50 years later: Brent still bears memories of devastating tornado

May 27, 1973, was a red letter day in the books of Alabama severe weather events. A number of tornadoes touched down across the north and central sections of the state that day. The largest and most violent of these would become known as the Brent tornado.

Fifty years ago, an F-4 tornado destroyed 90% of the city of Brent, killing five people. Nearly 200 people were injured along the path of the long-track, violent tornado.  The storm even took out the old National Weather Service office near Brent, where the old radar was once located. The staff at the National Weather Service took shelter in a nearby ditch, which likely saved their lives.

The tornado first touched down just northeast of Demopolis, traveling northeast for nearly 150 miles before lifting near Mt. Cheaha. The tornado damaged Greensboro, Brent, Centreville, Montevallo, Columbiana, Wilsonville and Childersburg along its path.

It was a late spring tornado event, when we typically transition out of tornado season into a more stable summer pattern. But the atmosphere was prime enough to produce one more tornado event before summer would take over.

“My mobile home that I lived in was completely destroyed. When they found it later that night, the walls had blown off and the floor was turned upside down with the wheels sticking up,” said lifelong Brent resident Phil Cottingham.

WVUA 23 News Chief Meteorologist Richard Scott asked Cottingham if the decision to flee his mobile home saved his life saved his life that day.

“Yes, definitely,” Cottingham said. “The good Lord was in all of this. No matter how bad the destruction was, He saved a lot of people that night.”

At the time, Jerry Pow was Brent’s mayor. He was there in the thick of it when the tornado touched down.

“It was like 10 or 12 or 15 trains coming by at one time,” Pow said. “The sound and, of course, debris hitting. There was a large oak tree across from the church, and even though stuff was speeding by it, the old tree just went to twisting like it was in slow motion and made a full revolution and it just laid over with everything just flying by. It seemed to last about two hours, but probably not more than 15 to 30 seconds.”

ABC 33/40 Chief Meteorologist James Spann was a teenager at the time. He said it was the first severe weather event he ever covered.

“There was no power anywhere,” Spann said. “We knew for the few things we could see, this was going to be an upper end, horrible tornado.”

It was the first time he’d seen anything that devastating.

“I was just ending my junior year in high school, so I wasn’t doing weather professionally then, but my hobby was HAM radio and there was an urgent call from Brent for help,” he said. “A couple of friends picked me up and we went right down there. It was a Sunday night, and we got down there probably within an hour of the time it happened, and I will never forget the experience. I had never seen anything like that in my life, and I was 17 years old. The darkness, the human suffering, the smell, the scent of death.”

Jim Oakley was owner of the local newspaper The Centreville Press. He, too, remembers the tornado like it was yesterday.

“It was just turmoil,” he said. “People were standing around looking at each other. Didn’t know where to go or what to do, wondering what was going to happen next.”

Tornado warnings and outdoor sirens existed in 1973, but Scott and Spann said it’s debatable whether or not anyone heard any warnings.

“Looking at it today, it’s a different ballgame,” Spann said. “Now, that primitive radar display we had in 1973, it was hard to interpret. It was just a black and white mess. We now have high resolution images of wind and radar. You can see debris being lofted.”

These days, warnings are available a lot sooner and they’re a lot harder to miss. But many people still miss them. That’s why it’s imperative to have several ways you can get warnings in case of a potential tornado or other weather disaster.

Quality options include smartphone weather or emergency apps that offer alerts or a properly programmed weather radio.

The city of Brent is commemorating the 50th anniversary of the deadly tornado on Saturday, May 27.  There will also be a special service at Brent Baptist Church at 2 p.m. on Sunday, May 28.
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