which is the first time that ever happened in the years I worked there.

At the time, we didn’t have a backup generator, so I took off from our TV station to check on my home and arrived about 10 minutes after the tornado hit.

My old house was torn apart, and anything still left inside was covered in mud and insulation. My shop was covered in trees and everything inside was flattened. My dad’s truck was impaled by trees. The only tree left standing had most branches ripped off, and a washing machine was wrapped around the trunk like a blanket.

Scars have steadily faded for most areas, even as the rebuilding process continues a decade on. New and old businesses have rebuilt, and new homes popped up where old ones once stood.

The tornado that changed my life and so many others first touched down in northern Greene County, then quickly traveled northeast for another 80 miles before lifting just northeast of downtown Birmingham.


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