Alabama’s day of tornadoes
Three waves of twisters over nearly 18 hours leave the state with a drastically altered landscape, changed lives and a renewed focus
ALABAMIANS AWOKE to sirens on April 27, 2011. Even months later, with victims still recovering and scars still raw on the landscape, residents struggle to grasp the enormity of the massively destructive weather event known as the 2011 Super Outbreak.
Forecasters knew it was coming days in advance. But they didn’t know — couldn’t have predicted — the murderous fury with which it would strike.
Three different types of storm systems lashed Alabama, spawning three successive waves of tornadoes: in early morning, at midday and from midafternoon until well into the night.
The first attack began a couple of hours before sunrise and lasted a little more than three hours. Twenty-nine tornadoes slashed through Central and North Alabama, according to the National Weather Service. More than a dozen tore into the Lake Guntersville area alone, all within 37 minutes.
At 11:15, the second wave struck, dragging a cluster of seven weak tornadoes through the Athens, Decatur and Huntsville areas. Just 50 minutes later, it too had passed.
The final wave hit hard. Starting at 2:40 p.m. and continuing well into the night, violent long-track tornadoes — including two of the most powerful ever recorded—raked across the northern two-thirds of the state. The strongest, which devastated Hackleburg, Phil Campbell, Oak Grove and several other small towns, stayed on the ground for an incredible 132.04 miles across six North Alabama counties and into Tennessee.
Numbers can never tell the whole story. But as the physical and emotional pain fades, the statistics remain as a permanent reminder of one of the most horrific days in Alabama’s history. They paint a stark picture:
- Sixty-two tornadoes touched down. During all of 2010, only 37 tornadoes struck Alabama.
- Those tornadoes, says the Alabama Emergency Management Agency, killed 248 people. Another 2,219 were injured.
- Two EF-5 tornadoes struck the state. EF-5s, highest on the destructiveness scale, are rare. The entire United States saw only two in the four years from 2007 through 2010.
- Thirty-five of Alabama’s 67 counties suffered tornado damage.
- According to the American Red Cross, 23,553 homes were damaged or destroyed.
- The Alabama EMA estimates property damage at $1.1 billion. Other estimates go higher.
- The tornadoes cut unusually long (1,206 miles total) and broad swaths. Fifteen of Alabama’s April 27 tornadoes left devastation at least 1,000 yards wide. That’s 10 football fields, or more than half a mile.
- If the EF-4 monster that struck Tuscaloosa and suburban Birmingham had been the day’s only tornado, it would have made national front- page news. Up to a mile and a half wide and immortalized in all its malevolent menace on YouTube, it injured 1,500 people and killed 64. In July, the president of the Insurance Information Institute told The Birmingham News that insurers expected to pay $2 billion in tornado damage claims from the Tuscaloosa and Birmingham areas alone.
For several days, the National Weather Service had been noting with increasing concern the unstable meteorological conditions building in the West and South.
On April 23, the Weather Service’s Hydrometeoro- logical Prediction Center warned that “a significant heavy rainfall event is setting up over the middle Mississippi and Ohio River valleys” that would produce “moderate to heavy rain along with thunderstorms.” The message concluded: “Severe weather, including hail, high winds and tornadoes, will be possible within the strongest storms.”
That was the center’s first mention of tornadoes. The Weather Service’s Huntsville office first mentioned tornadoes in a Hazardous Weather Outlook the same day.
On April 25, twisters associated with the weather pattern struck Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Arkansas, Kentucky and Tennessee. On April 26, they hit 11 states, touching down as far east as Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee and even New York — but not in Alabama.
Then came Wednesday, April 27.
The first wave
Alabama’s day of disaster began modestly at 4:01 a.m. in Lauderdale County, at the northwest tip of Alabama. An EF-1 tornado — No. 1 of the day — touched down a mile northeast of Waterloo. It tore a path up to 200 yards wide as it moved northeast along County Road 90. After 9 miles, it entered Tennessee, then lifted less than a quarter mile later. It damaged seven buildings, two docks and numerous trees. Nobody was reported injured or killed.
For the outbreak’s first couple of hours, tornadoes slashed Alabama in scattershot fashion, striking as far north as Lauderdale County and as far south as Pickens and Shelby counties. Then the storms mounted a concentrated attack in the northeastern part of the state on Blount and DeKalb counties and especially Marshall County.
The first wave actually encompassed two simul- taneous but different types of storms. In North Alabama, part of the storm system began rotating into something called a mesoscale convective vortex. In Central Alabama, that same fast-moving front that roared in from Mississippi took the form of a quasi- linear convective system — a squall line.
A squall line can carry tremendous danger from straight-line winds alone. For example, gusts of up to 100 mph damaged numerous buildings, mostly by crashing trees onto them, near Moody, Pell City and Riverside along Interstate 20 in St. Clair County. One person died in Moody and one in Pell City, each when a tree toppled onto a mobile home.
A squall line also often spawns tornadoes. This one generated 13 — Nos. 1-12 and 14.
No. 2 entered Alabama at 4:16 as the day’s first “wedge” tornado. That’s a tornado that appears to be at least as wide as it is tall. A wedge tornado typically begins as a classic funnel cloud. As the funnel reaches the ground, it spreads into a wedge shape.
This particular whirling wedge, more than 1,000 yards across, crossed into Pickens County from Mississippi. Rated EF-1 in Alabama, it stayed on the ground for 22.6 miles, destroying a barn and two silos and damaging a farm irrigation system.
The wave continued, fast and furious:
• No. 3, rated EF-1, came next, touching down at 4:19 near Smithsonia in Lauderdale County. In its brief existence — four minutes, 1.8 miles, a maximum width of 100 yards — it damaged or destroyed two sheds, a travel trailer, a house and a church.
• No. 4, rated EF-2 and up to three quarters of a mile wide, slashed across central Pickens County for 14.4 miles from 4:27 to 4:42. It damaged several homes and outbuildings.
• No. 5, an EF-3 tornado with maximum winds estimated at 140 mph, struck Pickens and Tuscaloosa counties, touching down at 4:41 and tearing a 22.5-mile path that maxed out at 700 yards wide. It damaged a number of homes and other buildings and tossed a 3,500-pound trailer 100 yards.
• No. 6, an EF-1 tornado, touched down at 5:03 in Fayette County. It lasted only eight minutes and 7.3 miles and reached only 175 yards in width, but it caused significant damage to the town of Berry and injured four people.
• No. 7, an EF-3 tornado, touched down in southwest Tuscaloosa County at 5:17. It never exceeded 200 yards in width, but it stayed on the ground for 20.3 miles, damaging or destroying at least a dozen homes in Coaling and causing minor damage at the Mercedes-Benz plant near Vance. It crossed into Jefferson County before lifting.
• No. 8, an EF-3 tornado up to 375 yards wide, hit central Walker County at 5:18, lasting for 18.9 miles and causing 20 injuries. It was the first half of a one-two punch — along with No. 39 — that heavily damaged the town of Cordova.
• No. 9, an EF-2 tornado, touched down at 5:48 and gouged a 30.3-mile path up to half a mile wide across Cullman County. At Hanceville, it damaged several Wallace State Community College buildings, the high school gym, and several houses and other structures.
• No. 10, a four-minute EF-1 tornado that never exceeded 100 yards in width, sliced for 3.4 miles through the Altadena area in northern Shelby and southern Jefferson counties, touching down at 5:50. It knocked numerous trees into buildings, vehicles and power lines.
• No. 11, a brief but destructive EF-2 tornado, touched down at 5:53 in far northeast Jefferson County, tearing a 3.2-mile path into Blount County and across the western shore of Mountain Woods Lake. It damaged a number of boat docks and at least 20 homes, destroying three of them. Three members of a family inside one of the demolished homes were injured.
• No. 12, a fast-moving EF-2 tornado, touched down at 5:54 in suburban Birmingham near Gresham Elementary School in Jefferson County. It took only six minutes to plow 7.8 miles through residential and commercial areas, including Cahaba Heights and Liberty Park, damaging many homes and other buildings. The tornado injured 20 people, and one person was killed during cleanup efforts.
• No. 14, a small EF-2 tornado, touched down for three minutes near Odenville in St. Clair County. It began at 6:16, traveled 3.8 miles and damaged two large brick homes. Brief as it was, the tornado caused five injuries.
Meanwhile, the mesoscale convective vortex — a low-pressure area of circling winds within a larger line of thunderstorms — had developed in North Alabama. David Nadler, a meteorologist with the Huntsville National Weather Service office, described it as looking “almost like a minihurricane on radar.” Shortly after 6 a.m., it spun out a swarm of tornadoes. Most tore through Marshall County around Lake Guntersville. Fortunately, they caused relatively little damage:
• No. 13, rated EF-1, touched down at 6:12 in Blount County and traveled 14.8 miles in 10 minutes before lifting in Marshall County. It damaged several homes and destroyed a number of sheds and barns.
• No. 15, rated EF-1, touched down at 6:20 in Cullman County. It crossed quickly into Marshall County, sending an unanchored mobile home tumbling in Extreme and destroying chicken houses and barns along its 11-mile path.
• No. 16, rated EF-1, touched down at 6:24 along Marshall County Road 14. It lasted for 10 minutes and 6.4 miles, and damaged the roofs of several chicken houses.
• No. 17, rated EF-2, was the largest (up to a half mile wide), longest (20 miles) and most powerful (maximum winds 120 mph) of this cluster. It touched down at 6:30 just west of Lake Guntersville, damaging numerous piers and sheds, tearing off shingles, snapping power poles and uprooting many trees during the 25 minutes before it lifted. The tornado crossed Lake Guntersville twice and damaged the roof of the lodge at Lake Guntersville State Park.
• Nos. 18, 19 and 20, all rated EF-1, touched down in the same area just south of Guntersville almost simultaneously at about 6:30. No. 18 traveled 3.4 miles, tearing off the steeple of Pleasant Hill Church and hurling it 100 feet. No. 19 lasted 4.6 miles, destroyed one chicken house and damaged several others. No. 20 destroyed several barns on its 5.7-mile path.
• Nos. 21 and 22, both rated EF-1, also struck simultaneously, at 6:35. No. 21 hit near the southern end of Lake Guntersville, lasting 4.9 miles, mangling the roof of one house and snapping several trees. No. 22 skimmed the ground for just a third of a mile, starting in the Grant area north of the lake. It damaged one roof and mowed down a few trees.
• No. 23, rated EF-0, lasted two minutes and traveled 2.8 miles. It touched down at 6:43 west of U.S. 431, uprooted a few trees and lifted as it reached Lake Guntersville.
• Nos. 24 and 25, both rated EF-1, touched down at 6:45. No. 24 began near McKee Island and spent much of its 6.9-mile path over water. It hit a marina and crossed Guntersville Municipal Airport-Joe Starnes Field, but caused little damage. No. 25 lasted for 4.8 miles and damaged Lake Guntersville State Park near the entrance and at the golf course.
• No. 26, rated EF-1, touched down at 6:49 and tore across Pine Island and Preston Island for 1.6 miles, knocking trees onto a number of homes.
• No. 27, rated EF-1, touched down at 6:58 just south of Section in Jackson County and lasted until 7:36. It traveled 27.9 miles along Alabama 71 through Dutton and the southern part of Pisgah, where it killed one person. A much stronger afternoon tornado (No. 42) followed almost the same track.
• No. 28, rated EF-2, touched down at 7:10 and lasted eight minutes. It traveled 6.6 miles from Henagar in DeKalb County to Rosalie in Jackson County, demolishing at least three barns and a house in Rosalie.
• No. 29, rated EF-1, touched down at 7:18 just north of downtown Mentone in DeKalb County. It lasted four minutes, carved a 4.1-mile track no more than 50 yards wide, destroyed numerous trees and tore off part of one house’s roof.
At 7:22 a.m., the first wave had ended — all before many people had even left their houses that morning.
The second wave
Almost four hours later, another quasi-linear convective system crossed North Alabama. It unleashed seven weak tornadoes on Limestone and Madison counties and the northwestern tip of Morgan County:
• No. 30, rated EF-0, touched down at 11:15 southwest of Athens in Limestone County. Witnesses said it lifted and descended several times along its 6.7-mile path, causing minor damage before it finally departed at 11:25.
• No. 31, rated EF-1, struck Mallard-Fox Creek Industrial Park in Decatur at 11:20, heavily damaging the Independence Tube plant. Crossing the Tennessee River from Morgan to Limestone County, it snapped trees at Calhoun Community College and knocked out power at Pryor Field Regional Airport in Decatur before dissipating short of Interstate 65. Along its 9-mile path, it never exceeded 75 yards in width.
• No. 32, rated EF-0, touched down at 11:23 and lifted 4.1 miles later. It damaged some signs near Tanner High School in Limestone County.
• No. 33, rated EF-1, touched down at 11:30 south of U.S. 72 at the eastern edge of Limestone County and traveled 25.3 miles to the Deposit community in Madison County. At 35 minutes, it was by far the longest-lasting of this pack of tornadoes. It left many downed trees and power poles.
• No. 34, rated EF-1, touched down at 11:35 in Limestone County near the Magnolia Springs neighborhood and quickly crossed into Madison County. It lasted 3.1 miles and five minutes, knocking down trees and slightly damaging some houses.
• No. 35, rated EF-1, carved the widest path (500 yards) in this wave of tornadoes. It touched down at 11:50 in the Moores Mill area of Madison County, causing tree and roof damage along a 7.6- mile track.
• No. 36, rated EF-0, touched down at 11:55 in Madison County and passed near Buckhorn High School on its 3.5-mile path, damaging trees. Straight-line winds caused additional damage along a swath 2.5 miles wide.
• Nos. 33, 35 and 36 all lifted off at 12:05 p.m., ending the second wave.
The third wave
The third wave sprang from a series of supercells — fierce, rotating thunderstorms. A barrage of intense long-track tornadoes slashed from southwest to northeast across Alabama. Eleven were rated EF-4 or EF-5 at some point. Two tore through Alabama for more than 100 miles.
The wave began at 2:40 p.m. when a massive tornado — No. 37 — touched down in western Cullman County near Lewis Smith Lake. It ripped a 46.9-mile track, tearing through downtown Cullman and destroying a number of retail buildings, two churches and many homes. It continued across the southeast tip of Morgan County near Hulaco and well into Marshall County, flattening trees and structures along the way. The National Weather Service rated it as EF-4, with peak winds of 190 mph and a path of destruction that reached a mile wide.
At 3:05, an even stronger tornado, No. 38, touched down just inside the Mississippi-Alabama line in southwest Marion County. It began at EF-3 west of Alabama 19 near Sipsey Creek. It strengthened to EF-4 north of Hamilton. It continued strengthening as it followed U.S. 43 northeast.
By the time it reached Hackleburg, it was an EF-5 beast three quarters of a mile wide. It tore through several subdivisions. It destroyed Hackleburg Elementary School and High School. It flattened the economic heart of the town, the Wrangler distribution center. The tornado continued to strengthen as it crossed into Franklin County. It wiped out much of the town of Phil Campbell, sucking up a 25-foot section of pavement and scattering chunks of it more than a third of a mile. It was a mile wide and probably at its maximum ferocity as it devastated Oak Grove. It continued through Lawrence, Morgan, Limestone and Madison counties and into Franklin County, Tennessee, smashing chicken houses, power poles, stores, restaurants, vehicles, hundreds of houses and thousands upon thousands of trees.
By the time it reached Tennessee at 5:08, this tornado had stayed on the ground for 118.6 miles, reaching a maximum width of a mile and a quarter and a maximum wind speed of 210 mph. It injured at least 145 people. It killed 72.
Meanwhile, at 3:40, tornado No. 39 touched down in Pickens County, two counties south. This one varied considerably in strength and width along its 127.8-mile track through Pickens, Tuscaloosa, Fayette, Walker, Cullman, Blount and Marshall counties. It peaked at more than three quarters of a mile wide and EF-4 in strength, ripping through Blountsville and already- ravaged Cordova. It heavily damaged the Ferguson Fire & Fabrication plant near Guntersville before lifting at 5:56 in beleaguered Marshall County. The twister injured 54 and killed 13.
The supercell that spawned the twister wasn’t finished. At 6:19, it sent another tornado — No. 50 — to the ground in DeKalb County’s Lakeview community, 22.45 miles from where the previous vortex had dissipated. The path varied in width from just 50 yards to three quarters of a mile. The tornado caused extensive damage to Rainsville and Sylvania and at one point reached EF-5 intensity with estimated peak winds of more than 200 mph. The path length was 33.7 miles (plus 3.1 more miles in Georgia). The tracks of the two tornadoes spawned by this supercell totaled 168 miles.
Meanwhile, at 3:57, No. 40, a tornado from Kemper County, Mississippi, entered Sumter County as an EF-2. It reached EF-3 strength in Pickens County, damaging trees and at least one building and injuring two people along its 16.2-mile path.
Another Mississippi tornado entered Marion County at 4 p.m. It had caused major damage to Smithville, Mississippi, as an EF-5 with estimated peak winds of 205 mph. By the time it reached Alabama as twister No. 41, it had weakened to EF-1. But it strengthened again, reaching EF-3 status as it destroyed several homes and killed six people near Shottsville in Marion County. It continued damaging homes, trees and chicken houses as it ventured for 1.6 miles into Franklin County south of Hodges. In Alabama, this tornado traveled 20.1 miles, injuring 100 and killing seven.
At 4:01, a weak tornado, No. 42, touched down near Section in Jackson County and began following almost the same path as No. 13 had that morning. It quickly strengthened to the top of the EF-4 scale, with peak winds of up to 190 mph. Residents told National Weather Service investigators that two or three funnels merged into one very large tornado, up to a mile wide, that caused incredible destruction in the Jackson County communities of Pisgah, Flat Rock and Higdon. The tornado killed six people in Jackson County and five more as it tore through Shiloh in the northern tip of DeKalb County. At Shiloh, it tossed a van 400 yards into a field. At 4:36, still at EF-3 strength, it moved into Georgia. There, it injured 12 people and killed two. Altogether, the tornado stayed on the ground 46 miles, 27.7 of them in Alabama.
Shortly afterward, two lesser tornadoes raked through Madison County:
• No. 43, an EF-1 tornado, touched down at 4:40 and scraped a 1.4-mile path through Harvest, northwest of Huntsville. It destroyed trees and fences, overturned an RV trailer and damaged several houses.
• No. 45, also an EF-1 tornado, touched down at 4:53 near Interstate 65 in Limestone County. It traveled into the city of Madison in Madison County before lifting off, leaving a 14.6-mile trail of mangled trees and slightly damaged homes.
The Tuscaloosa tornado
In between those two came No. 44, the largest, most devastating of the day’s tornadoes. This EF-4 killer — a mile and a half wide at one point — ravaged Tuscaloosa.
The National Weather Service storm survey report baldly sketches the facts: “This tornado initially touched down in rural northern Greene County and moved northeast through southern Tuscaloosa and western Jefferson counties, where it caused devastating damage consistent with a violent EF-4 rating to portions of the city of Tuscaloosa and western suburbs of Birmingham, before it lifted northeast of downtown Birmingham.”
The tornado’s track extended 80.7 miles. Its winds peaked at 190 mph. It touched down at 4:43 and lifted 91 minutes later. It hacked a diagonal gash 5.9 miles long and half a mile or more wide through the heart of Tuscaloosa. The twister just missed the University of Alabama campus.
According to the City of Tuscaloosa:
• Twelve percent of the city was destroyed and more than 7,000 people became unemployed in less than six minutes.
• Forty-three people died from injuries caused directly by the tornado, and another nine died from conditions related to the storm.
• DCH Health System treated about 1,200 people the night of the storm.
• The tornado destroyed 1,257 houses. Another 4,105 were damaged.
• The tornado destroyed 114 commercial buildings and damaged another 242.
• The city lost a fire station, a police station, a communications tower and the building that housed the Environmental Services Department and the Emergency Management Agency.
• More than 750,000 cubic yards of debris were removed during cleanup.
As it passed out of Tuscaloosa, the tornado damaged boats and a restaurant at a marina. The devastation continued in Jefferson County at Concord, Pleasant Grove, McDonald Chapel, Pratt City, Smithfield Estates and Fultondale. Even as the storm reached Interstate 65, weakened to EF-2 or EF-1 status, it was still a mile and a half wide.
A heart-wrenching May 23 cover story in Sports Illustrated described University of Alabama baseball players searching the wreckage of a Tuscaloosa house where three students had died. The family of one of the victims had asked for help. “There is a white dress that we’d like to have,” the mother had said. “We’d like to bury her in it.” The players found the dress.
The story focused on Carson Tinker, a muscular, 220-pound long snapper for the University of Alabama football team. He and his girlfriend, Ashley Harrison, were huddled in a closet when the tornado tore Tinker’s house apart, ripped Harrison from his arms, and threw the two of them several dozen yards in different directions Tinker suffered a concussion, gashes and other injuries. Harrison’s body was not found until the next morning.
Altogether, the tornado killed 64 people and injured at least 1,500. In August, the University of Alabama awarded posthumous degrees to Harrison and the other five university students who died.
Just 14 minutes after the Tuscaloosa tornado finally lifted and 10.55 miles farther northeast, the same supercell generated another tornado, almost as vicious. Tornado No. 51 touched down at 6:28 in Jefferson County, then crossed Interstate 59 into St. Clair County near Argo. As it moved along Shoal Creek south of Ashville, it rapidly gained strength, reaching EF-4 status with top winds of 170 mph. It roared along Shoal Creek Valley, mowing down acres of trees, damaging or destroying 256 houses and killing 13 people, including seven at an unlicensed assisted-living facility in two mobile homes. Two more people would die later of tornado-related injuries, and seven more perished elsewhere along the tornado’s path.
Winds of up to 180 mph shredded houses and turned trees into stumps. The twister injured more than 80.
As it crossed Neely Henry Lake into Calhoun County, the tornado was a mile wide.
After chewing across Etowah and Cherokee counties, the tornado entered Georgia at 7:45 and blasted through three more counties, injuring four more people. In Alabama, the tornado stayed on the ground for 71.3 miles. The supercell that produced it formed in Mississippi at 2:54 p.m. and dissipated 380 miles northeast in North Carolina at 10:18 Central time, almost seven and a half hours later.
The rest of the wave
Meanwhile, tornado No. 46 hit Jackson County in the northeast corner of Alabama. It touched down at 5:05 and built to EF-4 status before it entered Marion County, Tennessee. The tornado peaked at winds of 180 mph and a path three quarters of a mile wide, destroying trees and several houses. It left tracks of 20.2 miles in Alabama and 10 miles in Tennessee.
Tornado No. 47, rated EF-3, touched down at 5:10 south of Hamilton. It slashed across Marion and Winston counties, leaving major damage in the Pea Ridge, Whitehouse, Thornhill and Haleyville areas, and injuring 25. The Winston Furniture and Fontaine Trailer plants at Haleyville took major hits. The tornado finished its 31.8-mile path — three quarters of a mile wide at its peak — by plowing into the Bankhead National Forest, causing extensive tree damage.
No. 48 knocked down thousands more trees farther south in the Talladega National Forest, in Hale and Bibb counties. It left seven people dead and 50 injured along its 72.1-mile path. The EF-3 tornado, which eventually spread a mile wide, touched down at 5:30 near the Tombigbee River in southwest Greene County, west of Tishabee. It gathered strength as it crossed the Black Warrior River into Hale County, doing extensive damage and causing at least 40 injuries and six deaths northeast of Sawyerville. In Bibb County, it smashed through Eoline, destroying a dozen homes and the fire department, killing one person and injuring at least 10.
No. 49, also rated EF-3, stayed on the ground only 8 miles and, though it reached a half mile in width, destroyed only trees, a house and some outbuildings. It struck at 6:06 in Fayette County, 4.5 miles south of Bobo.
Another supercell spawned three successive twisters across four Central Alabama counties between 6:50 and 8:24:
• No. 52, an EF-1 tornado, sliced for 8.6 miles through Hale and Bibb counties, touching down at 6:50. It damaged a business and a mobile home in Wateroak and many trees in the Talladega National Forest.
• No. 55, an EF-1 tornado, touched down at 7:32 in Bibb County, snapped off several dozen pine trees and lifted 5.4 miles later in Shelby County.
• No. 57, an EF-1 tornado, touched down at 8:15 south of Vincent in Shelby County and traveled 8.6 miles, entering Talladega County and brushing the east end of the Logan Martin Dam at Logan Martin Lake.
Tornado No 53, rated EF-0, touched down for just four minutes and 1.2 miles in Cullman County near West Point, starting at 7:09. It damaged only trees and one porch.
No. 54, in contrast, was a brute that killed seven people and injured another 17 across two states. It started in Mississippi, where it reached EF-4 intensity. At 7:10, it moved into Choctaw County, Alabama, near Yantley as an EF-3 with maximum winds of 150 mph. It tore across northern Choctaw, up to 1,000 yards wide, before crossing the Tombigbee River into Sumter County, then Marengo and Perry counties, weakening gradually but still destroying many homes and other structures and injuring three people just south of Faunsdale in Marengo. The tornado punched 60.1 miles into Alabama before lifting at 8:35. Including its time in Mississippi, the twister left a 122-mile path of wreckage.
No. 56 touched down at 8:12 five miles north of Wetumpka in Elmore County. It moved through Dexter at EF-2 strength, damaging houses. It intensified to EF-3 as it destroyed 10 mobile homes and killed four people at a mobile home park. It continued east, destroying homes, businesses and churches, then crossed Lake Martin just south of the Kowaliga Bridge. It was nearly a quarter mile wide as it damaged more homes in the Windermere area.
By the time it crossed into Tallapoosa County just south of County Road 34, it was nearly half a mile wide and EF-4 in strength, obliterating multistory homes. It weakened to EF-3 as it crossed U.S. 280 just east of Dadeville, damaging several homes and businesses. It entered Chambers County north of Sikes and finally lifted after 44.2 miles and almost an hour on the ground.
That was the day’s last big tornado, and the last killer. Still, the supercells weren’t finished. They spun out five final twisters, all but one in Central Alabama:
• No. 58, an EF-1 tornado, touched down 5.5 miles south of Marion in Perry County at 8:50. Along its 4.2-mile path, it damaged a couple of barns and the roof of a house and destroyed an outbuilding. • No. 59, an EF-2 tornado, gave North Alabama’s DeKalb County one last shellacking. According to the Alabama Emergency Management Agency, DeKalb was second in tornado fatalities (35) to Tuscaloosa County (48). The county’s last tornado touched down at 9:05 southeast of Fort Payne. The twister left considerable tree damage along its 6.5-mile path. It also destroyed three farm buildings, knocked several trees onto houses and snapped off power poles.
• No 60, an EF-1 tornado, touched down at 9:19 near White Plains in Chambers County and severely damaged a house along its 5.2-mile path.
• No. 61, an EF-1 tornado, touched down at 9:29 near the end point of No. 60. But it was a separate twister that traveled 5 miles and uprooted a number of trees.
• No. 62, the day’s final tornado, wasn’t very impressive — an EF-0 with estimated peak winds of 80 mph, a 1.9-mile track and a maximum width of 50 yards. Still, it injured one person, uprooted oak trees, and damaged a carport and a mobile home. It touched down at 9:48 and lifted two minutes later.
When the third wave ended, so did the worst tornado disaster in Alabama’s history.
The mournful wail of the warning sirens died away, replaced by the more urgent clamoring of emergency vehicles. In the darkness, flashlight beams stabbed through still-falling rain as rescuers stumbled among the wreckage, tracking the screams of the injured. With the light of morning would come an assessment of the damage and a first tentative glance toward the future. Rescue and recovery had begun.
Unless otherwise noted, information about the storms and their impacts came from the National Weather Service.