What happens when an F-5 tornado hits YOUR town...
By Richard A. Fleetwood - April 10th, 1998
(updated September 23rd, 2006)
A bad weather day
Wednesday, April 8, 1998...a normal day for me, a lowly postman, aka a City Letter Carrier in Bessemer , Alabama, located on the southwest quadrant of the Birmingham metro area. The morning weather report says mostly cloudy with a 30% chance of rain or thunderstorms today, with a possibility of severe storms later today.
The high will be in the '70's, with a slight breeze. At 6:00am I log onto American Online and click on my homepage to check the radar for the southeast, knowing that if I see any storms approaching Alabama from the west before leaving for work, that I WILL be getting wet before the end of the day.
I grab my postal shorts, shirt, and other clothing and dress and head to work. It is extremely muggy this morning...something I have learned to associate with bad weather when strong fronts are going to move thru.
I get to work at 7:30am and start my job by casing mail for the day's delivery. Listening to talk radio shows in the morning on my Walkman, I catch the news at the tops and bottoms of the hours, and before noon, begin hearing reports of severe weather in Mississippi. Local radio stations are reporting during the traffic and weather breaks that there is a possibility of severe weather in my area this evening.
A feeling of impending doom
For some reason, I start getting a feeling of the day not being one of my better ones, besides the fact that I work at the Post Office for a living. On hitting the streets to deliver my mail, it's not that bad a day. Mail is normal for a Wednesday, first class mail with the weekly PILE of ADVO coupons and circulars. I talk with all my normal customers while on my route, knowing that storms will be coming, telling them to watch the sky this evening....possible tornadoes and other assorted nastiness from Mother Nature(tm).
Little did I know what would be happening later this evening. Upon finishing my route, I head back to the station, checking in, cleaning up. and heading home. Arriving home at 6:15pm, I climb into the chair in front of the computer to check my email, and check the latest radar images from Intellicast. My wife and kids head out to church at 6:30 for scouts and other activities, my wife Annie stopping long enough to ask if the weather is going to be bad enough to consider staying home this evening. I tell her it looks like the worst stuff will stay north of us this evening.
They leave, and I grab a bite to eat, pausing long enough to get my handheld police scanner to check the local channel of the National Weather Service's weather reports. Tornado warnings are now for Pickens and Walker counties, far to west and north of us.
I'm not worried a bit right now. Logging back onto AOL, I boot up the internet chat program mIRC, to visit with some friends and chat a little before logging off to work on some of my web pages, a normal wednesday activitiy when the house is quiet and I can concentrate better while juggling dozens of files in "creation mode".
I plug the scanner headphone jack into a patch cord that is plugged into my computer sound card all the time. This is not normal. This is the first time I've brought the scanner into the dining room in a long time. I hit the SCAN button to start scanning thru the local public safety channels for state, local, county, and emergency frequencies.
Not thinking much of the weather since the latest radar images still show the lines of storms still at least 45 minutes to an hour away, I get slip into chat mode, while cruising the web in another window.
I receive a call from my Bishop at church, where my family is. We had just had a preparedness fair at church two weeks before, and I had brought my computer and made a 75 foot phone line extension cord to demonstrate both my website, and other preparedness oriented websites on the internet, including weather radar image sites, and many other things. He is wanting me to update him on the storm situation and help him decide if he should let the kids head home or hold them at the church with their parents until the worst has passed.
I look closely at the nexrad image on Intellicast and decide that, Yes, if they leave now and head straight home all should be ok. It looks like at least 20 to 30 minutes before the squall line hits us, and we are a good 25 minutes from town...therefore at least 45 minutes for all to get home. I wonder later.....should I have told him to keep them all there for a little while longer...til the storm front had passed on thru?
At a little past 8:00pm, the scanner picks up speed on the weather. The county Sheriff's dispatcher is repeating a weather alert from the National Weather Service....a tornado warning for Northern Tuscaloosa county. 'This is a dangerous situation....winds is excess of 80 miles per hour...hail up to 3 inches in diameter...radar shows a possible tornado in the area...seek shelter immediately...this is a VERY dangerous situation..."
A deputy is reporting that he has just entered the small town of Oak Grove. He is reporting that trees and telephone poles and wires are all over the road.....houses are completely gone....the Oak Grove high school has been hit....and there was a school function going on at the time....cheerleaders practicing.
I immediately think of a situation in Texas many years ago....a very small town in far south Texas called Saragosa....hit by a tremendous tormado......not a building left undamaged...and the town was at the local school for kindergarten graduation ceremonies.....many, many lives lost. I think....not again....
Reports from the scanner
More news from the scanner....the sheriff is telling the dispatcher to contact emergency management....get ahold of other local fire stations....more police...there is massive damage all around. I then hear about the first casualties....people have died only a few miles from me. Police and firemen are finding the going difficult in getting to the damaged areas.
There are so many trees and debris and live power lines in the roads that it is almost impossible to get thru to the areas where help is needed. There are reports of bodies lying near one of the roads into Concord. I go into the living room to turn on the tv and see what The Weather Channel is reporting. They are mentioning the SEVERAL tornado warnings that are in effect right now, most within the surrounding counties where I live, and including MY county.
The scanner comes alive again with a report of another tornado heading towards the area. Officers are reporting they cannot move due to heavy, heavy rain and hail. There are reports of baseball sized hail in the areas just north of here.
Word goes out that the National Guard has just been called out to help secure the area and provide support.
There is also a massive need to get lighting and portable power units and other equipment to provide help in search and rescue. The local power company calls out its forces to start heading in that direction to cut power to downed lines and help clear roads.
For a small amount of joy, my wife and kids drive up the long driveway to the backdoor, arriving home safe and sound. They mention the brilliant lightning display to the north they watched as they drove home down Interstate 20/59 form church in Bessemer.
Death, Damage, and Destruction
AOL news is now reporting the tornadoes causing damage and death in Alabama....reports from Associated Press are coming fast and furious into my email account , from my keyword search news profile program settings. The death toll is rising every hour, even though there are several messages per hour.
Before the end of the terrorizing night of severe weather, the National Weather Service documents the assault with 62 severe thunderstorm warnings and no less then 32 tornado warnings.
The police scanner is now non-stop activity as Emergency Management teams arrange assets and pull in all the help they can. As midnight approaches officials are contacting the Mobile Command Centers saying there are carloads, and in one instance a busload, of volunteers with extra hands and strong backs to help search for survivors and clear roadways...they are welcomed.
Other calls go out for bulldozers and other machinery to help clear roads for emergency equipment and ambulances. One officer is heard to say that " they need this road cleared NOW....there are live wires down and a fire has started...we need the fire truck there now, not 30 minutes from now..." The national guard is on its way, and Governer Fob James has been made aware of the situation.
The scanner is going on and on with calls for help, arrangement and need for people and tools, and more and more information being relayed back to the EMC coordinators as I head to bed at almost 3 am Thursday morning.
I get up late, as this is my normal off day at the post office, and its been a long nite after a very long day. I have errands I need to take care of with my wife, and we head out after noon. Listening to the car radio as we drive around Bessemer keeps us up to date on the increasing death toll and growing damage reports. I grab the daily paper on the way home, and see the map showing just how close this storm came to hitting my family and neighborhood.
It is just a few miles north of my home. Late in the day news reports start coming out that this storm has been classified as an F5 tornadic storm...the deadliest of all tornadoes, with winds in excess of 300 miles per hour. I am shocked that such power can exist for such a short time in one area and create so much destruction and death...it is almost unworldly.
According to the Birmingham Post-Herald, "the tornadoes moved into Jefferson County about 8 p.m. Wednesday. Hundreds of homes were destroyed or heavily damaged as the killer winds swept a path of destruction through the communities of Oak Grove, Concord, Rock Creek, Sylvan Springs, Maytown, Edgewater, McDonald Chapel, Pratt City, Minor, Pleasant Grove and Sandusky before leaping to the eastern suburbs of Leeds and Moody and points beyond. Downed power lines made rescue efforts more hazardous. About 19,000 people lost their electric power shortly after the storm hit. About 10,000 remained without power at midmorning — about 8,000 in western Jefferson and 2,000 in the Anniston area, Alabama Power Co. spokesman Dave Rickey said. He said he could not predict when power would be restored. "We assume we are going to have some intense restoration efforts," he said. It will probably be later today before the company gets a good look at the most heavily damaged areas, he said."
Though the particular thunderstorm cell that produced the tornado traveled some 70 miles, the twister hopped and skipped thru three counties, dragging thru Jefferson County for roughly 20 miles, during which most of the death and destruction occured. Thursday President Clinton issued a major disaster declaration for Jefferson, Tuscaloosa, and St. Clair counties. It's path at times reached a full half mile wide. In areas of homes and businesses, nothing save the strongest wall survived direct onslaught of the tornadic attack. The Oak Grove K-12 school was flattened at the beginning of the damage track of the enormous funnel cloud. The fire department next to the school sustained major damage.
Homes that minutes before were sitting quietly next to the meandering two line blacktop roads were lifted from their foundations, spun and dropped to their untimely ends, or literally blown into the proverbial 'smithereens' and ground into kindling as the winds blew across the neighborhood. Occupants that had warning of the storm's approach hid in basements, bathtubs, closets, or hallways...anywhere they could...as their world and life whirled around them.
The problem they had was that NOTHING except an underground shelter would save them from horrificpower of 300 mile an hour winds. Many of the dead had several minutes of warning, but no place to hide, and their homes just offered no protection from the force of the winds. Many survivors were also blown away, with their homes.
One young child was found dangling from a tree branch, hanging by his belt loop and suffering a broken leg and a fractured skull. His parents and brother were found under the tree severely injured but alive. In the tree high above them was a refrigerator. At a church that was leveled by the twister, a 50 foot deep ravine was filled with crushed, mangled, and flattened vehicles that had been blown thru the area. In a yard in Concord, a school bus lay completely upside down, pushed against a fence.
State, City, and County law enforcement officers established a curfew and 16 security checkpoints to keep unauthorized people from entering the damage areas. Other officials were inspecting homes and posting color coded signs on nearly 2,000 homes damaged or destroyed by the storm. The Jefferson County Department of Health reminded owners of grocery stores, restaurants and convenience stores in the disaster areas that they were not allowed to operate without electricity or water.
Other notices mentioned were to be aware of emergency scams for needed repairs or tree cutting. Tips to victims were to use common sense in dealing with contracters, get more then one bid especially on large jobs, ask to see a copy of the contractors insurance policy, ask for references and check them out, and call the better business bureau to check the company.
One family living in Minor survived a direct hit by the storm by using a storm shelter built 20 years before. Frances and Jim Key, and daughter Raven heard the emergency siren go off and crossed the street to their son's mobile home and entered the storm cellar built by Jim's late parents. They emerged after the storms fury to find both trailers gone.
As reported in the Saturday Birmingham News/Post Herald in an article by News Staff Writers Jim Hansen and Kim Glover, another Minor resident, Sharon Richardson heard at work that the tornado was heading in the direction of her neighborhood. She called her children at home, telling them to immediately get into the basement before the storm hit.
As she drove home, the storm caught her a few blocks shy of making it to the safety of her basement. "I had to pull off the road, get out of my car, and lie in a trench on the side of the road," said Ms. Richardson. "I heard the wind, felt the rain and had trees breaking all around me. If you ever want to feel your life about to slip away, lie in a ditch with an F-5 tornado blowing over your head." After the roaring stopped, she looked up and saw the houses on her street laying devastated, "unbelievable, houses blown away."
As she got home, she saw it looking totaled. She found her children in the basement. Her 11 year old son, Evan, had lain over both his sisters to protect them. He suffered some injuries from cinder blocks falling on his back and was sent to Childrens hospital, but will recover.
Also from the same story, Tracy McClain from her hospital bed recalled trying to flee the storm. Mrs. McClain and her daughter Melanie had left their double-wide trailer after hearing the fire house alarm go off. "The lightning was flashing like a strobe light," she said. "It was a murky color green." They fled to Mrs. McClain's mother's home nearby. "My daughter and mom hollered for me, and we all got down on the floor," she said. " It was like somebody with palsy - the house started shaking, and then more violently. I lay on top of my little girl. That just happened by instinct. I weigh 265 pounds, and that wind was moving me."
The house peeled away, debris blew over the three, and the wind dropped as the rain poured down on them. We knew immediately that we were ok," said Mrs. McClain. Gas was leaking everywhere, but she couldn't move to get off the ground. She found out later that her right leg was broken with the bones sticking out through the skin. Mrs. McClain's mother, Mary Golden, suffered a skull wound, bruises, and multiple cuts, and was in guarded condition at Carraway Hospital. 3rd grader Melanie needed only a few stitches for a small gash on her arm.
I find out that we have FAMILY involved
I found out late Thursday morning that some of our relatives had been involved in the tornado. My wife's Aunt, and her family lost almost everything except their lives. As reported in the Birmingham Post-Herald:
"Another resident of the area, John Swanger, said his daughter hid in a closet at his Rock Creek home during the storm. "The closet was the only thing left in the house. She was OK," said Swanger, who was at work when he got a call that his house had been destroyed. "I was fine when I found out that my kids and my grandbaby were OK. I'm not worried about the house. I just thank the Lord we are all alive. All I have left now is the clothes I'm wearing. But any material things you can rebuild," Swanger said."
Waiting at the convenience store, Swanger said he is anxious to get back to his house so he can look for his four dogs, including a basset hound named "Elvis Andy Taylor."
My wife Annie talked to her mom today, Friday, and received a bit more information:
"I talked to mom today and got information on what they lost and what they need, and here it is:
They have been able to salvage some clothing, and the refrigerator and stove may be salvageable. They lost everything else. The house was completely flattened except for the closet that my cousin Sherry had been hiding in. Any help towards their part would be greatly appreciated. Their vehicles were totaled, and they are in need of just about any household items, such as eating utensils, tables, chairs, any furniture, and so on."
If you would like to help my family members mentioned here to rebuild some of their lives, and start a new life with this disaster behind them, please contact me firstname.lastname@example.org . What they could use most is funds or gift certificates at local stores like Walmart to replace anything they can that was lost along with their house and cars. Your donations would be greatly appreciated, and acknowledged here as well. Thanks in advance for any assistance you might be able to give.
Confirmed Deaths - 33
Injured - 256
Houses Destroyed - 1,117
Houses >50% damaged - 521
Houses <50% damaged - 467
School Destroyed - 1
Churches with major damage - 4
Businesses Destroyed - 5
Businesses Damaged - 8
Apartments destroyed - 18 Note the damage above, below the crest of the hill at the top.
Apartments damaged - 12
source: Jefferson County's Emergency Management Agency and Jefferson County coroners office
What could have made a difference?
Having created my website, The Blast Shelter, in May of last year, and creating a page called Underground Shelter Online whose main topic was safe and secure shelter, my first thoughts at the outbreak of this storm was that the people who lost their lives might have survived if they had had the forethought to plan and build or install a tornado shelterof ANY kind. However, one comment was made by Brian Peters of the National Weather Service, as he flew over the area Thursday, surveying the damage. He said,"To put it succinctly, some places were not survivable." I beg to differ with Mr. Peters. If you are in a properly designed and installed tornado shelter that was buried in your yard, you would at least stand a much larger chance of surviving ANY direct hit by a tornado, whether its an F5 or an F0. An F5 category storm such as this one that obliterated areas of the western portion of Jefferson County is so violent that victims in its direct path stood almost no chance of surviving. F5 tornadoes are the most violent type of storm in nature's arsenal, with winds topping 260 miles per hour and sometimes exceeding 300 mph. Friday Vice President Gore flew to Birmingham and took a helicopter to personally survey the area and land and visit some of the victims and rescuers. Gore called the tornado damage "unprecidented", and that he had never seen such a massive amount of damage from a single storm. He proclaimed that a disaster as unprecidented in scale as this, required an "unprecidented " amount of support and assistance." As a side note, while Gore was on the ground, the single highway into and out of the area was shut down to all traffic as a security measure. Supplies and manpower moving thru the area were brought to a standstill.
Protection from storms like this...
Being aware of approaching storms systems is the most important factor for survival. Here is the link to the page that I check daily for info on approaching fronts, rain, and storm areas.
The National Weather Service has recently been upgrading their nationwide radar system, and you can find the Birrmingham Radar Image from the Weather.gov system at the link above.. I also watch the NEXRAD screen when storms are too close for comfort, as it offers more detail.
Having spent many hundreds of hours searching for shelter related websites and sources of information, I have been able to put together this short list of shelter manufacturers in the U.S. Please contact them for more info on their products.
My page Fallout Shelter DOWNLOADABLE Plans - has several FEMA shelter plans available for download and printing. The original plans may be obtained directly from FEMA. Another site, BlueWolf Productions' Survival Information offers a plan viewable online in HTML format of a FEMA Blast Shelter design.
For Prefab shelters, ready to install and use in one day, I would recommend the following companies. HEARTLAND Storm Shelters are made in Ohio by a company that saw a need for inexpensive, easily installed, safe, and well designed storm shelters.This design is one of my favorites for its ability to hold 8 to 10 people, and be used for other storage purposes during non-storm seasons. Groundsafe Tornado shelters are made right here in Alabama. They are ball shaped fiberglass shelters that are easily installed in your back yard. They also will hold 8 to 10 people during storms. This next link, Inshelter - Tornado shelter inside home-above ground is from a university study of building a safe storm shelter WITHIN a standing home, without the need or possibility for a basement. Testing is in progress for how much damage these shelters can sustain safely while protectingon the occupants. More shelter information is available at The Tornado Projectwebsite on their shelter page.
If you would like to help....
If you would like to help the victims of the twister in the Jefferson county areas, please send any amount you can spare to the following organizations
American Red Cross - 205-458-8282 or send donations to 950 22nd St. North, Suite 750, Birmingham, Al 35203
Alabama Goodwill Industries - -205-323-6331 to give money or materials, for stores and donor sites
The Salvation Army - 205-328-2420 or send donations to Birmingham Area Command, P.O. Box 11005, Birmingham, Al 35202
Past Killer Storms
Alabama ranks fourth in the United States in the number of killer tornadoes that have hit. Among the worst:
•March 21, 1932 — Ten or more tornadoes roamed down two paths and killed more than 271 people.
•May 16, 1956 — A tornado ripped through the McDonald Chapel community in western Jefferson County — one of the same areas hit Wednesday — shortly after 3 p.m., killing 22 people. Two hundred people were injured and 50 homes were destroyed.
•May 5, 1977 — A powerful storm touched down near Pratt City and cut across northeast Jefferson County, killing 20 people and leveling more than 100 homes. Hardest hit was the Smithfield area, where at least 15 people died.
•Nov. 16, 1989 — A tornado in Huntsville slammed into a shopping center, two apartment complexes and an elementary school shortly before 5 p.m., killing 14 people and injuring dozens more.
•March 28, 1994 — A Palm Sunday tornado killed 22 people and injured 100 in east Alabama. Among the areas hardest hit was the town of Piedmont, where the roof of Goshen United Methodist Church collapsed, killing 20 people, including seven children.Source: Post-Herald files
There will always be storms, tornadoes, hurricanes, and other threats to life and limb. Wednesday's terrible storm, with its high toll on human life and personal property, was north central Alabama's wakeup call that it can happen anywhere....at any time. If you live ANYWHERE that a storm like this could wreak havoc on your life, then you best take advantage of this knock upside the head and do some hot and heavy planning.
At the very minimum these few steps will GREATLY increase your chances for survival the next time the distant storm clouds rumble a warning, saying "Is it YOUR turn?"
Final Words from a lucky person
We have lived in this house in north central Alabama between Tuscaloosa and Birmingham for over five years now. In those five years, we have seen the blizzard of the century in 1993, a tornado that hit Brookwood and passed north of us, a lightning strike on our house, Hurricane Opal, Hurricane Danny, the tornado that hit Tuscaloosa last year in January, and also passed north of us as a funnel cloud, a grass fire started by neighborhood kids that caught the corner of our house on fire just a few weeks ago and was saved by the Brookwood Fire Dept.before we lost anything, and now this storm just a few miles directly north of us.
After growing up in and around Dallas, Texas all my life, I thought I had seen plenty of weather, tornadoes, hail, and all sorts of other things. I tell you now.....Alabama weather is not only a force to be reckoned with..it is one to show g-r-e-a-t respect. If you plan on living in this part of the country, you BETTER get to know that you are as succeptable to fierce storms as the rest of us. I feel extremely fortunate that we have not suffered MORE direct damage then just a lightning bolt thru the roof or a few burned boards.
I give full credit to the Lord for watching over my family and keeping us safe and in one piece, and I will say a prayer to those who have been less fortunate. Good luck to all of us in the future, and PLEASE, be prepared the next time the sky grows dark. It just might be your turn.
UPDATE: March 2006...From Riverton, Wyoming
My family and I no longer have to worry about tornadoes and hurricanes. We moved to western Wyoming in 2000, and have only had on tornado in our area since...and it was only an F-1. Also, the only NEXRAD radar in this half of the state is up on the hill just west of our home, and I can see it from here..so I KNOW how close any storme is going to be. I've also become a trained weather spotter here as well.
This webpage was created just days after the April 8th disaster. It has been updated and tweaked a few times, put in a new template page to match the rest of the site, and streamlined, but has basically remained the same content. This particular page of SurvivalRing gets about 20,000 hits a year now, and mostly in the Spring of each year. As you can see, I've had a few comments below from survivors and a first responder to this storm. If anyone has been helped by this information, or was affected by this particular storm, please write to me and share your thoughts and feelings on how you dealt with it. This will help future storm survivors have an easier time dealing with what the wind brings to their neighborhood. Also, if you have any images, pictures, or video of the storm, or the aftermath your would like to share, I would be glad to host them here.
Correspondence Regarding This Webpage...
Date: 4/27/2005 4:05:57 P.M. Mountain Daylight Time
I lived about 200 yards from the destruction zone in Rock Creek. I lived there all my life after the tornadoe things never looked the same. I am going back next week for a visit for the first time in about 2 years , I live in Seattle no NO TORNADOS and I have no idea what to expect. I just want to say thank you to all the people who helped and who decided to rebuild to make it look like a comunity again.
NOTE From Richard:
(added March 20th, 2006)
First, get your bookmarks in order on your computer (you have one right now, or you wouldn't be reading this story). Set up a new folder for WEATHER WARNINGS.
Go to www.weather.gov, and bookmark YOUR region AND your hometown forecast. Here are MY links that I check when bad weather is coming, for my state, and for my town. Look closely at the page for your town, and look for a POINTCAST map, showing your localized area. It should look something like this.
Click DIRECTLY on your town, and you should have the page reload, with your city's longitude and latitude now part of the URL for the weather forecast page for your town at your fingertips. THIS is the page you want to save to your WEATHER WARNINGS folder.
Now, click on the RADAR image page for your newly bookmarked page, and let that page load. Here's what mine looks like right now as I write this, with a spring snowstorm over us right this moment. Click on the image to see what it looks like this very moment you are reading this.
Now that you have viewed MY radar, find YOUR local radar image, and bookmark that into your weather warnings folder.
These two bookmarks are the key to being SITUATIONALLY AWARE of your surroundings. Any season has it's own natural threats, whether it is tornadoes, hurricanes, ice or snow storms, wildfire threats, floods, or other stormy issues. Also, take the time NOW to get aweather radio with alert function built in, so you can get news IMMEDIATELY when a threat is imminent to you and your family.
Remember Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Help from the government didn't arrive for DAYS. Have a 72 hour kit, packed food and water, that all important PORTABLE weather radio, agood quality flashlight, and a backpack with emergency blankets, extra batteries for the radio and flashlight, a handful of LOUD emergency whistles (in case you're trapped in the debris of your home) and possible even a cellphone...all ready to go at a MOMENT's notice. With this 72 hour kit, you will be ready to go within SECONDS of a warning.
With attention to your surroundings, ability to be up to date on threatening weather, a 72 hour survival kit stocked and ready, and a plan on what to do and where to go for the specific kinds of events most likely to occur in your area, you will never again have to fear the unknown power of nature.
This page last modified on September 23, 2006
Credits for this article
Article - Written by Richard Fleetwood - email@example.com
Originally Written on April 10th, 1998.
with various info reported on AP news wires, local radio news reports, various articles in the Birmingham News and Birmingham Post-Herald newspapers, and other sources
Map graphic of path of storm - Birmingham Post Herald - Thursday, April 9, 1998 Page 1-A
Radar Images of storm front - Intellicast Weather Website - from Wednesday evening updates to the site.
Photos with authors names attached -scanned from Birmingham News - Friday, April 10, 1998
Richard ( firstname.lastname@example.org )