April 2011 – the Hardest in My Profession

Posted by: Jim Stefkovich, Meteorologist, Birmingham, Ala. National Weather Service

When the majority of your entire 30+ year career stretches between Georgia and Texas, you unfortunately see a lot of damage, destruction and death from severe weather.  You see so much of it that it can become numbing, humbling and saddening.

Still, nothing prepared me and National Weather Service (NWS) Birmingham for the events of April, 2011 and the weeks that followed.  The story actually begins on April 15, 2011, when 45 tornadoes occurred across Alabama along with 7 fatalities.  As a state, we all were still recovering when we realized a major and devastating outbreak of tornadoes would occur during the last week of April.

For almost a week prior to April 27th, NWS Birmingham, as well as other NWS offices, predicted this significant weather event, and by April 25th, provided numerous products and services forecasting the potential for several waves of severe weather, including violent, long-track tornadoes.  Some of these services included working with local TV stations and conducting radio interviews, numerous Emergency Management briefings on the statewide 800 MHz radio system, and providing high impact web graphics and multimedia presentations.

Within the office, plans were made to provide extra staffing on the 27th from 4 AM through the end of the event, as well as provisions for storm damage survey teams in the days after the event. The office electronics staff and Information Technology Officer (ITO) were also scheduled strategically to ensure any problems with communications or computer systems could be addressed and resolved as quickly as possible.

As a result, prior to the most intense activity on the afternoon of April 27th, key decision makers and the general public alike were alerted to the potential for a significant severe weather outbreak.  Based on information and forecasts provided by our office, numerous schools across the County Warning Area were either closed for the day or closed early, and Government agencies and businesses closed early.  By mid-morning, Governor Bentley signed a declaration of emergency in anticipation of the expected outbreak, and the Alabama State Emergency Operations Center was activated at the same level as a landfalling hurricane.

Shortly after midnight on the 27th, the first of three waves of tornadic storms occurred.  Another wave around noon.  Then the final wave during the late afternoon into the late evening.  Almost 20 straight hours of severe weather with 62 tornadoes.  Over 250 souls lost, with hundreds more injured.  Incredible, widespread damage.  109 total tornadoes in April alone, which exceeded the all-time record for an entire year!

At the NWS Birmingham office, everyone knew the stakes on April 27th.   We were focused and driven to put out the best warning and additional information to everyone.  As the third wave unfolded and it became apparent that multiple tornadoes were on the ground and people were dying because of them, some of the staff were overwhelmed with emotion and needed to be relieved for a few minutes to regain composure.  And, they did.  We became even more focused until the entire event ended.

For months after April 2011, before every severe weather event, numerous people would ask how the upcoming event would compare to the 27th.  I told them that comparisons were impossible, but just one straight line wind event, one tornado or one flash flood causing death and destruction is their and your April 27th.

You see, we at the National Weather take our role of providing life-saving information very seriously.  I get great satisfaction knowing I helped someone, and am greatly saddened when people don’t bother or care to know about impending danger. Our best forecasts and warnings mean nothing if YOU don’t do something with this information.  So, please join us.  Take this week to learn about the threats.  Learn how to receive hazardous weather alerts and updates.  Finally, develop a plan to protect yourself and others before hazardous weather strikes.  The life you save may be your own!

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