7 Years Later: A look back at the April 27, 2011 tornado outbreak
It's been 7 years since that devastating day in 2011. A day none of us in the Tennessee Valley will ever forget. My blog post takes a look back at the day before the storms struck and the days that followed.
7TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE APRIL 27, 2011 TORNADO OUTBREAK
On the night of April 26th, 2011, I was having dinner with my family. My wife knew that I had been concerned for days about the upcoming weather pattern for the next day. She asked me, "What does your gut tell you?". I told her, "It's the same as I felt the day before Hurricane Katrina.....this system could be very bad". She knew I was serious. When I worked in Mobile, AL, she and my sons had to evacuate north 3 times in one year due to the strong hurricanes of 2004-2005. Hurricane Katrina being the worst. She knew that we could not really evacuate for something like this. So, we spent the length of our dinner discussing the safety plan for our house and made sure my sons were clear on what to do. Likewise, the bulk of my broadcast time that Tuesday night was spent urging viewers to do the same. Be Prepared and Stay Alert!
Meteorologists can get a gauge of the "potential" energy within a developing storm system by looking at various computer model indices. One such equation or index is called the SWEAT index which stands for "Severe Weather Threat" index. It takes into account the stability of the atmosphere and the wind profile. A SWEAT index of over 400 means that supercell storms are likely with some that could produce strong tornadoes. The projected SWEAT index for April 27th was 527! I had never seen this before. Two different computer model runs on April 26th yielded totals above 500. I then emailed my boss, Tom Henderson, to give him a brief on my thoughts for the next day. I told him exactly what I told my wife..."I have never seen anything like this before locally and it could be very bad". I closed the email with this quote..."I hope I am wrong". If there was ever a forecast when I wanted to be wrong, it was this one.
The next day saw our weather team stay on the air continuously for nearly 18 hours. Only having a short 15 minute break after 1pm. Bill Race had done a tremendous job during the morning hours. It was like watching an aerial assault unfold. A conveyor belt of supercells constantly moving in from the southwest. I cannot tell you how many times we said "hunker down" or "get to your safe place"....for you can never say it enough in this type of situation. Jason Disharoon and I spent those long hours analyzing those storms right down to street level to be as detailed as possible on what areas could be affected. Often times there would be several warnings in effect at the same time. Our newsroom staff likewise worked the same long hours gathering information from across the viewing area. Some out in the elements covering the damage as storms continued to move through. I should also add that our Morning Meteorologist Brian Smith was at another local station during the 2011 storms. Likewise, he was providing marathon tornado coverage to viewers.
At 6pm I sent a text to my wife urging her to get to the basement as yet another supercell was sprinting toward downtown Chattanooga and our house on Missionary Ridge. I received a reply from her stating..."OK, we are in the basement". 30 minutes later, Tom Henderson motioned for me to step off camera and for Jason to take over. Tom told me that he had just received a phone call from my neighbor that a tree had struck our house. I knew immediately which tree it was. It was the huge oak tree in my neighbor's yard that had a natural lean toward my house. I immediately called my wife and with each ring I kept saying "pick up...pick up...pick up". She finally answered in a chipper voice and said "hey". I said, "are you all ok?". She assured me that they were fine, but she knew nothing about the tree. They had heard nothing. I asked her to take a look upstairs and upon getting there she confirmed that the tree had indeed sideswiped the house puncturing the roof. She said that the house was still fine, but leaking. I wanted to go home and check on them, but she told me that they would be okay and to keep broadcasting. It was a brief sense of relief, because I knew that the storms continued to rage and lives were at risk.
It was truly painful watching these monster storms roll over our local communities. We kept pleading for folks to get to safety and take these warnings seriously. With each passing storm we were getting the dreadful news of damage and injuries. And, it only escalated through the night. The last Tornado Warning expired shortly after midnight. We then broadcasted our normal 11pm newscast at that time. I sat at the news desk with Kim and Calvin. We rolled on some raw video of the damage in Ringgold. They both asked me my thoughts. I simply could not speak. Emotionally drained and tears welling up, there were just no words. Taking a deep breath and gaining my composure I had to get right back to the task of discussing the current radar trends and detailing when all the storms would end.
Our marathon storm coverage ended after 1am. Time was still spent updating our web site and making sure every square mile of our viewing area was out of danger. I was finally able to go home around 2am. It was a silent drive home with periods of trembling lips and tears. I arrived home to a dark house because of no power. Everyone was asleep in the den so as to stay together. I just sat there in the dark watching them all sleep. For as thankful as I was for their safety, I felt guilty. I knew that many others were not as fortunate. I never slept.
People often ask me what it was like during those long hours of broadcasting that day. It's a question that is very hard to answer. Yes, the hours were long and it seemed the storms would never end. It was an emotionally stressful day as you can imagine as we all felt that way. It was challenging because so many people were losing power, so we had to explore every avenue possible for people to receive storm warnings (via radio & smart phone). But, in the end, it was sad. One of the saddest days of my life. You have probably heard the term "heavy heart". Mine felt like an anvil. People in my hometown area had suffered a devastating blow. Some lost their homes, while other lost their lives.
From time to time people will tell me that what we did April 27th saved lives. While I appreciate those comments I am still reminded of those that did not survive. How can our coverage be better? That is a question I challenge myself with constantly. For as much technology we have available, we can still be better. One of the most important ways is making sure people are receiving storm warnings. As I mentioned earlier, the massive loss of electrical power on April 27th was limiting how some people were receiving warnings. Without a TV, cell phone or radio, some were left without a source of information. Storm sirens are scarce locally and should only be used as last resort. Having a NOAA weather alert radio is something I have highly recommended for years. Just days after the tornado outbreak the StormTrack 9 Team began a campaign of traveling to communities across the Tennessee Valley promoting the use of these potential lifesaving radios. Thanks to a partnership with Midland Radios, we have placed thousands of new weather alert radios in homes locally. A portion of the proceeds has also gone to local charities for tornado relief. Our use currently of social media like "Facebook Live" during storm situations has become a vital tool to getting more information out as storms occur. As I tell everyone, we cannot control the weather, but we can control how we react to severe weather and being better prepared.
Seven years later, we will still never forget. I will never forget seeing the damage first hand as we toured the area. I will also never forget the resilient spirit of my fellow hometown friends and neighbors. Those who came armed with chainsaws and volunteered countless hours to clear trees. Those who cooked hundreds of meals. Those who helped rebuild. On April 27th, we witnessed the worst in weather. On April 28th, we saw the best in humanity. And we still do today.
(Brian Smith with Graphics)